Last Mission to Tokyo is the story of the 1946 war crimes trial of four Japanese men for the torture and death of three American airmen who bombed Japan in the famous and daring Doolittle Raid four months after Pearl Harbor. It is told from the perspective of a US Department of Defense criminal defense lawyer who has defended accused terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and who has been publicly critical of the work of US Military Commissions in the so-called “War on Terror”.
On 18 April 1942, a squadron of modified B-25 bombers led by then Colonel James Doolittle took off from the USS Hornet about 700 nautical miles from Japan. Their mission was to bomb military/industrial targets in Tokyo, to symbolically avenge Pearl Harbor, and to raise the morale of the American public after the loss of the Philippines and a string of Japanese victories in the Pacific and East Asia. The pilots and crew only had enough fuel to land in China after completing the mission. Eight of the airmen were captured by Japanese army units and taken prisoner. The raid resulted in minimal damage to Japanese factories and killed about 50 people, including civilians. The captured Americans were tried as war criminals by a Japanese military court. Three of them—Dean Hallmark, William Farrow, and Harold Spatz—were executed. After the war, four Japanese soldiers involved in the trial and execution of the American flyers—Shigeru Sawada, Sotojiro Tatsuta, Yusei Wako, and Ryuhei Okada—were tried for war crimes by an American military commission.
Michel Paradis’s narrative of the story, including the personal stories of the lawyers involved in the war crimes trial on both sides, is fast-paced and interesting, but is marred by his obvious admiration and sympathy for the defenders of the accused Japanese defendants and, more important, his apparent lack of awareness of the brutal nature of Japan’s political regime and military forces both before and during the Second World War.
To fully appreciate Paradis’s perspective, a reader of this book should listen to a Lawfare podcast interview of the author on 3 August 2020. There, Paradis calls the Japan of the 1930s and early 1940s a “well-meaning country”, that “didn’t set out to do horrible things.” Unlike in Nazi Germany, he said, Japan’s atrocities were not “systematic”, but resulted from a lack of discipline, bureaucratic inertia, and “turning a blind eye” to bad things. He even downplayed the evil of the Bataan Death March.
What is missing from the story Paradis tells in this book is a recognition of the historical context of these events, especially the nature of the militaristic, imperial totalitarian regime that ruled Japan—infused with what British historian Paul Johnson called the “metaphysic of militarism and violence.” Japan in the 1930s and 1940s was every bit as evil an empire as Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The 1942 “trial” (it lasted an hour) and murders of the captured Doolittle Raiders and the subsequent war crimes trial in 1946 of the Japanese soldiers should be viewed in that context, but the author does not do so, at least not in this book. To be sure, Paradis describes the mistreatment and torture of the captured Doolittle Raiders, and the sham trial, coerced confessions, and their subsequent executions. But he suggests that the American airmen may in fact have been guilty of war crimes by deliberately bombing civilians. And he comes precariously close to exonerating the Japanese defendants who oversaw the sham trial and imposed the death sentences on the American flyers, and who were also in the chain of command that ordered and carried out the executions.
Achieving justice for conduct during wartime can be complex and difficult, and it is always the victors who mete out justice after the war. Paradis correctly notes that more culpable Japanese soldiers and leaders were not always prosecuted—sometimes for political reasons. But that fact does not exonerate the four defendants who, like their Nazi counterparts, claimed they were just following orders or just applying their country’s laws.
Paradis commends the prosecutors in the case, Robert Dwyer and John Hendren, for working to close legal loopholes that had previously shielded those who mistreated prisoners of war. Their work, he writes, informed the 1949 Geneva Conventions that forbid torture, restrict solitary confinement, guarantee the right to counsel, and provide other procedural safeguards.
Unsurprisingly, the heroes of the book are the legal team, Edmund Bodine and Charles Fellows, that defended the accused—Paradis goes so far as to compare their work to John Adams’s defense of British soldiers in the Boston Massacre—and the military judge, Col Edwin McReynolds, who found the defendants guilty but imposed sentences ranging from five-to-nine years at hard labor, sparing the defendants the death penalty that the prosecutors sought. Interestingly, one of the Japanese defendants, Yusei Wako, was later sentenced to death for his involvement in the execution of other American POWs.
The surviving Doolittle Raiders, especially Chase Nielsen, who was tortured and mistreated by his captors and testified at the war crimes trial, did not believe that justice was done. Neither did the families of the dead Americans. A review of the case concluded that the sentences were “extremely lenient” and resulted from a “serious error of judgment”, but concluded that a retrial would violate double jeopardy. The War Department agreed.