by Robert A. Waters
On October 4, 1946, an Associated Press article reported that “three Japanese militarists were condemned Friday to die on the gallows for cannibalism—a crime so heinous it is covered by no rule of war. The 3—a general, a navy captain and a major—listened unblinking as a U. S. military commission ordered them to die for eating the roasted livers of 2 U. S. airmen downed on Chichi Jima late in the war.”
The three were Japanese Major Sueo Matoba, Captain Shizuo Yoshii, and Brigadier General Yoshio Tachibana.
Their victims were U. S. Navy Aviation Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Grady Alvah York of Jacksonville, Florida, and Radioman 3rd Class James Wesley “Jimmy” Dye of Mount Ephraim, New Jersey.
Early on the cold, gusty morning of February 18, 1945, a crew consisting of York, Dye, and Ensign Bob King, the pilot, flew their Avenger from the aircraft carrier USS Bennington for a dive bombing mission on Chichi Jima, a tiny once-uninhabited speck in the Bonin Islands. By now, the Japanese were reeling from Allied advances in the Pacific, including recent raids on Tokyo. Their once-proud military machine had been beaten down, ship by ship, island by island. Yet they refused to surrender, many fighting to the death, others committing suicide when all hope was lost.
On Chichi Jima, the Japanese had established airfields, radio stations, and strong anti-aircraft placements. One American pilot spoke of the difficulty of getting out alive after flying a bombing mission there: “Chichi Jima was a mean place. They had very good gunners there. When you hit Chichi, you were hitting a valley between two mountains.”
As Ensign King’s Avenger neared its target, anti-aircraft fire tore through the left wing, ripping off the tip. Because of the damage, King temporarily lost control. Thinking they were going to crash, he ordered his two crew members to bail out. York and Dye successfully deployed their parachutes and landed in shallow water near Chichi Jima where they were soon apprehended by Japanese troops. Meanwhile, King struggled mightily with the plane and was eventually able to control it enough to fly it back to the USS Bennington and land.
The fates of York and Dye now lay with their captors.
After interrogating the Americans, Japanese Brigadier General Yoshio Tachibana ordered them to be taken to the island rifle range. There the two hapless soldiers were tied to trees and used for bayonet practice. When it was done, Captain Masao Yamashita (who had supervised the bayonet practice) beheaded York. Dye was also beheaded, on orders from Japanese Navy Captain Shizuo Yoshii.
But the cruelty did not stop with the deaths of the soldiers. The Japanese officers, impressed by the stoic demeanor of the enemy soldiers as they were being tortured and killed, ordered their bodies cut up and their livers cooked. Then, to inculcate the “warrior spirit” of their victims into their own bodies, thirteen officers consumed the livers and some of their flesh at saki parties.
After the war, the remains of York and Dye were exhumed and re-buried Hawaii. The story of their deaths and cannibalization horrified American war crimes investigators. The officers involved were tried, even though cannibalization of the enemy was not technically a war crime. The officers were found guilty and scheduled to be hanged. In all, the American military executed thirteen Japanese officers for cannibalism. (At least a dozen U. S. airmen were eaten or partially consumed by the Japanese.)
At his trial, Major Sueo Matoba attempted to explain the reasons U. S. soldiers were cannibalized.
“These incidents occurred when Japan was meeting defeat after defeat,” he said. “The Iwo Jima situation was desperate and air raids (on Chichi) were increasing in velocity. The personnel became excited, agitated and seething with uncontrollable rage. We were hungry. We tried every eatable animal and plant, like rats, mice, dogs and lizards. I hardly know what happened after that. We really were not cannibals.”
When Japanese Lt. Gen. Yoshio Tachibana dropped from the gallows on a fine fall morning in 1946, his death was nothing compared to that endured by his victims, gunner Grady York and Radioman Jimmy Dye. In fact, Tachibana had a Buddhist priest administer his last rites before dying. York and Dye had only howling Japanese warriors to administer theirs.
NOTE: Much of the information for this story came from Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley.