The Philippine Campaign through the Lens of Post-WWII Allied War Crimes Trials

Written by: Yuma Totani

War Crimes

In this excerpt from Justice in Asia and the Pacific Region, 1945-1952, Yuma Totani explores the impacts of WWII as the Allied powers brought war crimes trials against the Japanese. The pursuit of justice shed new light on war in the Philippines.


“We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners.” To give effect to this particular term as stipulated in the Instrument of Surrender, the Allied Powers established in central Tokyo in January 1946 the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) to begin prosecuting major Japanese war criminals. More than 2,240 Allied war crimes trials, too, were concurrently held at 51 separate locations in the Asia-Pacific region. Three of the four successive commanding generals of the Japanese army that invaded and occupied the Philippines were among the accused: Lt. Gen. Honma Masaharu, commander the 14th Army at the time of the initial invasion of the Philippines (December 1941 – August 1942); Lt. Gen. Kuroda Shigenori, holding the same position in the 14th Army and subsequently heading the 14th Area Army (May 1943 – September 1944); and Gen. Yamashita Tomoyuki, commander-in-chief of the 14th Area Army to fight the losing battles against the American assault forces in the last months of the war (October 1944 – September 1945). The U.S. military commission tried, convicted, and sentenced to death Honma and Yamashita on charges of war crimes (1945-1946), while Kuroda was tried, convicted, and sentence to life in prison similarly on charges of war crimes by the Philippine military commission (1948-1949). Gen. Tanaka Shizuichi, who commanded the 14th Army between Honma’s and Kuroda’s tenure, was not subject to war crimes investigation or trial, as he committed suicide at the end of the war.

Of the three cases, the Yamashita Trial has attracted much attention from early on, as a result of the failed effort by Yamashita’s defense counsel to file with the U.S. Supreme Court an application for leave to file petition for writs of habeas corpus. The application was denied, but two justices dissented from the majority decision by producing scathing criticisms of the conduct of the U.S. military commission. They argued that the commission violated the Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process of law and, moreover, that the accused was convicted of a crime unheard of in American legal history. The Yamashita Trial continued to animate public debates on American military justice thereafter, especially in connection with the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War and the treatment of Guantanamo detainees today.

Perhaps less appreciated but by no means less important, meanwhile, these trials are significant also from the standpoint of historical studies of the Philippine campaign. The trial records contain extensive court testimony by the three generals concerning the planning and execution of military operations at different phases of the Philippine campaign, and their mental state when confronted with an unexpected turn of events when engaging the U.S. and Philippine armed forces. The trial records contain other types of oral and documentary history of the war as well: affidavits, depositions, and sworn statements taken from numerous former members of the Japanese armed forces, the Allied prisoners of war, civilian internees, and other non-interned civilians in occupied territories; war crimes investigation reports produced by the Allied authorities; and Japanese military orders, directives, instructions, rules and regulations, and other operational and administrative records. The following excerpt from Justice in Asia and the Pacific Region, 1945-1952 reconstructs some aspects of the Philippine campaign by tapping into these unique records of the war as contained in the trial records.

Continue reading for an excerpt from Justice in Asia and the Pacific Region, 1945-1952.

War in the Philippines

“Now, using the map which is on the board, will you outline the essential elements of your campaign in the Philippines?” Prompted during direct examination by Maj. Gen. John Skeen of his defense counsel, Honma began recounting in gripping detail the invasion of the Philippines that he carried out some four years ago. While his military campaigns were ultimately successful, Honma appeared to relive in the courtroom the frustration, bewilderment, and helplessness that he had experienced at various turns of event – botched landings, protracted battles, high casualties among his troops, and the enemy forces’ unpredictable decisions on surrender.

The war in the Philippines began with the deployment of Japanese airpower, followed by the ground forces’ land invasion of Luzon that Honma directed first from his headquarters in colonial Taiwan and subsequently on the island of Luzon itself. “During all my campaign in the Philippines, I had three critical moments,” Honma said as he set out in fluent English the outline of his war story, “and this was number one.” By “this” he was referring to the landing of the main forces on December 22, 1941, at Lingayen Bay, west of central Luzon, coordinated with the landings of three detachments at north and southeastern approaches to Luzon Island. Quite unexpectedly, transport boats at Lingayen got caught in the sand when taking the first party of infantry troops to the shore, leaving the rest stranded on board the mother ship. The fumbled landing turned out to be a comparatively minor glitch but this incident rattled Honma, who worried at the time that “if we were counterattacked we were almost helpless.” He managed to free the transport ships after the loss of one day and directed his troops to push southward as planned.

Honma’s forces made a swift advance notwithstanding enemy’s stiff resistance and reached the outskirts of Manila by January 1, 1942. This was made possible thanks largely to the 48th Division under his command, one of the only two divisions in the entire Imperial Japanese Army in those years with ample motor vehicle equipment, Honma explained. Within days, however, this division was taken out of the Philippines by the order of the Imperial General Headquarters at Tokyo so that it could be utilized in the concurrent invasion of Java. Honma was given as a substitute an ill-trained, ill-equipped brigade that was originally meant for garrison duty and not for combat. By the time of the Japanese descent on the Philippine capital, MacArthur, commanding the U.S. Army Forces Far East (USAFFE), had declared Manila an open city and withdrawn his troops to Bataan Peninsula wherein to continue the defense of the Philippines. Based on this information, Honma headed off to Bataan with the main forces to engage the enemy troops while leaving the administrative matters of the newly occupied capital city with his deputy chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Hayashi Yoshihide. Hayashi remained in Manila thereafter to serve concurrently as director of the Military Administration Section of the 14th Army.

The ensuing Battle of Bataan proved to be an arduous, long-drawn-out battle for Honma, where “the second one” of the three critical moments in his Philippine campaign occurred. His forces were confronted with formidable resistance by the enemy. The 14th Army sustained heavy casualties due to “very powerful and accurate” artillery fire; lost two battalions that were sent behind the enemy lines but that went missing “without a trace”; and nearly suffered the complete loss of a third battalion, which was dispatched to locate the missing ones. According to the testimony of Col. Horiguchi Shu¯suke, formerly chief of the Medical Section of the 14th Army, the total Japanese casualties in connection with the first Bataan campaign amounted to 2,700 deaths, 4,050 injured, and 15,500 sick cases suffering mainly from dysentery and malaria.

Read the full excerpt here.

Enjoyed reading this article? Share it today:

About the Author: Yuma Totani

Yuma Totani is an associate professor of history at the University of Hawaii. She is the author of Justice in Asia and the Pacific Region, 1945-1952: Allied War Crimes Prosecutions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015) and The Tokyo War Crimes Trial: The Pursuit of Justice in the Wake of World II (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University ...

View the Author profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!