They wanted to get good shots — They accidentally saved the life of a criminal
When former Japanese Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo saw the Americans outside his home, he decided to commit suicide. The reporters present at the scene then unknowingly saved his life.
Eight days after the surrender of Japan, on September 10, 1945, American war correspondent Russell Brines knocked on General Tojo’s door. By then, the Japanese politician and military officer — dubbed the Hitler of the Far East by the Allies for good reason — was far more reserved and economical with his words.
“I cannot discuss politics or military matters. I am only a farmer now. I believe that Japan’s struggle was based on justice, although I know America will disagree. History will decide who is right. As far as I am concerned, I take full responsibility for the war.” — Hideki Tojo
The next day, the former Japanese prime minister was on a list of 39 people to be arrested under a warrant issued by American General Douglas MacArthur. The list contained the names of so-called Class A war criminals.
The Americans rightly suspected that many Pearl Harbor Cabinet officials, as the former Tojo government was called, would attempt to commit seppuku or some other form of honorable suicide. The Allies, eager to avoid such situations, decided not to release the list of suspected war criminals until an arrest warrant was issued.
Nevertheless, several people managed to take their own lives. Education Minister Kumihiko Hashida killed himself three days after an arrest warrant was issued by taking potassium cyanide. Health Minister Chikahiko Koizumi did the same, committing seppuku on September 13. Some — like War Minister Korechika Anami — decided to end their lives immediately after Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945.
Tojo attempted suicide on September 11 when his home was surrounded by Americans who came to arrest him. The former Japanese prime minister shot himself in the chest, but the bullet missed his heart. Ironically, the gun he tried to kill himself with was made in the US.
They were betting on when he was going to die
Upon entering the building, U.S. intelligence officer John J. Wilpers Jr. found a wounded Tojo sitting in a chair.
When the Japanese man regained consciousness for a moment, he muttered through his teeth: “I wanted to die by the sword, but the gun had to suffice. I take responsibility for the war…banzai!”
His words were translated to the Americans by journalist Toichiro Takamatsu of Tokyo’s Mainichi newspaper.
“I am very sorry that I have been dying for so long. (…) I am waiting for the just judgment of history. I wanted to commit suicide, but sometimes it doesn’t work out.” — Hideki Tojo
Tojo’s suicide attempt attracted American correspondents and photographers. Representatives of the press were clambering over him and even positioning his head to get the best possible shots. Photos of the wounded Japanese were taken by Associated Press photojournalist Charles Gorry and Yank magazine contributor Sergeant George Burns, who founded his own photo agency after the war. AP’s Clark Lee, quoted by TIME magazine, recalled that he and his colleagues were betting on how quickly Tojo’s small chest would stop moving.
Several reporters helped move the general onto a bed, then began taking more pictures. Unknowingly, they saved his life in the process. An American medic who arrived later said that if Tojo had remained in a sitting position longer, blood would have filled his lungs, leading to death.
He pointed his gun at the doctor
Although the general’s condition appeared serious, Wilpers forced Japanese doctor Tamejmitsu Ebara to keep him alive. The medic was reluctant to help Tojo at first. It was not until Wilpers pointed a gun in his direction that he accepted.
During this time Tojo kept saying he wanted to die. After two hours, an American doctor, Captain James Johnson, arrived. Tojo was then taken to a military hospital where he recovered. Blood donors for the hospitalized general were American volunteers. In 1946, the former Japanese prime minister appeared before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. He was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on December 23, 1948.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the public learned that Tojo’s tenacity as an American intelligence officer had brought him to justice. It happened because of a ceremony during which the then 91-year-old Wilpers was awarded a high military decoration — the Bronze Star.
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