Living people inhabit every piece of history’s dramatic occurrences; here are just a few that figure in my book to a greater and lesser extent.
British General Arthur Percival was the British Commander whose ineffectual physical appearance made it easier to visit the entire military catastrophe upon his shoulders. His son, also a distinguished soldier, felt, probably with some justification, that his father became the scapegoat for the rout.
Australian General Gordon Bennett was a selfish individual who loathed Percival and found time to have intimate contact with the Sultan of Johore’s young wife. He fled Singapore before the fall and reappeared with tall tales of how good a soldier he had been. His persona accounted for the post-war renaissance of the expletive, “Gordon Bennett”, used by Aussies to lambast a situation, where once an oath might otherwise have sufficed.
Captain Patrick Heenan: I don’t miss him in the book, misfit that he was, adding some dramatic ‘flourishes’ along the way.
General Tomoyuki Yamashita was the Commander of the Japanese Imperial Army throughout the conquest of Malaya and Singapore, a formidable leader of men.
Gyda (‘Pinka’) Robertson: An attractive, society woman who ran the only riding school in the Cameron Highlands. After the war, she became prominent in the Malayan racing fraternity.
John Rabe: This well-connected German and member of the Nazi Party helped set up a Safety Zone protecting Chinese civilians, especially women and girls, from rampaging Japanese soldiers during the infamous “Rape of Nanking.”
At the fall of Singapore, on the afternoon of 15 February 1942 at the Ford Motor Works, General Percival signed the surrender document. Two lives encapsulating two nations, the hapless, crushed Percival and the contained, dignified Japanese General feeling his opposite number’s pain.
General Yamashita facing his counterpart General Percival (far right)
Yamashita after Singapore—justice denied?
Following the surrender, General Yamashita’s taste of victory was short-lived. His personal feud with the notorious Prime Minister Tojo, saw the great general sidelined to an undistinguished command of a garrison in Manchuria. There would be no returning hero’s welcome in Tokyo.
When Tojo was sacked in July 1944, Yamashita was recalled from his isolated outpost, granted a belated audience with the Emperor, promoted to full General and given command of ground forces in the Philippines in October of that year. It was to be a poisoned chalice for by that stage of the war, Japan was in retreat.
Soon after Yamashita arrived, General Douglas MacArthur landed at Leyte. Following the allied landings at Luzon, the Japanese General freed more than four thousand prisoners-of-war and retreated to Baguio, by this stage coordinating largely hit-and-run operations. Moving further inland to Bangbang, he was still conducting guerrilla activities when Japan formally surrendered.
Yamashita was captured on 2 September 1945. On 26 September 1945, he was charged with war crimes in the Philippines. The indictment against him was turgidly particularised as failing to discharge his duty as commander to control the operations of those under his authority and permitting them to commit atrocities against the people of the United States, its Allies and dependencies, particularly the Philippines.
General MacArthur created a War Crimes Board to investigate allegations of military misconduct during the Japanese occupation. As a result of its investigations, General Yamashita was put on trial before a military commission made up of five officers from the United States, none of whom was superior to or even of the same rank as the accused.
Yamashita took the stand and summarised his position as follows:
I believe that I did the best possible job I could have done. However, due to the above circumstances, my plans and my strength were not sufficient to the situation, and if these things happened, they were absolutely unavoidable. I absolutely did not order, nor did I receive the order, to do this [commit atrocities] from any superior authority, nor did I ever permit such a thing, and I will swear to heaven and earth concerning these points. That is all I have to say.
This stance was consistent with his handling of discipline during the Malayan campaign. Under Yamashita’s regimen, any soldier found to have committed rape or murder was executed on the spot. That atrocities occurred in the Philippines before he assumed command is undoubted, just as is clear that any that happened afterwards were against his express orders.
Nevertheless, Yamashita was convicted. An appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States of America having been dismissed by a majority of six to two, he was hanged on 23 February 1946.
Mr Justice Rutledge, dissenting, wrote that the requirements of proof of knowledge of the crimes and their particulars had not been met. The process departed “from the whole British–American tradition of common law and the Constitution.”
His Honour concluded the judgment by citing Thomas Paine:
He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.