Infamous Infamy:  Prime Minister Hideki Tojo


“At the Imperial Conference on December 1 (1941), it was decided to make war against England and the United States.”  ~Hideki Tojo, General, Imperial Japanese Army

Tojo, it seems, was a little bit full of himself. Really? That many medals??

Tojo, it seems, was a little bit full of himself. Really? That many medals??

I used to work at United States Southern Command in Miami with a fellow Naval Aviation whose flier callsign was “Tojo.”  He was a Navy Commander, an F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer, and of 100% Japanese descent and the first generation in his family to be born and raised in the United States.  While he is every bit as American as you or I, he bore a more than a casual resemblance to his namesake, especially when he touted a bushy mustache which is often did.  While I’m sure it was not a callsign of his choosing (they never are), he was rather good-natured about it, going so far as to hold his own “Pearl Harbor Atonement Day” every December 7th by catering in a huge lunch for the entire office.  But who was this man “Tojo,” and why don’t more Americans know about him and his role in Japan’s strike against Pearl Harbor and the expansion of the World War throughout the Pacific Basin?

FILE - In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the attack that brought the United States into World War II. (AP File Photo)

Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941

Hideki Tojo (1884 – 1948) was a General of the Imperial Japanese Army and the 40th Prime Minister of Japan during much of World War II, from October 17, 1941, to July 22, 1944.  As Prime Minister, he was responsible for ordering the attack on Pearl Harbor (with the Emperor Hirohito’s approval), which initiated war between Japan and the United States.  After the end of the war, Tojo was arrested, tried for war crimes, and sentenced to death by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE).  He was hanged until dead on December 23, 1948.

Tojo as a Young Army Officer

Tojo as a Young Army Officer

Hideki Tojo was born in Tokyo in 1884 as the 3rd son of Hidenori Tojo, a Lieutenant General in the Imperial Japanese Army.  He graduated from the Japanese Military Academy in 1905 and was commissioned an Army Second Lieutenant.  In 1909, he married Katsuko Ito, with whom he would have three sons and four daughters.  He began to take an interest in militarist politics during his command of the 1st Infantry Regiment after promotion to colonel in the late 1920s.

Tojo with his Wife and Family

Tojo with his Wife and Family

In September 1935, Tojo assumed a command billet in the field in Manchuria (Northern China).  Politically by this time, he was fascist, nationalist, and militarist, and was nicknamed “Razor” for his reputation of having a sharp and quick mind.  In Manchuria, Tojo was responsible for the expansion of military operations and much wider attacks during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The Leaders of the Axis Powers - note that Hirohito (who escaped execution) is pictures, not Tojo

The Leaders of the Axis Powers – note that Hirohito (who escaped execution) is pictures, not Tojo

By 1940 he strongly supported the newly signed Tripartite Pact between Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy, and as Army Minister, he expanded the war with China and French Indochina in July 1941.  This latest aggression precipitated a response by the United States who imposed significant economic sanctions in August, including a total embargo on oil and gasoline exports, and demanded Japan’s withdrawal from China and Indochina.  “The heart of the matter is the imposition on us (Japan) of withdrawal from Indochina and China,” Tojo said in a September cabinet meeting.  He continued, “If we yield to America’s demands, it will destroy the fruits of the China incident.  Manchukuo [Manchuria, present-day northeast China] will be endangered and our control of Korea undermined.”

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On November 2, under the advisement of Tojo, the Emperor gave his consent to war.  The next day, Fleet Admiral Osami Nagano explained in detail the Pearl Harbor attack plan to Emperor Hirohito.  The eventual plan drawn up by Army and Navy Chiefs of Staff assumed a mauling of Western powers from which recovery would be impossible, leaving the Japanese planned defense perimeter incapable of breach.  On November 5, Hirohito approved the operations plan for a war against the West.  On December 1, another conference finally sanctioned the “war against the United States, England, and Holland” (Holland referring to Dutch control of the “East Indies,” present day Indonesia).

Tojo in 1942 as the Tide of War began to turn....

Tojo in 1942 as the Tide of War began to turn….

Tojo as depicted in Marvel Comics of the time

Tojo as depicted in Marvel Comics of the time

tojo-propaganda-1Tojo continued to hold the position of Army Minister during his term as Prime Minister, and as impossible and improbable as it seems, he also served concurrently as Home Minister, Foreign Minister, Education Minister, and Minister of Commerce and Industry, positions from which he could easily continue militaristic and nationalist indoctrination in the national education system, and totalitarian policies throughout the government.  While Tojo had popular support in the early, victory-filled years of the war, after the Battle of Midway (summer 1942), where the tide of war turned against Japan, Tojo faced increasing opposition from within the government and military.  U.S. wartime propaganda of the time caricatured Tojo as the face of the enemy.

Tojo Caricatured in a WWII Powers

Tojo Caricatured in a WWII Powers

After Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945, U.S. general Douglas MacArthur issued orders for the arrest of alleged war criminals, including Tojo.  As authorities arrived at his residence to take him into custody, Tojo attempted suicide by shooting himself in the heart.  However, when American authorities surrounded his house on September 11, 1945, they found him alive but wounded, the bullet having missed his heart and penetrated his stomach instead.  Two Japanese reporters recorded his murmured words: “I am very sorry it is taking me so long to die.  The Greater East Asia War was justified and righteous.  I am very sorry for the nation and all the races of the Greater Asiatic powers.  I wait for the righteous judgment of history.”  Such righteous judgment was never to come.

Attempted Suicide and Aid by an American Medic

Attempted Suicide and Aid by an American Medic

After recovering from his injuries (after emergency surgery and extensive treatment in an American hospital), Tojo was moved to Sugamo Prison and tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for war crimes and found guilty of waging wars of aggression, and war in violation of international law, as well as ordering, authorizing, and permitting inhumane treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs) and others.  In large part, he is directly responsible for many of Japan’s most egregious crimes of the 1930s and 1940s.

Tojo on Trial as a War Criminal

Tojo on Trial as a War Criminal

Tojo embraced full responsibility in the end for his actions during the war, all-the-while diligently shielding the Emperor from any intimation of guilt, which some claim was the aim of his testimony, on both sides.  The former Prime Minister made this speech during the time of his trial:

Tojo on Trial

Tojo on Trial

“It is natural that I should bear entire responsibility for the war in general, and, needless to say, I am prepared to do so.  Consequently, now that the war has been lost, it is presumably necessary that I be judged so that the circumstances of the time can be clarified and the future peace of the world be assured.  Therefore, with respect to my trial, it is my intention to speak frankly, according to my recollection, even though when the vanquished stands before the victor, who has over him the power of life and death, he may be apt to toady and flatter.  I mean to pay considerable attention to this in my actions, and say to the end that what is true is true and what is false is false.  To shade one’s words in flattery to the point of untruthfulness would falsify the trial and do incalculable harm to the nation, and great care must be taken to avoid this.”

