Book Review: Shobun, A Forgotten War Crime in the Pacific (Michael J. Goodwin): WWII

8/12/2001 • Reviews, World War II Reviews

SHOBUN, A FORGOTTEN WAR CRIME IN THE PACIFIC
Michael J. Goodwin had not even been born when his father died. Lieutenant junior grade William Francis (“Bill”) Goodwin,Jr., was second in command of Consolidated PBY Catalina No. 08223 when the plane was shot down over Kendari, in theColobos Islands, in October 1944. Throughout their attack on Japanese shipping, the pilot, Jack Schenck, kept up acontinuous transmission in Morse Code. When the attack was completed, he was to transmit “A-OK.” Schenck never got thechance to send that message.

The downed fliers feared capture more than death. During the course of the war, it had become evident that the Japanesemistreated prisoners. Fewer than one in 10 Allied prisoners of war died in captivity in Germany; a full third died at the hands ofthe Imperial Japanese forces. Many of these men died from disease, malnutrition, neglect and effects of the climate. Others,however, died as the result of Japanese brutality. That was the fate of Goodwin and his crew members.

Many Allied airmen carried pistols that they intended to use if captured by the Japanese. They were willing to commit suiciderather than be shown the “way of Bushido,” a code of conduct for the samurai warrior. As part of Bushido, a warrior was toshow compassion in battle and for the enemy. By Western standards, however, the code is reprehensible. When a samuraiwas wounded in battle and unable to continue, his friends would cut off his head so that it would not fall into enemy hands. TheJapanese captors continued that same practice on their American prisoners during WWII, including Goodwin and his friends.

After five or six days of freedom, the downed fliers were captured by natives friendly to the Japanese and turned over to them.Then the hell began. One by one, sometimes in pairs, the men were taken to different locations near Kendari, marched out intoan open area and made to kneel before a freshly dug grave. With samurai sword in hand, the executioner slashed eachprisoner’s neck, leaving the head hanging by a slender thread of tissue. Japan’s military leaders clearly ignored the rulesregarding prisoners of war set forth in the Geneva Convention, which, although not a signatory, Japan had agreed to follow.

Following World War II, retribution was expected and enacted. War crime trials were held in Nuremberg and elsewhere, andnoted German and Japanese leaders were executed or given long prison sentences. Four separate trials were conducted forthe murderers of Bill Goodwin and his crew. Information from one trial was not used in another, a factor that served tocompromise justice. Although convicted, the murderers never served their complete sentences. Some, the author reports, wereparoled; others were given clemency. By 1958, the prisons that once held Japanese war criminals were empty. This was notthe case with German war criminals. As late as 1993, a suspected Nazi war criminal was tried in Germany for crimes he hadcommitted in Italy 50 years before. After the war crime trials of the 1940s were completed, the investigation into the conductof the Japanese military ended.

Michael Goodwin’s book is excellent, and his research is impeccable. He unearths horrible memories of World War II andsuggests that the Japanese, even today, are unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions. In 1993, when MoribiroHosokawa became prime minister, he publicly expressed “profound remorse and apologies for the fact that Japan’s actions,including acts of aggression and colonial rule, caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people.” The response frommembers of Japan’s House of Representatives described his apology as “a blasphemy against history” and demanded heretract his statement. One member went so far as to say, “Those indiscreet remarks without solid historical viewpoints deservedeath.”

Shobun describes in vivid detail the mindset of the Japanese during World War II. Has it changed? That question can best beanswered by reading the book.
Robert Alotta

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