by Jack Demlow
George HW Bush has not only served as President of the United States but also as a pilot during WWII - a pilot who survived being shot down over the Pacific during an American air raid on the Japanese-controlled island of Chichi Jima in September of 1944.
(continued) Nine airmen survived being shot down during the raid, but Bush was the only one that managed to avoid capture, a result of bailing out of his plane earliest, luck in procuring a life raft, and protection by covering fire from American planes to keep Japanese boats at bay. Though Bush’s escape was harrowing and terrifying, the eight other surviving airmen were doomed to experience worse.
Chichi Jima is an island roughly 600 miles south of Tokyo and is part of the Bonin Islands. Rather than risking a costly invasion, United States Navy and Army regularly bombed Chichi Jima from 1944 through 1945. Over one hundred American airmen were shot down while participating in bombing runs on the island, Bush being among them, and at least twenty were captured by Japanese forces.
Most of these prisoners would face torture and execution, and some would be cannibalized as part of meals put on by Japanese officers. Eleven officers were found guilty of murder and “prevention of honorable burial” (they were never officially found guilty of cannibalism) and the details of their crimes were not initially released to the public as a matter of minimizing distress. However, in 2004, James Bradley’s book Flyboys: a Story of True Courage brought the tragedy of the captured American airmen out into the open. Using war crimes trial transcripts and the testimonies of Japanese veterans to investigate the other eight airmen shot down alongside Bush, Bradley encountered their inhumane treatment at the hands of their Japanese captors. All were beaten, tortured, and eventually killed by beheading, impalement, or being clubbed, but the crimes against them did not end with death.
According to Bradley’s sources, Major Sueo Matoba had prisoners’ flesh prepared for an officers’ feast and a party in his quarters, and Captain Shizuo Yoshii hosted a similarly grim feast of his own. General Yoshio Tachibana and and Rear Admiral Kunizo Mori, the army and navy commanders of the island, were two notable participants in the acts of cannibalism. Four American airmen were executed for the purpose of being partially consumed, with flesh being removed from their thighs and their livers being served as “delicacies.” On Chichi Jima, the guilty officers committed cannibalism for both alleged physical and spiritual benefits as well as further showing dominance over their captives as revenge for American air raids. Of Bush’s eight fellow airmen, the bodies of four were butchered for cannibalistic purposes: Marve Mershon, Floyd Hall, Jimmy Dye, and Warren Earl Vaughn.
Not even Bush, the sole survivor among the nine men shot down, knew what had happened to his fellows until James Bradley’s work on Flyboys. Both during postwar trials and now in the public sphere, it is unsurprising that such horrific acts would be shrouded in controversy, debate, and skepticism. It is especially incendiary in light of the fact that the war crimes trials are easy to view as the war’s winners judging its losers. The memory of the crimes committed on Chichi Jima is polarized by calls for justice from all sides, some sated by the execution of the responsible officers and some infuriated by verdicts allegedly tainted by racism and abuse of power by the winning side.