Hanging Tojo

Hanging Tojo

Tojo's Medals on Display (only photo I could find!)

Tojo’s Medals on Display (only photo I could find!)

Tojo was sentenced to death on November 12, 1948 and executed on December 23, 1948.  Before his execution, he gave his military ribbons to Private First Class Kincaid, one of his guards, and in an unusual Far East Fling connection, they are now on display in the National Museum for Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, where Jody and I call home and I used to work.  See the National Flight Academy for the facility and amazing experience for young people that I helped to design, build and open.

Ultra-Right-Wing Nationalists, then and now; Tojo's Granddaughter

Ultra-Right-Wing Nationalists, then and now; Tojo’s Granddaughter Yuko

In his final statements before execution, he apologized for the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and urged the American military to show compassion toward the Japanese people.  Tojo is one of the controversial Class “A” War Criminals enshrined at Tokyo’s Yasukuni (see Yasukuni:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead for more) Shrine.  His daughter, Yuko Tojo, a ultra-far-right-wing Nationalist who attempted to rehabilitate her Grandfather’s reputation and role in WWII, claims to have fulfilled a dying wish of the senior Tojo by visiting our Pearl Harbor Memorial in 1999.  “In my grandfather’s will, he said he wanted to hold a ceremony to honor all the war dead, regardless of which side they fought on,” she said. “On behalf of the Tojo family, I’m going to carry out my grandfather’s wish.”

Never Forget

Like my shipmate’s attempts at making amends, we should always strive to atone, but to Never Forget.

Yushukan…or…Just a Nationalistic Scam??


“Each article displayed in this museum is filled with the wishes…and sincerity of enshrined deities who devoted themselves to building ‘a peaceful nation’.” ~ Passage from the Yushukan museum’s brochure discussing the “Noble Spirits of Fallen Heroes”

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials - not such a peace-loving guy....

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials – not such a Peace-Loving Guy….

Wait, what?  “Peaceful Nation”??

There is good in the world.  Over 2,466,000 souls are enshrined as kami at Yasukuni Jinga (see Enshrining Japan’s War Dead for more), a total which includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones in the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.  Remember the dead of those cherished but lost is a good thing.

Prayers to the War Dead

Prayers and Respect for the Dead

But there is bad in the world as well.  At immediate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, this may not suffer much cause for concern.  The wider, larger, more looming issue in the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those deeds entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are worshiped as gods.  Some, maybe even many, suffer concerns of varying degree over such passive pardon.

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

And then there is ugly, what I’ll classify as an insidious evil.  Central to the Yushukan is that it actively attempts to whitewash Japan’s history of crimes against humanity and wars of aggression of the first half of the 20th century in classic Nationalistic fashion.

I have discussed in other blogs the importance of remembering and even honoring the dead when warranted (which holds the bulk of the time), and the situation in Japan, with all its complexities rife with ethical dilemmas (think our own country’s heated debates over Confederate memorials), is no different.  No matter your politics or religion, I argue that the vast majority of the almost 2.5M souls enshrined at Yasukuni were poor, uneducated “Joe-Jui-Jitsu Six-packs” who died for the cause, a cause to which they were shamelessly indoctrinated from birth.  When the rich wage war, it is the poor that suffer and die the most.  In this vein, the crimes of the very few should not outweigh the ignorant innocence of the many.  The greater good, in my opinion, should take precedence.

However, I am not so compassionate, understanding or forgiving when it comes to the Yushukan museum of war history, a museum operated by the shrine.

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum's Lobby

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum’s Lobby

This museum, and in more modern times their website, make clear and unequivocal statements criticizing the United States for “convincing” the Empire of Japan to launch an attack on the United States in order just to justify war with Imperial Japan.  There is no discussion of a wider world war in the 1930s and 1940s; rather, Japan’s war of aggression throughout the Pacific is referred to as the “Greater East Asia War.”  A documentary-style video portrays Japan’s conquest of East Asia during the 1930s as an effort to “save” the region from imperial advances of the colonial Western powers.  Japan foresaw a “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” a moniker for their own expansionist agenda.  Displays portray Japan as a “victim” of foreign influence and meddling, especially the undermining of trade by the United States.  It goes on to highlight what it considers “the negotiations to avoid the war with the United States,” an accidental admission which in and of itself insinuates a forgone conclusion to go to war!  Notably missing, the museum fails to acknowledge any of the many atrocities committed by the Japanese, including the Rape of Nanjing (see Japan’s War Crimes for more), the abhorrent treatment of POWs, and the sacrifice of the Okinawan people and culture writ large.

A Steam Engine used on the Thai-Burma "Death Railway," the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians

A Steam Engine, used on the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” displayed in the museum’s lobby.  This was the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians used as slave labor in its construction.  The museum only mentions what an incredible engineering feat it was, and accomplished by the Japanese….

For instance and specifically related to Okinawa and the Typhoon of Steel which was endured there, there is a moving display of “articles left behind” by the Kinjo sisters, who served as part of the famed Okinawa “Lily Corps”.  These high school students were drafted to serve as nurses’ aids and were assigned to cave hospitals around southern Okinawa.  These girls, in reality, were abandoned by the Japanese military, and many were pressure to end their lives through mass suicide.  However, the museum submits a revisionist version that Okinawan’s roil at:  “On June 18, 1945 an order to disband the student corps was issued during a severe cleanup operation by the American forces.  However, the Third Surgery bunker was besieged and more than 40 staff members lost their lives.”  High school students can barely be thought of as “staff,” and this particular loss of life is egregious by any measure.  The monument to these lost girls is one of the most-visited and moving places today on Okinawa, exactly because of Japan’s cold-blooded desecration of her most valuable treasure – her youth….

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives.  They were pressured and brain-washed to kill themselves rather than face rape and torture by the Americans.  Or so they were told….

