World War II was one of the most brutal episodes in human memory. Some of the most horrific stories stem from the mistreatment of prisoners of war. The Japanese military was notorious for mistreating POWs, especially when it came to downed allied pilots. In September 1944, a group of Grumman TBF Avenger aircraft flew to Chichijima on a bombing raid. The tiny island, part of the Bonin Islands archipelago, sits about 700 miles directly south of Tokyo. During the mission, nine airmen managed to bail out near the island after their planes were shot down. One was picked up by the U.S. Navy after a few hours in a life raft in open water. The other eight would never return home.
After swimming to shore, the eight naval aviators were taken as prisoners by the Japanese forces on the island, who manned a long range radio communication station (and were the frequent target of allied bombing). The horrific treatment they would receive would not be made public until the publishing of James Bradley’s Flyboys: A True Story of Courage in 2003. Bradley’s book recounted the story of the POWs using transcripts from war criminal trials, as well as interviews with Japanese veterans who were present.
The first of the prisoners to be killed was blindfolded and beheaded. The others would meet more gruesome fates. At a drunken party hosted by officers stationed on the island, including the commander of Chichijima, Yoshio Tachibana, Major Sueo Matoba called for doctors to serve the flesh of some of the American POWs. “Dr. Teraki cut open the chest and took out the liver,” recalled a Japanese medical orderly, as reported by The Telegraph. “I removed a piece of flesh from the flyer’s thigh, weighing about six pounds and measuring four inches wide, about a foot long.”
Another prisoner’s liver was brought to Navy Admiral Kinizo Mori, which Matoba described as a “delicacy.” As Mori recalled, Matoba described the manner in which he had prepared the POW. “I had it pierced with bamboo sticks and cooked with soy sauce and vegetables.” The two considered the flesh of enemies to be “good medicine for the stomach.” Another POW, who worked as a translator for his captors for weeks, was also eaten, when Captain Shizuo Yoshii called for his liver to be served for officers he was hosting. A fourth was also partially cannibalized. The other four POWs were executed.
The five officers (Tachibana, Mori, Matoba, Yoshii and Dr. Teraki) were found guilty of war crimes and executed for their treatment of American POWs on Chichijima, but in an unfortunate failure of judicial precedent, “military and international law had no provisions for punishment for cannibalism per se,” according to an article in the International Journal of Naval History. “They were accused of murder and ‘prevention of honorable burial.’”
The one pilot to escape capture was the then 20-year-old future president George HW Bush. Bush was picked up by the submarine USS Finback, where he served for the next month, before returning to service as a pilot in the Philippines. He was not aware of the fate of his comrades until meeting with Bradley while working on his book.