Sugamo Prison and the Tokyo Trials

One young American's experience during post-war occupation duty in Japan.

Although most Americans associate the ending of World War II in Japan with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, the war officially ended with the surrender of the Japanese on September 2, 1945. In fact, American presence was still felt on the Isle of Japan with American occupation and the International Military Tribunals for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Trials. Similar to the Nuremberg Trials in Germany, Japanese military officials were being held accountable for their actions during the war, which included war atrocities and crimes against humanity. The Imperial Japanese Army was questioned about their morality when it came to incidents such as the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, and other deplorable incidents with little regard for human life.

Knowing he didn’t want to attend college, Alfred Dearman wanted to enter the military. He and a buddy got into the Army in 1947 only because the Navy Recruiting Office was closed that day. Dearman intended to go to Germany for the army of occupation because he had some working knowledge of the German language thanks to his German-American adoptive parents. His orders sent him in the opposite direction—straight to Japan.

After a month-long trip crossing the Pacific from California, Dearman arrived. Moving from the replacement depot, he was placed with the 8th Army which populated Sugamo Prison as jailers and guards. General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, was adamant all jailers and guards stationed at Sugamo would be personnel who had never fought the Japanese during the war. These young men who grew up during the war never entered combat, but became historical witnesses to the immediate aftermath through occupation duties.

The rules at Sugamo Prison were strict. The jailers were inside the prison cell block with the prisoners and the guards were stationed outside anywhere from towers to hallways to entrances. No hands were to be laid on the prisoners unless there was a dire emergency. Dearman was in the cellblock that housed General Hideki Tojo and his cabinet. The 27 prisoners who Dearman interacted with were now old men who had been admirals, generals, and other high-ranking military officials. There were no problems; each prisoner had a single cell to himself. A jailer watched them 24 hours, unless they had been removed for court. The prisoners were required to sleep with a dim light on and their hands had to be outside of the covers. They were allowed one hour of exercise a day and could communicate with each other for brief amounts of time. One of the major concerns was prisoner suicide, yet in the cell block with the older men there had been no attempted suicide. Dearman’s shifts were in nine-hour increments for three days before moving to the next nine-hour period for the next three days. On his three-day break, Dearman would often go to the Tokyo Trials.

The Trials were held in a large crowded building and would either feature the 27 political prisoners Dearman saw daily or the Class B and Class C prisoners. In this clip, Dearman explains what that experience was like.

 

The trial was conducted in English and there were translators with headphones. Dearman found the entire experience to be very orderly, with some small exclamations. The higher-ranked Japanese military personnel were very different from the men in the Class B and Class C trials; they seemed respectful to the eyes of a young audience member. The Class B criminals were asked more detailed questions about the atrocities their men committed while the older men were asked questions such as, “Why did you invade China?” and “Why did you bomb Pearl Harbor?” Dearman noticed the different level of questions posed to different ranks. 

After listening to the proceedings, he thought that while the Imperial Japanese Army was a vicious enemy, being part of that army also seemed challenging. Not having fought the Japanese personally, Dearman was able to have a sympathetic impression of the prisoners assigned to him. Mamoru Shigemitsu, Japanese Foreign Minister who was present on the USS Missouri during the signing of the surrender, was included in the cellblock where Dearman was stationed. Shigemitsu told Dearman that he should learn some Japanese since he would be in Japan for a while. Dearman was amenable to this and for the next couple of years, whenever Shigemitsu was bored they would practice Japanese phrases!

At the close of the Tokyo Trials, seven Japanese military prisoners were executed; the rest received sentencing or were found insane. General Tojo and six others were hanged at Sugamo Prison for their war crimes. When asked about the war crimes justice, Sergeant Dearman stated “Well, when you hear about the rape of Nanking where Japanese soldiers are throwing babies up and catching them on their bayonets and that’s just some of the horrible things that were allowed and then the Bataan death march, we’d all read about that, how Americans were treated on that march I would say they got what’s coming to them.”

Contributor

Hannah Dailey

Hannah Dailey has been an Oral Historian at The National WWII Museum since 2015 and has conducted more than 550 oral history interviews to date, several of which are showcased in our permanent galleries.

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