The museum clearly portrays Japan as diligently negotiating to avoid war at every turn – even as they planned the attacks on Pearl Harbor and throughout the wider Pacific basin, and America as being the unreasonable bully hell-bent on controlling and containing Japan.  There is no portrayal of aggression by the Japanese.  In its place is only a weak, flaccid claim of Japanese self-defense against American and European Imperialists.  The museum goes on to claim that Japan went to war with the intent of creating a “Co-Prosperity Sphere” for all Asians, with aims of ejecting various Western powers who had colonized parts of Asia and the Pacific.  This argument is nothing more than a thin, transparent veil attempting to cover their unjustified expansionist wars of the 1930s in Korea and China, and the 1940s in Burma, Indonesian, the Philippines, and throughout the Pacific.

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

Because of this Nationalist stance and odd-ball justification of the slaughter of over SIX MILLION (some estimates put the figure over 10M) Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, Indochinese, and Western prisoners of war, the Japanese Government has been widely criticized by China, South Korea, and Taiwan as being revisionist and unapologetic about the events of World War II.  My experience throughout Japan and the Ryukyu Islands has been one of peace, gentleness, and wholesale value for life, but my visit to this museum provides a hint at underlying currents of gross nationalism still present in many dark corners of the Japanese psyche.  And while I appreciate being able to see the rare military hardware on display here (sorry, pictures inside not allowed), and many of the relics of those lost are quite moving and well displayed, it is the general feel of this place that lives me, a Westerner, questioning what many Japanese really know about the War, but more importantly, how they feel.

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

Finely, and perhaps in one of the most insulting aspects of the museum, outside of its main entrance is a memorial plot that one might easily miss.  It is homage to Dr. Radha binod Pal, the judge representing India at the Tokyo Trials in 1946.  The pamphlet provided, in English, goes on to state, “Dr. Pal detected that the tribunal…was none other than formalized vengeance sought with arrogance by the victorious Allied Powers upon a defeated Japan.  Consequently, he submitted a separate opinion recommending that each and every one of the accused be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges….”  The text further characterizes the trials as “…the Allies’ craze for retaliation….”  While there is some argument about the due process afforded those accused during the war crimes trials in the East (as compared and contrasted against the Nuremberg Trails held in the West), the top Japanese leadership found guilty as Class A War Criminals were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, GUILTY of crimes against peace through the planning and direction of war.

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World.  Picture at the Yasukuni Shrine, 2015.

But regardless of politic viewpoint or an inherent revulsion at revisionist history, there is no other comprehensive venue in Japan where someone – Ministers and Emperors included – can pay respect to the fallen in such an embracing fashion.  In other words, for many Japanese there is a strongly compelling reason to visit this shrine.  And what about those who find the conflict in the adjoining museum’s nationalistic point of view and alternative account of dirty deeds so troubling?  Well they can deliberately avoid entering the museum so that their visit remains religious rather than political.

Liberalism and "Truth" are Sometimes a Scary Combination.

Liberalism and “Truth” are Sometimes a Scary Combination.  I’m pretty sure Japan started a War of Aggression with the United States….

Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, recently visited the shrine which sparked wide admonition from Asian governments.  In an official statement, Abe explained that he wished to “report before the souls of the war dead…the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again.  It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of [other Asian] people.”

Monument to War Widows

Monument to War Widows

Can’t fault the man for that.  There is good in the world.  And it’s high time for the curators of the Yushukan museum to do their part in fulfilling Abe’s pledge.

Yasukuni Shrine:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead


“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  ~Colonel Curtis LeMay, Chief Architect of the Allied Strategic Bombing Campaign against Japan

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As Jody and I approached the Shrine from the west, my instantaneous thought was that its impact, physically, spatially and emotionally, was effusively worthy of its purpose.  Its entrance protected by two large, intimidating shishi lion-dogs, our journey through the shrine’s grounds took us under not just a single torii (shrine’s normally have one, which designates sacred ground; see Trampled Torii and Floating Torii for more), not even two, but three.  And they are perhaps the most impressive I have seen in all of our travels throughout Japan.

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First Torii (Steel)

The Daiichi Torii (Otorii), imposing in size, is the first of the three, found at the immediate entrance of the shrine’s grounds from the east.  First erected in 1921 and rebuilt in 1974, it was for a time the largest torii in Japan at over 75 feet tall over 100 feet wide.

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

The second Daini Torii (Seido Otorii) is encountered next.  Built in 1887, this remains the largest bronze torii in Japan.  Passing under this torii, a massive wooden cypress gate called the shinmon is confronted.  A commanding 20-foot-high structure built in 1934, each of its two massive swinging doors boasts an over-sized Chrysanthemum Crest, a symbol of imperial royalty.

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Just feet beyond and through the final Chumon Torii built of cypress, Jody and I found ourselves at the apparent confluence of Shintoism and nationalism within all of Japan.

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-jody-entering-through-the-shrines-main-gatesYasukuni Jinja is a Japanese Shinto shrine, but one unlike all the others.  Dedicated to eirei, “hero spirits” who died in service of the Emperor of Japan during conflicts from 1867 to 1951, the shrine was specifically built to house the actual souls of the dead as kami, loosely translated to “spirits souls,” or what could be considered lessor deities.  Enshrinement is strictly a religious matter since one requirement post-WWII placed on Japan was a forced separation of State Shinto and the Japanese Government (“Church & State”).  The priesthood at the shrine has complete religious autonomy to decide to whom and how enshrinement may occur.  It is thought that enshrinement is permanent and irreversible by the current clergy, even though some surviving family members have formally requested removal of descendants.  In my opinion, what people can do – as in enshrining the dead, people can undue – as in removing souls previously enshrined.  People can get so lost in dogma….

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-nationalism-at-the-shrine-wmtokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-ground-rulesThere certainly are some unusual facets to visiting this shrine, even to the very casual foreign gaijin visitor with limited experience or knowledge of such locations.  First, there is a Japanese flag flying not only from an official flagpole towering over the shrine, but also near the main hall, where visitors come to pay their respects and pray, on a religious structure selling shrine-related tokens, talismans and amulets.  Second, there are posted warnings in multiple languages (Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English) about what is and what is not permitted on shrine property.  Finally, and most surprisingly for Japan, there is posted and uniformed security here, which didn’t allow us to loiter or pause for photos of the main hall where those who came to commune with the dead pray and pay their respects.

Prayers for the Dead

Prayers for the Dead

Yasukuni enshrines and provides a permanent residence for the spirits of those who have fought on behalf of the Emperor, regardless of whether they died in combat, and eligibility is extended to government officials and even civilians as long as they died in service of the state.  Interestingly and fittingly, all civilians who died in Okinawa during the war, and Okinawa schoolchildren who died during evacuation from the island are also eligible and enshrined.

