The Hicswa Court-martial: a Double Murder in Nara, 1945

The US occupation of Japan after World War II was not, relatively speaking, a violent one and though the behavior of occupation troops in Japan did lead to many complaints, there is also a surprising amount of praise for them in various Japanese sources I have come across. They certainly did not live up to the propaganda images of savage American beasts that were expected to arrive in Japan after surrender.

There were, however, many cases of violence, including killings and rape.1 Censorship of the press beginning in September makes any count of these cases difficult to make. Terese Svoboda, in her book Black Glasses Like Clark Kent recounts in great detail her own difficulties in finding US national archival material related to various courts-martial from the occupation period.2

Some records can be found online though, if your library or university subscribes to the digital collections of the Law Library Microform Collection. Also, individual volumes of the Judge Advocate General’s Department Board of Review Holdings, Opinions and Reviews can be searched and purchased directly from Google Books.3

Many of these cases give us an interesting perspective on relations between US troops and the nations they occupy. One interesting case is the November, 1945 murder of two Japanese civilians in Nara. An American soldier, Private First Class Joseph E. Hicswa was accused of the murder and court-martialed in early January, 1946. Hicswa was convicted of stabbing the victims to death with a bayonet and sentenced to death “with musketry.”

I have uploaded the 24 page review of the trial and the appeal to the president for commutation of the sentence to the Frog in a Well Library:

Joseph E. Hicswa General Court Martial – Opinion of the Board of Review – Murder Trial 1946.1.8-11

His two companions report that, on the evening of the murders, Hicswa had jumped and beaten two random Japanese civilians they came across in Nara park, but claim they did not see him armed with a weapon at the time. They did not contest the fact that the approximate points where the assaults took place correspond to where the bodies of the two victims were found. They also reported that, as he walked away from his first victim, Hicswa said something along the lines of, “There is one Jap who will never walk or talk again.”4 Later, Hicswa’s bloodied clothes and a bayonet were found in a latrine pipe. The Private admitted the clothes were his, but refused to answer whether or not it was his own bayonet.5

Though barely remembered today, at the time, this case was given considerable media coverage in the US.6 The town of Wallington, NJ, population 8,946, mobilized to defend their 20 year old local boy.7 The mayor called a mass meeting on January 14, 1946 and a resolution was passed and sent to President Truman demanding clemency. 1,500 students reportedly gathered at his old high school and the principal also passed a resolution calling for the same.8 US senator Albert Hawkes became the leading politician to lead calls for a retrial. Hicswa received more sympathy when it was reported he had denied the killings in a letter to his girlfriend, saying that, while he fought with some Japanese, he had had not used a knife, “I was planning to be home Christmas to surprise you but I guess I’ll have to wait about twenty or thirty years…”9 Despite his death sentence, it appears he was already confident of a less lethal sentence. The Mayor reported he received word from the public officials of ten states they they had promised to seek the help of Congress and the War Department. Some 600 letters had been received as well as a telegram on behalf of the 45,000 New Jersey Legionnaires, all by January 17th, the mayor claimed.10

MacArthur, who ran the occupation in Japan, announced on January 18th that he would review the sentence and the acting Secretary of War Kenneth C. Royall said the case would be subject to final review in Washington D.C.11 Hicswa’s mother wrote an eloquent letter to the supreme commander, saying that her son “was torn away from his home to serve his country at the age of 18, taught to kill, had heard of many of his friends being killed, and was under the emotional strain of a delayed homecoming—all factors to which might be attributed, to some extent, the cause for such abnormal conduct as is alleged in this case.” MacArthur replied to the letter, saying that he was “moved” but that the case was out of his hands.12 Shortly after, his headquarters announced that no letters received about the case from Japanese civilians had asked for the death sentence, and a letter from “citizens of Nara Prefecture” had asked for him to be free and claimed the two victims were “no good.” One letter, it was claimed, said Hicswa should be acquitted “because the Japanese people are all guilty for disturbing the world’s peace.”13 Time wrote a sympathetic case history about the tragic “chubby-cheeked” private and Newsweek also covered the case.14

