June 19, 1945 – was the date of the senseless execution of 14 American airmen at the Taipei Prison. On June 19th 2005 – the 60th Anniversary of that tragic event, the Society held a special memorial service to remember the men who suffered and died that day. The ceremony was held just outside the remnant of the old north wall of the former prison with the brother of one of the executed airmen present with us for the occasion. Several friends and supporters joined with us as well to remember the men and the events of that day.
Story of the Executed Airmen
Address given at the Memorial Service for the 14 American airmen who were executed
at the Taipei Prison - on June 19, 1945
by Michael Hurst MBE, Director, Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society - June 19, 2005
We are gathered here today to commemorate a great travesty of war and the needless sacrifice of 14 brave young American airmen.
War is cruel and terrible, and many times unreasonable things are done which defy normal rationale and human reasoning. There are always great sacrifices in war and many die. In some cases however deaths can be prevented, and it is when people die needlessly - when their deaths could have been avoided, that makes the event of even greater significance and sadness.
Such is the case with the men who we are remembering this morning. They were young American airmen - mostly between the ages of 19 and 24. They were doing their duty for their country, for the cause of right and to ensure that the forces of evil would not succeed in taking away the rights of men and women everywhere to live in peace and freedom.
In the fall of 1944 and throughout the months of 1945 the Allies, principally the US Army Air Corps and US Navy, carried out many bombing and strafing missions over Taiwan in the drive to defeat the Japanese forces in the Pacific. On January 28, 1945 a PB4Y-1 Liberator aircraft nick-named the ‘Queen Bee’ of US Navy Squadron VPB-117 was shot down over the waters south of Taiwan after attacking Japanese shipping on a routine patrol. Of the crew, four went down with aircraft, one died the following week of burns sustained in the crash, and the other 6 were taken prisoner. They were moved to Taihoku (Taipei) where they were held as POWs after being “interrogated” by the Kempetai and incarcerated in the old Taihoku Prison.
One of the group, Ensign John Bertrang, was injured in the crash of the aircraft and was taken to a local hospital. Later he was sent to Japan where he finished the war in a POW camp there. After the war he was returned to the US Navy Hospital in Chicago where he subsequently recovered. He passed away in 1993.
“According to the U.S. military's World War II records, Japanese officials devised special procedures to deal with what they considered an extraordinary threat. American flyers "who do not violate international law will be treated as prisoners of war," but those "suspected of being felonious war criminals" would face Japanese military tribunals.
Offenses "subject to military punishment" included "bombing, strafing and other acts of attack aimed at threatening and inflicting casualties on civilians," "damaging and destroying private property which has no military significance" and "any atrocious brutal acts that disregard humanity." The maximum penalty was death by firing squad.
Such was the case with the 14 American airmen. On May 29, 1945 the five crewmen of the ‘Queen Bee’ and nine other captured American fliers were given a mock trial – officially called by the Japanese a “Military War Tribunal”, but the men had no defense and the case against them was built on evidence coerced or fabricated by the Japanese. They were found guilty and sentenced to death, but the execution didn’t take place until June 19th. Every day the Japanese tortured their prisoners even more by not knowing when their execution order would be carried out – just another form of the Japanese cruelty that they inflicted on their captives.
In the early hours of June 19, 1945 - less than two months before the Japanese surrender, they were executed inside the courtyard of the Taihoku Prison by a Japanese army firing squad. In addition to the five Navy crewmen of the Liberator, three other US Navy and six US Army Air Corps personnel were murdered that day. Following the execution, the bodies were cremated and the ashes taken to a local Japanese temple. When the Japanese surrendered on August 14th the ashes were turned over to the American Graves Recovery Team for re-burial back in the United States. Some are now at rest in cemeteries in their home towns, and others were re-interred in the US National War Cemetery in Hawaii.
The names of the Japanese who committed this mockery of justice are known. The tribunal was comprised of Lt. Col. Naritaka Sugiura, Chief of the Tribunal; Col. Seiichi Furukawa former Chief of the Judicial Dep’t. of Japan’s 10th Army; Lt. Gen. Harukel Isayama, Chief of Staff, 10th Army; and Capt. Yoshio Nakano, Judge. After the war they were prosecuted by the Allied War Crimes Investigation Team. Col. Furukawa and Lt. Col. Sugiura were both found to be guilty of needlessly executing POWs and they themselves were sentenced to be executed by an American firing squad, but their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. Lt. Gen. Isayama and Capt. Nakano were sentenced to life in prison. Some justice was done!
The courage of these 14 Allied airmen must never be forgotten. Most were between the ages of 19 – 24. They fought for their country and the cause of freedom. They endured the hardships and dangers of war, knowing that every time they took off they might not return to their bases again. They suffered unspeakable horrors and hardships as POWs and an agonizing and frightful death. Their families also suffered greatly with the loss of sons, brothers and husbands.
In a few moments we will hear from the brother of one of the young men who was executed and he will tell us more in detail what happened to his brother and the other four men from his group who were executed here 60 years ago this morning.
Today – June 19th - is Father’s Day in America and the western world. These 14 brave young men never got to be fathers, never got to see their children grow up and to enjoy the pleasures of family life. They never got to enjoy the pleasures of life at all. They were taken from us so needlessly and so cruelly when they were just about the enter manhood. But they knew their possible fate when they joined up to serve their country – they knew that the possibilities of them returning home may not be good, but still they wanted to serve. It is this courage and heroism that we salute here today by this old wall – all that remains now of the former Taipei Prison. Let us never forget this courage and determination to serve, and let us remember the boys and men of all the Allied nations who dared to stand up to the evil forces of their day so that their loved ones and families – and the rest us, might live in peace. Let us pray that their sacrifice was not in vain.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow,
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age should not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.