Paying Respects

Paying Respects

At proximate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, the enshrinement of those individuals may not be such a bad thing – but please note that is not my claim.  The wider, larger, more looming issue throughout the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those exploits entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are all worshiped as equal gods.

Fortunes

Fortunes

There are over 2,466,000 enshrined kami at Yasukuni.  This total includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones at the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  Yasukuni has enshrined 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the nearby Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.

Themes on the Shrine's Lanterns

Themes on the Shrine’s Lanterns

The Chinreisha is a small peripheral shrine constructed in 1965, and is dedicated to all those killed by wars or conflicts worldwide, regardless of nationality, but who are not “eligible” for enshrinement proper.  Most visitors who wish to balance their respects for all those who suffered, especially during WWII, make it a point to prayer here as well, just as Japanese Prime Minister Abe did very recently.

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There were not too many visitors on the Tuesday afternoon we visited.  Most were Japanese, many solitary visitors, but a few in smaller groups, who would approach the main hall almost one at a time.  The altar, draped in large white curtains adorned with the Imperial crest, hides details of the hall from everyone less those at prayer in front of the small opening in the drapes.  The Honden, built in 1872 and refurbished in 1989, is the main area where Yasukuni‘s enshrined deities reside and is generally closed to the public.  Behind the Honden is another smaller structure called the Reijibo Hoanden which houses the “Symbolic Registry of Divinities,” a handmade Japanese paper document that lists the names of all the kami enshrined.  Interestingly, this particular structure was built of quakeproof concrete in 1972 with a private donation from Emperor Hirohito, Imperial Emperor of Japan during the whole of WWII, himself.

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Those praying would clap their hands loudly, and then pause, some with heads bowed, some with hands held together in front in the internationally recognized symbol of prayer.  One gentlemen prayed for many, many minutes, standing stoically still, deep in thoughtful meditation.  I can only imagine the loss that this man was trying to reconcile.

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The word Yasukuni, taken from classical-era Chinese text of Zuo Zhuan, literally translates as “Pacifying the Nation.”  It was chosen by the Japanese Meiji Emperor when the shrine was founded in the latter half of the 19th century.  For many Japanese, it is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

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During the allied occupation of Japan in the late 1940s, a much-needed separation of church and state was forced on Japanese culture.  However, the shrine’s authorities and the Japanese government’s Ministry of Health and Welfare established a somewhat clandestine system in 1956 for the sharing of information regarding deceased war veterans.  Most of Japan’s war dead who were not already enshrined at Yasukuni were done so in this manner by April 1959, without much fanfare.

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Japanese war criminals prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (MTFE), better known as the “Tokyo Trials,” were initially excluded from enshrinement.  But as time went on, government authorities began considering their enshrinement, along with providing veterans’ benefits to their survivors.  This movement gained significant momentum following the signature of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 which effectively returned peace between Japan and the Unites States, opening the way for a return of Japanese sovereignty.

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During Allied occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, the Allied General Headquarters (GHQ) planned to burn down the Yasukuni Shrine and build an entertainment venue in its place.  Lucky for Japan, and perhaps because of Divine intervention, two Western Priests Fathers Bruno Bitter and Patrick Byrne insisted that honoring war dead is the right and duty of citizens everywhere, even for the Japanese, and cooler heads prevailed as the decision was made not to destroy the important and sacred site.  At that time, the Health and Welfare Ministry began forwarding information on Class B and Class C war criminals (those not involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war) to Yasukuni Shrine authorities in 1959.  These individuals were gradually enshrined between 1959 and 1967, often without permission from surviving family members or wide knowledge within the government, or the public, and even of the Emperor.  As an independent religious institution, the governing Shinto priests were free to unilaterally do what they considered spiritually most appropriate.

An Unhappy Visitor

An Unhappy Visitor

In 1954, some local shrines started accepting enshrinement of war criminals from their local areas.  However, no convicted war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni until after the parole of the last remaining incarcerated war criminals in 1958.

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Information on the fourteen most prominent Class A war criminals, which included the prime ministers and top generals from the war era (but not the Emperor himself, a mistake in my opinion), was secretly forwarded to the shrine in 1966.  Health and Welfare Ministry officials and Yasukuni representatives agreed during a secret meeting in 1969 that Class A war criminals judged at the Tokyo Trials were “able to be honored.”  The secrecy of these meetings however points to moralistic problems that those involved had or feared, especially since these same people decided not to make public the idea that Yasukuni would enshrine the worst of Japan’s convicted war criminals.  The actual timing for enshrinement was left to the discretion of the then Shrine’s head priest Fujimaro Tsukuba.  Tsukuba, not being entirely comfortable with the notion of elevating the worst of the worst to deity status and therein providing complete absolution for their horrific crimes and sins, delayed the enshrinement and died in March 1978 before giving his approval.

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

But things quickly changed.  The priest’s successor, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, personally rejected the Tokyo war crimes tribunal’s verdicts and enshrined the war criminals in a secret ceremony on October 17 of that same year, proclaiming them as “Martyrs of Showa.”

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Emperor Hirohito, Japan’s Emperor during WWII who was allowed to retain his position and status, visited the shrine as recently as 1975.  However, after finding out about this most questionable enshrinement, he was “displeased,” a finding held in private until memoirs were published after his death, and subsequently refused to visit the shrine.  His visit in 1975 was the last visit by a Japanese Emperor.

Purifying Waters

Purifying Waters

While Hirohito’s stance may seem prudent for the cultural leader of the nation, I suggest it’s for much more selfish reasons.  Hirohito’s evasive and opaque attitude about his own responsibility for the war and the fact he has claimed that the atomic bombings of Japan “could not be helped” imply strongly that he may have been more afraid that the enshrinement would reignite the debate over his own responsibility for the war…and the fact that he should have been tried and judged as Class A War Criminal No. 1.  But that’s just my opinion.  The details of the war criminals’ enshrinement eventually only became public only in 1979, but only minimal controversy resulted for the next several years.

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Today there is burning outrage in some quarters about the controversy surrounding Yasukumi Shrine.  No matter where you fall, It would indeed be shameful to erase a memorial to literally 2.5 million dead solely because of 14 very bad people.  Indeed, there are many, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of people enshrined there that committed truly horrific acts of violence and depravity during the war, but who escaped prosecution and justice.  The very fact that Hirohito escaped justice throughout his life reflects the fallacy belittling the great many, the overwhelming majority, for the sins of the very few.  Remember, in any way, those that suffer the most are the poor, uneducated, and predominantly the innocent….  Remember, General LeMay, the American Army Air Corps Commander who directed the bombing of Japan resulting in 300,000-350,000 civilian dead and many more wounded, framed the debate best:  “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  In other words, objective judgment of right and wrong is a moving target, almost impossible to hit, while waging war.

