CBI and Sugamo Prison

By Sohei Yamate, Sgt

In February 1944, I was one of the 310 volunters from Hawaii who began MIS training at Camp Savage. My friends seemed surprised when I volunteered and, because of my poor knowledge of Japanese, even more surprised when I was accepted. Like others in the bottom sections, I had to study on weekends and in the latrines after lights out, to keep up and pass the course. One day, during our basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, a camouflaged sedan suddenly stopped in front of our squad. Out stepped Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. As we stood at attention, the General asked our cadre if we were being readied for Europe. Sergeant Kelly replied that we were going to fight in the Pacific. The General said, "I didn't know that these men were being sent to the Pacific." That remark hit us because only a month ago, G-2 General Clayton Bissell had said, "I bring you greetings from the Chief of Staff."

Our detachment headed for the China-Burma-India theater of operations, via a two-month boat ride around Australia to India and a freezing flight over the Himalayas to Kunming. There I was assigned to Sergeant Kenji Yasui, well-known for his outstanding courage!

In Burma, when the American troops reached the Irrawaddy River, they met hostile fire from a small island in the river. Yasui volunteered to try to get the enemy to surrender. Together with a Caucasian officer and a Pfc., he stripped and waded to the island. Yasui announced, in his flawless Japanese, that he was Colonel Yamamoto of the Japanese Imperial Army now working with the Americans because Japan had lost the war. One of the Japanese officers pulled the pin from his grenade and rushed towards the Americans, blowing himself to pieces. Yasui escaped unharmed. Regaining his composure, he ordered the Japanese soldiers to surrender. Then he commanded them to build a raft to row him across the river. Almost singlehandedly, Sergeant Yasul had captured 17 enemy soldiers. For this valor, he won the Silver Star. According to Yasui, an officer lust handed the medal to him. Knowing his colorful vocabulary and his attitude toward officers, I can see why. He probably wouldn't have shown up for the ceremony anyway. He was a nonconformist and listened to no one. He had photos of himself in Japanese army uniform and was known to go in and out of Japanese lines.

In the spring of 1945, while attached to the Chinese Combat Command, we set out to interrogate about 180 Japanese soldiers captured in Chih Kiang. It required two weeks to get there by truck convoy, wood-burning train, and rafts. Interior China being very mountainous, we continually climbed and descended mountains. The POWs were stragglers without communication with Japan for three years. The big surprise proved to be the officer in charge of the Chinese troops, a former Japanese soldier who had deserted to the Chinese side. We remained suspicious of him, until we later met up with other Japanese deserters in the Chinese army. The officer and some of the POWs even put furikana on the kanji help us read the documents. Back home, John Aiso and Shig Kihara, our sensei, would have asked us to commit hara-kiri had they found out!

On the ship crossing the Pacific, I met a Chinese Air Force pilot. We became friends and kept in touch. When I told him we were going to Canton, he wrote to his brother, who happened to be the Commanding General of the Chinese army in Canton. The General made me an honorary officer in the Chinese army. At Fort Bayard (formerly leased to France) in Kwangchowan, we attended the surrender of Japanese troops to the Chinese army. AII we did was observe; no words were spoken. Couriers with written instructions were used.

After the surrender, we went to Japan as part of the occupation force. I was assigned to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, located near the Ikebukuro station; it was the only large building left standing in a completely devastated area. Our job required us to escort the prisoners through the gate into the courtyard and into the processing room. In this room we did the fingerprinting and the recording of routine information: name, address, next of kin, general medical condition, etc. Then the medical group under Dr. Lloyd Edwards took over. They were physically very clean, but they were given a delousing treatment since we couldn't take any chances.

Sugamo Prison, 35th AAA Group, Tokyo, 1945, Sohei Yamate

The prisoners had been instructed to report to the prison by a certain date. To our surprise, all reported as scheduled. One day we learned that Prince Konoye would come in, the following day. That night, however, the Prince committed suicide. After that incident, the other war criminals were no longer notified as to their reporting dates. The military authorities quietly picked them up and brought them in.

The Ambassador to Italy, Shiratori, arrived at Sugamo. I believe he was one of the officials, along with Prince Konoye, involved in the Germany-Italy-Japan pact. The Ambassador to Germany, Oshima, also came in. Of all the war criminals, he was the most arrogant.

The Marquis Kido, one of the dignitaries closest to the Emperor, was escorted in. After processing, I asked him some questions about the Emperor. I discovered that the Emperor knew much about the war as the Marquis had kept him fully informed. The Marquis told us that in the spring of 1945, Japan had sent diplomats to Russia to get help to negotiate for peace. Because the Russians would not acknowledge the diplomats, the Japanese officials knew Russia was involved with the Allies. Well, here was the Marquis in Sugamo. I thought, the Emperor might be coming, too. We knew about General MacArthur's decree that the Emperor would retain his throne. The rumor mill worked overtime saying that the Emperor might be a "guest" at Sugamo. I would have enjoyed processing "The Big One."

When General Honma arrived at Sugamo, his stature of six feet surprised me. Also, Colonel Hardy, the prison commander, personally greeted General Honma. The two had known each other from before the war. Honma attended Oxford University and spoke fluent English. His amiable nature facilitated my conversation with him. General Honma was held responsible for the Bataan death march and for all the actions of his men. He was taken from Sugamo to the Philippines, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. General Koiso had become Premier toward the end of the war. One night, when he took ill, Dr. Edwards and I dropped in to see him. After the checkup, the doctor asked him why, as the Premier, he couldn't stop the war when wide-spread destruction must have indicated the war was lost. He replied that a group of active admirals and generals dictated the conduct of the war and that he, being retired, did not wield any power.

General Hideki Tojo came to the prison with some fanfare as the press and photographers swarmed all over. He had recovered from a botched job of suicide when a 32-caliber bullet missed his heart. Escorting him to the processing room I noticed he stood barely five feet tall. I saw his wound and also discerned a beaten man. He obeyed instructions. His wife and children visited him often. Colonel Hardy asked me to sit in on the visitations and to check carefully for contraband items to allay fears of another suicide attempt. We sat at a long table with several chairs: General Tojo at one end and his family at the other. They could converse freely and had unlimited visitation rights.

I still remember telling General Tojo not to commit suicide because the Colonel would hold me responsible.Tojo remarked to me on several occasions, "Don't worry, Sergeant, I won't commit suicide." He also commented that he would take full responsibility for the war. "The upcoming war crimes trial," he declared, "was one of victor over loser."

With a sigh of relief and some bluffing, I realized that my knowledge of Japanese was never really tested. Always someone, the Kibei especially--bless them--read Japanese and performed the work. I simply put it in English. I know that when General Tojo heard me speak Japanese, he finally realized that he had lost the war!

(Courtesy of "Secret Valor" by Military Intelligence Service Veterans Club of Hawaii.)