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Now, the adjoining war museum, operated by the shrine, that is another story altogether.  But that subject is for another dedicated blog.  Stay tuned!

Losing their Hearts in San Francisco:  The San Francisco Maru of Truk Lagoon


“Come back.  Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”  ~Euripides, Greek classical tragedian playwright

Built in Japan in 1919 by the Kawasaki Dockyard, The SS (Steam Ship) San Francisco Maru was a medium-sized freighter of the time specifically designed for the Japanese Yamashista Kisen Line.   She was a 385ft, 27ft beam, 5,800+ ton passenger-cargo ship that served as part of Japan’s wider commercial fleet involved in world-wide trade.  The word “Maru,” meaning “circle” in Japanese, has been used to designate a Japanese merchant vessel since the 16th century.  Although the exact reasoning of this particular ship-naming convention is lost to time, the idea of a safe circular journey for ships and their crews is probably not far from the mark.  As to the city-name?  The Japanese at the time often named ships to reflect their primary destinations.

The San Francisco Maru

The San Francisco Maru

During World War II the Japanese were in desperate need to meet the logistical needs of their new Pacific empire, suddenly stretched far, wide, and thin.  Many commercial vessels were thus taken into service of the Emperor, a fate no different for the San Francisco.  Following her requisition by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the ship was detailed to transport military cargoes between the Japanese homeland and far-flung Pacific destinations.  Like most of the other Japanese merchants during WWII, the San Francisco was armed, in this case with a single 75mm/3” deck gun forward to both defend against surface submarine attack, and to provide an opportunity to attack and capture other unsuspecting merchants she happened to meet along the way.

Although damaged by aerial bombing in 1943 while delivering supplies in New Guinea, the San Francisco suffered her fatal blows after arriving at Truk Lagoon (current day Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia) in February 1944.  Packed with war materials, including cargo holds full of bombs, mines and torpedoes, she arrived just days before a massive American attack on this Japanese stronghold.  During Operation “Hailstone” (ラック島空襲 Torakku-tō Kūshū, lit. “the airstrike on Truk Island”) between 17-18 February 1944, waves upon waves of US Navy carrier-based planes were launched against shipping found at Truk, as well as the significant military presence Japan had built up there since the end of World War I.  After the first day’s attacks, the San Francisco was observed and reported by US forces as being on fire with smoke belching amidships.  The next day, she was reportedly hit by at least six 500-lb bombs, and was left burning furiously and sinking stern first.  At least five crew members were killed.  Operation Hailstone is often referred to as the “Japanese Pearl Harbor” due to the massive damage inflicted on the Japanese fleet.

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

It’s position lost to the fog of war made even more obscure by the passage of time, the wreck was “discovered” in 1969 by Cousteau (no doubt with the help of locals who all but knew her location), but was not dived again until 1973 when the ship’s bell was recovered and her identity confirmed.

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

The San Francisco lies very deep, and rests on an even keel with the superstructure beginning at ~140fsw, weather deck at ~165fsw, and the sea bottom around 210fsw.  Upon descent, her wreck remains invisible, and only passing about 50’fsw do her twin masts first come into view, themselves reaching up only to 105’fsw.  Heading from the forward mast to the bow, you cross over the open access to cargo hold 1 and finally reach the vessel’s most impressive and picturesque deck gun at ~150fsw.  Most deck guns of the wrecks in Truk are covered with an immense amount of growth, but due to the depths of the San Francisco, this is not that case of her wreck.

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

After touring the gun – a must on this shipwreck in Truk – one should immediately descend down into hold 1 forward, where you will find a cargo space packed with hemispherical landmines, at one time destined to help defend the beaches and shallow waters of Truk Lagoon against potential Allied invasion.  Watch the depth here though; the hold descends down to almost 200fsw!  Exiting up and aft out of hold , immediately proceed aft and around the forward mast to hold 2, where divers will find a plethora of scattered aerial bombs, complete with tail fins and the remains of their original wooden packing crates, along with the remains of Japanese trucks in the hold’s ‘tween decks.  Still deeper, drums of fuel can be seen.

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Perhaps the highlight of visiting the San Francisco, however, are the three iconic Japanese tanks still found resting on the ship’s main deck.  These tanks, built by Mitsubishi, are Japanese Light Type 95 HA-Go tanks covered in with ½” armor.  They appear toyishly small in appearance, but would have been manned by a crew of three and could make up to 30mph on a six-cylinder, air-cooled 120hp diesel engine.  Weighing ~7.5 tons, the tanks were armed with three weapons:  a 37mm main battery turreted gun, and two 7.7mm machine guns, one forward (non-coaxial) and one rear-facing.  The tank was only mildly effective against infantry and was never designed for armored battles, and with an extremely cramped interior, only the lightest armor, and a hand-operated turret, the tank suffered enormously in battle as more modern battlefield weapons came into play.  Two tanks are found on the starboard side of the ship, with one to port.  This is perhaps the most photogenic part of the wreck, and if your bottom time is already limited (as it is on this wreck), make sure to reserve at least a few minutes for these infamous tanks.

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From here, our planned dive run time required us to start our long ascent to the surface, where we completed our accelerated decompression profiles as we went.  It’s hard to leave the wreck, especially seeing the cratered remains of the superstructure (severely damaged from bombing), and knowing that the rear cargo holds contain a mixture of trucks, crates of ammunition, more mines, some depth charges, and scattered torpedoes….  How this wreck failed to detonate under such intense bombing is hard to imagine.  Equally as befuddling is the lack of other visible damage from the other reported bomb hits of the 2nd day’s attacks.

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But exploring the 2nd half of this ship, where those five unfortunate souls who lost their hearts in San Francisco can be remembered as a shadowy dream, will have to wait for my return to Truk Lagoon.  Until then, stayed tuned for more “Traces of War” from this year’s adventures exploring this iconic battle site.

Kure Maritime Museum: The tragic story of Battleship Yamato


A NOVA episode detailing the story of Battleship Yamato

Ensign Nakatani, of the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II, was the only American aboard the Japanese battleship Yamato when it sank in 1945. As a Nisei, the term for second-generation Americans of Japanese descent, the outbreak of war with the United States in 1941 caught him off-guard as he was studying in Japan. Bilingual and familiar with America, he found himself immediately pressed into service for the Emperor, serving as a translator and codebreaker for the Japanese. Like most Nisei, he was treated with great disdain and suspicion by the ultra-nationalistic Japanese. Nakatani, his communications with his stateside family severed, and was unable to contact his parents or younger brothers. He was alone.

Yamato Scale Model

Yamato Scale Model

Only as he departed from the Japanese city and shipyards of Kure on the Yamato‘s last mission did Nakatani reportedly receive his first and only family contact during the entire War. A single letter, from his mother, written years earlier had meandered through the channels of the International Red Cross, finally finding its way to him in Japan via Switzerland. The letter read, in part, “We are fine. Please put your best effort into your duties. And let’s both pray for peace.”

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, ship model on display WM

But peace was not to come in time for Nakatani. According to Yamato survivor Mitsuru Yoshida’s memoirs in Requiem for Battleship Yamato, Nakatani was inconsolable, knowing he would never live to see his family again. Such tragic stories are solemnly told in the Kure Maritime Museum, more commonly known as the “Yamato Museum,” located in Kure, Japan.

Triple 25mm Anti-Aircraft Mount

Triple 25mm Anti-Aircraft Mount

Yamato under Construction

Yamato under Construction

Yamato (大和) was the lead ship of the Yamato class of Imperial Japanese Navy World War II battleships. During the 1930s, as the Japanese became ultra-nationalist with views to expand their Empire, new designs for heavy fighting ships were begun. The Japanese recognized that they would simply be unable to match the output of U.S. war machine once war broke out, so these massive vessels were designed to engage multiple enemy battleships at the same time, and engage them first with very long-range guns. She and her sister ship, Musashi, were the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleships ever constructed, displacing 72,800 tons and armed with a main battery of nine 18.1 inch main guns, the largest caliber naval artillery ever fitted to a warship, which gave the ships an unmatched range 26 miles. Formidable by any standard, by 1945 her secondary battery comprised six 6.1 inch and twenty-four 5 inch guns. For more close-in defense against aircraft, Yamato carried an astounding 162 anti-aircraft guns of 25mm! Despite this protection, neither ship survived the war.

18 inch Main Battery and Scout Floatplane

18 inch Main Battery and Scout Floatplane

Yamato Underway

Yamato Underway

Laid down in 1937 and formally commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor in 1941, she served as the flagship during the Battle of Midway, a disastrous defeat for Japan in the middle of 1942. After the initiative of the war in the Pacific shifted to the Americans, the battleship remained in the vicinity of the Japanese-held Island and anchorage of Truk for much of 1943-1944, and played little part in any battle of significance. Yamato fired her main guns at American surface ships only once in late 1944 with little effect.

Massive 1:10 Scale Model

Massive 1:10 Scale Model

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, scale model from the stern WM1945 saw the Japanese suffering a crippling loss of fuel oil, raw materials, and general supplies, and in a desperate attempt to slow the Allied advance on the Japanese “home” islands, Yamato was dispatched on a one-way mission to Okinawa with orders to beach herself and fight until destroyed. Allied forces invaded Okinawa on 1 April 1945, and facing American boots on Japan soil proper, the imperial war machine responded in desperation with a mission codenamed “Operation Ten-Go” that would see the suicidal commitment of much of the remaining strength of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Yamato and nine escorts (one cruiser and eight destroyers) would sail to Okinawa and, in concert with kamikaze and Okinawa-based army units, attack the Allied forces assembled on and around Okinawa. Yamato would then be beached to act as an unsinkable gun emplacement and continue to fight until destroyed. In preparation for the mission, Yamato was fully stocked with ammunition, but not enough fuel for a return voyage. Designated the “Surface Special Attack Force,” the ships sortied on the afternoon of April 6th, 1945, the same day the USS Emmons was sunk by kamikazes off Okinawa’s Motobu peninsula (see my blog Wreck of the USS Emmons for more).

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, scout float-plane on the Battleship Yamato WM

The Yamato’s task force, however, was spotted by an American sub as it sailed south of Kyushu, and on April 7th, 1945, she was sunk by American carrier-based aircraft with the loss of vast majority of her crew.

Crews of these exposed gun positions suffered greatly.

Crews of these exposed gun positions suffered greatly.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, Japanese standard on the bow WMThe Allies had been decoding Japanese radio traffic for some time, and were well aware of Japan’s intent. Further, numerous American submarines spotted the Special Attack Force as it sailed south, but were unable to attack due to the ships’ high speed evasive maneuvering. They were, however, able to radio position, course and speed to the American fleet waiting to the south. With these reports, the Allied forces around Okinawa began to brace for the Special Attack Force’s assault by placing six battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-one destroyers on alert to intercept Yamato if aircraft-carrier based planes were unable to stop the group from reaching vulnerable Allied transports and landing craft.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, admiring the ship's model WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, armed Japanese Zero WMYamato’s crew was at general quarters and ready for action as dawn broke over cloudy skies on April 7th, 1945, only a day out of port. The first Allied scout aircraft made contact with Battleship Yamato at 8:23am, catching glimpses of their bright wakes playing peek-a-boo through the clouds. The group of ships was then shadowed by the America aircraft for the next few hours as the Allied Fleet Carriers readied their aircraft for strikes. At around 10:00am that morning, Yamato held radar contact with the first wave of Allied attack planes, American F6F Hellcat fighters which were sent to sweep the skies over the battleship clear of Japanese aircraft. The Yamato and her escorts, however, were sent without air cover.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, bow on Yamato scale model WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, 13mm aircraft machine gun WMAt about 12:30pm, a large raiding force of 280 bomber and torpedo aircraft arrived to stop the Yamato’s advance. As the Yamato increased speed to 24 knots and her destroyers closed to provide anti-aircraft fire, the Allied attack started at 12:37pm. The Yamato initially remained unscathed, throwing up an almost impenetrable wall of large and small-caliber defensive fires. But at 12:41pm, time quickly ran out for the proud ship. Two bombs obliterated two of her triple 25 mm anti-aircraft mounts and blew a hole in her deck, where fires started and raged. A third bomb exploded in quick succession, destroying her radar room and more of her secondary battery. Within minutes, two more bombs struck the battleship’s port side, causing significant damage to the ship’s main battery guns.

The Museum also has a beautiful Japanese Zero

The Museum also has a beautiful Japanese Zero

Yamato under Attack

Yamato under Attack

As the dive bombers attacked from almost directly overhead, the torpedo bombers started their attack runs at near sea level height. Splitting the ship’s defensive fire, already greatly reduced by exploding bombs, four torpedoes ran home and struck Yamato, damaging this ship’s boilers, engines and steering gear. The attacking swarm spent, the aerial assault ended as quickly as it started at around 12:47pm. In ten short minutes, explosion after explosion left the battleship listing 5–6° to port and on fire, her top speed significantly reduced, and with most of her unprotected 25mm anti-aircraft crews killed or wounded.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, battleship scale model 3 WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, ship model WMThe ship was now easy to find, a thick plume of black smoke beckoning other approaching waves of aircraft. Suffering reduced maneuverability and sharply curtailed anti-aircraft capability, the second wave of Allied planes found a much easier target. Starting at just before 1:00pm, the Americans again swarmed the battleship, attacking simultaneously from above and on level from all directions. Three or four torpedoes found their marks, their massive explosions furthered reducing steam to the ship’s engines and dramatically increasing flooding. Yamato was now listing perilously 15–18° to port, but the ship’s crew was able to counterflood and reduce the list to 10°. Although the ship had so far absorbed a massive amount of punishment, she was still in no real danger of sinking.

The Museum also holds many other Traces of War like this midget submarine

The Museum also holds many other Traces of War like this midget submarine

Yamato Hit by a Bomb

Yamato Hit by a Bomb

Still a third attack wave was launched and struck beginning at about 1:40pm that afternoon. At least four bombs hit the ship’s superstructure and caused heavy casualties among Yamato’s remaining 25 mm anti-aircraft gun crews. More serious though were four more torpedo impacts, resulting in flooding that was almost uncontrollable. With the auxiliary steering room now completely flooded, the ship lost all maneuverability and became stuck in a starboard turn. Yet the ship and her crew fought on.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, heavy caliber deck guns B&W WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter 5 WMThe fires and flooding began to take their tool, and by about 2pm that afternoon, the ship could only make 10 knots through the water with a steadily increasing list. Fires forward near the ship’s main battery raged out of control, and alarms were sounding about temperatures in the ship’s magazine. At 2:02pm, the order was given to abandon ship since the crew was unable to flood the vital and dangerous ammunition storage areas to keep them from exploding.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, crew and idle guns WM

Yamato Explodes

Yamato Explodes

The final assault began at 2:05pm. Torpedo bombers once again scored more hits. The battleship continued her inexorable roll to port, losing all power 2:20pm. Three minutes later, Yamato capsized, and as she rolled, one of the two bow magazines detonated in a tremendous explosion, resulting in a mushroom cloud almost four miles high that was seen for hundreds of miles. Yamato sank rapidly, quickly killing over 3,000 of her crew. Only 269 sailors survived the onslaught, while the Allies lost only ten aircraft and twelve airmen in the attack.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, breech of a heavy naval gun WM

Kure 2015, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Museum, Akishio SS-579 crewmember volunteer WMKure 2015, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Kure Museum, Akishio SS-579 submarine made by Mitsubishi WMIn 2005, the “Yamato Museum” was opened near the site of the former Kure shipyards where the battleships were built. The centerpiece of the museum, occupying a large section of the first floor, is an almost 90 foot long model of Yamato at an amazing 1:10 scale. For naval historians and those interested in learning about how such engineering genius and manufacturing acumen could result in such tragic circumstances, this museum is a must-see. Although a small fee is charged, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Kure Museum, located right across the street, is totally free. The two museums complement each other in dramatic fashion, and make for a wonderful day of discovering Japanese Traces of War.

The JMSDF Museum right across the street! It's free.

The JMSDF Museum right across the street! It’s free.

When you do visit, please take a moment or two to contemplate and honor Nakatani’s fate. Born in a different time, place, and circumstance, we all could have suffered the same, as many do today.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, enjoying the Yamato museum together

Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/supership/producer.html

WWII Photos used licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Faces of Death: Haunting Victims of S-21


“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.” ~S-21 Prison Memorial inscription

S-21 Genocide Memorial

S-21 Genocide Memorial

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time 2 WMEyes of crudely mounted photographs, pre-death mug shots in essence, seem to follow as Jody and I moved silently through the horrific halls of S-21. The peering stares of over 6,000 men, women and children unknowingly destined for demise seem to plead for intervention. Perhaps the saddest photo is that of a young mother and her baby lying by her side, blankly staring into the camera with an almost vacant expression of indignant resignation. All those photographed shared a tragic predicament – not knowing that they were facing imminent death just at the moment their photos were being taken – a commonality which results in a profoundly unnerving experience for any viewer.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), mom and baby victims WM

In early January 1979, on a bright and breezy Cambodian wintery afternoon, heavily armed Vietnamese military reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh after a blitzkrieg campaign beginning the previous Christmas Day. Vietnam had had enough of the obnoxiously militant culture that the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge of Democratic Kampuchea (“DK,” how the régime referred to Cambodia) had installed. And in an interesting turn of events just a handful of years after their victory over the Americans, Vietnam was doing something about the brutal, genocidal, suicidal régime next door when no one else in the world would.

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prisoner transport WMThe Khmer Rouge was taken aback in surprise by the rapidity of Vietnam’s assault. After barely two weeks of fighting, Cambodia cracked open as easily as that of a raw egg. The Khmer Rouge dissolved into the rural jungle and countryside just as quickly as it had appeared, while the invaders were welcomed as liberators by nearly every Cambodian who was left behind. Those people, altogether terrorized and literally exhausted by nearly four years of undernourishment, back-breaking labor, and widespread fear and executions, were ready for change. They were simply looking for peace, safety and security after decades of war in Southeast Asian, followed by a years-long internal civil war, and finally from the wretched atrocities suffered by their own peoples’ hand.

White Graves of 2 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

White Graves of 4 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building A 2 WMAs the Vietnamese troops secured the city, two photojournalists accompanying the invasion were drawn by the unmistakably smell of decomposing bodies. As they approached the silent source of the foul odor they noticed a large fenced compound topped with dense, electrified coils of barbed wire. The entrance gate was only marked with a single Revolutionary sounding slogan in Khmer colors of red and white: “Fortify the spirit of the revolution! Be on your guard against the strategy and tactics of the enemy so as to defend the Country, the People and the Party.” Nothing else identified this curious place.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building C WM

Once inside, though, the photogs found themselves on the grounds of what had once been a large school, about two city blocks in size, consisting of four three-story buildings in the shape of a right-hand bracket (if facing north), each with open-air breezeway balconies on their successive floors. An additional single-story building, found littered with papers and office equipment, split the compound, dividing it into nearly identical halves.

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

It was the rooms of the building on the southern end of this arrangement that brought the first horrors. Here the journalists discovered several murder victims, some still chained to simple iron bedframes, in rooms almost complete barren. Most had suffered numerous serious injuries, but almost all had their throats slashed, and the blood pooled below the beds, although congealing, was at places still wet. In total, 14 victims were found, killed only a couple of days previously.

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 10 WM

Improvised Toilets

Improvised Toilets

But what was discovered in the other buildings is what started to illuminate the sinister nature of the place: heaps of ankle shackles, hundreds of handcuffs, whips of various material, and lengths of chain and electrical cord. Other former classrooms had been crudely divided into cells by clumsily bricked partitions, while others still had more elaborate and larger cells created by wooden walls and doors. Metal American 7.62mm ammo boxes in some of the cells contained human feces. The Vietnamese had stumbled into a vicious and important Khmer Rouge killing facility known as S-21, “S” standing for “santebal,” a Khmer term that combined the words santisuk (security) and nokorbal (police).

Captive Chains

Captive Chains

S-21 now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which chronicles the auto-genocide that happened in Cambodia in the 1970s under the inhuman Khmer Rouge régime. Tuol Sleng translates roughly as “Hill of the Poisonous Trees,” and was but one of at least 150 execution centers dispersed throughout the country. Although some estimates put the death toll from S-21 as high as 20,000, a more accurate number is probably somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000.

Balcony Razor Wire

Balcony Razor Wire

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge began to adapt the school as a prison. The buildings were cordoned into a compound enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, windows were covered with iron bars, and balconies covered with a thick matrix of razor wire to prevent suicidal leaps from the upper floors.

Crude Prison Cells

Crude Prison Cells

Postmortem, Death from Torture

Postmortem, Death from Torture

At any one time, the prison held as many as 1,000–1,500 prisoners. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Western-propped Cambodian Lon Nol regime and consisted of mostly soldiers and government officials, but also included academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, and engineers. But during early 1977, when the Khmer Rouge enacted large-scale internal purges, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived.

Wooden Prison Cells

Wooden Prison Cells

Crude Destruction

Crude Destruction

Most lower-ranking prisoners at S-21 were held for a few days or weeks, whereas more important ones and those suspected of grave offenses were routinely incarcerated for several months. Thousands of prisoners, regardless of their perceived importance, had undergone interrogation, prepared concocted confessions admitting counter-revolutionary crimes up to several hundred pages long, and submitted lists of their friends, family and associates entitled “strings” that sometimes ran to several hundred names. These false indictments kept the cycle of paranoia and death endlessly flowing. All the dots making up each string were ultimately “smashed.”

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Few prisoners maintained their innocence for long under the torture widely inflicted at S-21. Considered guilty by the very fact that they were arrested in the first place, prisoners were all expected to confess their imaginary associations with the West and the CIA, or with the East and the KGB, or worse yet, with Vietnam in writing before they were taken off to be “smashed,” the Khmer euphemism for murder. Routinely beaten and shocked with electricity, nearly drowned by water-boarding and forced submerging, burned with searing hot metal instruments, suffocated with plastic bags, cut with knives and hung to near-death, prisoners confessed to that with which they were charged.

Water Board for Torture

Water Board for Torture

Imprisoned

Imprisoned

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), instruments of torture WMThe buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. The site has four main buildings, the first of which holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims of the prison were discovered. The second offers gallery after gallery of photographs of those tortured and ultimately executed. The third presents the original classrooms which were sub-divided into smaller cells for prisoners, while the final holds some interesting artwork by former S-21 inmate Vann Nath depicting torture alongside the actual instruments pictured. The last classroom of the last building contains a small Buddhist altar and stupa (burial tower), and empties into a large courtyard which features a remembrance memorial to the victims and the atrocity which occurred there.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), barbed balconies WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 8 WMMost of the rooms of the first building are bare, containing only a rusting iron bedframe, along with a black and white photograph hung on a wall. The grisly photo reflects the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In each, the mutilated, bloated and decomposing body of a prisoner is shown, usually chained to a bed situated over pool of still-wet blood, obviously and brutally murdered by their fleeing captors only a day or two before the prison was uncovered.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 6 WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP brother shackled in prison WMThe other buildings display about 6,000 silent, melancholy portraits. Some of the striking black and white images portray shock, while others reflect a depressed resignation. Others portray confusion. While it’s the scenes of mass graves and thousands of bones which are used to capture the imagination, the most haunting images are these stark portraits taken and preserved by the Khmer Rouge at S-21. Since the original negatives and photographs were separated from their respective records, most of the photographs remain anonymous today.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time WM

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

The museum today helps to provide an organized archive of Cambodia’s brutal past in the hopes that history will not be repeated. Combined with the Killing Fields close by at Choeung Ek (see Seeing The Killing Fields for my blog about that depressing place), it’s hard to escape the brutal reality of the evil which infected these places. For survivors, the vast and seemingly random cruelties of the Khmer Rouge are captured and effectively condensed in the museum’s displays. The indifference of the DK government officials, exhibited in room after room, is all too clear for anyone to see. But the museum, at times, overly represents the Khmer Rouge as a homogenous group of indoctrinated fanatics, the incarnation of absolute evil, responsible for most of the unhappiness of the Cambodian people. While this may be an easy or attractive explanation, it falls well short of the much more convoluted complexion of the Khmer Rouge phenomenon of the 1970s.

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

A visit to S-21 is at once disorienting. There is a stark, esoteric contrast between the now peaceful, green and sun-soaked compound against the horrific exhibits and photographs on display. There is an almost unbelievable dichotomy between the sounds of children playing outside superimposed over the silent induction photos of the many children and teens which were held at S-21 and ultimately smashed. The sheer ordinariness of the place makes it even more horrific.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), ankle shackle and rebar restraint WM

Together with a visit to the museum’s companion Killing Fields, the experience can be profoundly depressing, one our guide referred to as our “Sad-Sad day of touring.” While a broad debate continues to rage over the nature and appropriateness of “dark tourism,” I remain steadfast in my own personal convictions that we must experience such places firsthand. Only when the darkest aspects of the human spirit are seared into our collective consciousness will the evil that lurks in the shadows be remembered and banished from our civility.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), never forget the crimes WM