In March, Hicswa escaped from the Yokohama Army stockade but was caught less than an hour later.15 Terese Svoboda’s uncle said Hicswa was in the stockade where he served as a guard, in Tokyo, and after his escape, Stars and Stripes reported he was found in a local brothel.16 Svoboda’s uncle claimed he was asked to take the blame for the escape and plead guilty to neglect of duty.17

In May, Thomas H. Green, Major General, Judge Advocate General issued a recommendation to president Truman that Hicswa’s death sentence be commuted to 30 years of hard labor, which was apparently acted upon by President Truman. Green’s reasoning went as follows:

While the two murders committed by the accused were brutal, unprovoked and unjustified, and from a legal viewpoint were premeditated, there is nothing in the record to indicate that when accused left his quarters with two companions, on the evening preceding his departure for home, he had actually planned to take the life of two Japanese civilians of any one or to commit any other crime. The unexpected appearance of two Japanese civilians, one of whom he chased, overtook and killed, seems to have brought into existence or to have unloosed a sudden desire to kill, probably aggravated by his indulgence in strong liquor during the afternoon and early evening, a desire which seemingly persisted uncontrolled until the commission of the second homicide or was recreated when he undesignedly came in contact with the Japanese civilian who became his second victim.18

Before Hicswa was returned to the US to begin his sentence at McNeill Island, Washington, he swallowed two nails in an alleged attempt at suicide and was admitted to an Army hospital, from which he escaped.19 About a week later, he was again recaptured when found without pass or dogtags in the 8th Army headquarters area.20

What do we make of this case? Even with the court documents and the press that followed, there is not much to go on when it comes to Hicswa’s motivations. We might be tempted to say that he was driven to a murderous rage by the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield during the Pacific war. However, Hicswa first enlisted in 1943 and had no record of combat service during the war. He was assigned to Headquarters Battery for Division Artillery, 98th Infantry Division where he served as a radio operator and later as a bugler.21 In fact, he may be an example of the kind of case I have seen mentioned in many wars: soldiers who had yearned to participate in the action and kill some Japanese, only to have the war end without ever having been given the opportunity for such glory. Scheduled to return to the US the following day, did Hicswa want to make sure he could claim at least a few enemy kills from the war?

A more mundane explanation may be to link Hicswa’s drunken violence to a pattern of violence in his own family. In 1947 his father was arrested in Wallington, NJ for assault and battery. He attacked two police officers who went to his home in response to a complaint by his wife that he had become violent while drunk. After arrest, he attempted suicide.22 However, I find nothing to contradict another possibility, especially given the attempted suicide: that his father developed such behavior in the aftermath of the horrible shock of their son’s conviction for a double murder.

From the perspective of US-Japan relations though, are other points that are worthy of note. Though perhaps unsurprising for a country emerging from a “war without mercy,” completely absent from any of the US media coverage was any sympathy shown for the two Japanese civilians who were stabbed to death. Indeed, the announcement put out by MacArthur shortly after the movement for clemency gets underway goes out of its way to malign the victims through quotations from anonymous letters, as I have noted. The only place I have found their names mentioned, were in the board review opinion where the private was accused of having “with malice, aforethought, willfully, deliberately, feloniously, unlawfully, and with premeditation kill” SUGITA Yasuichi and NISHIMOTO Choji, “a human being by stabbing him with a sharp instrument.” Though I suspect this declaration of the humanity of the Japanese victims is standard legal language, it is comforting to see the Americans acknowledging it. Only a few days earlier, Japan’s emperor was busy declaring his own humanity to the people.

In the board review opinion, there is nothing mentioned about any report of a Japanese witness mentioned who escaped the first attack and called the police. Was his testimony even taken? Interestingly, a Japanese physician, KUBAI Nagamichi performed the autopsy and a Nara city lawyer and judge TAKEDA Seiko was permitted to investigate the crimes. However, a US Captain Jerome Schwartz, who was called in to examine the bodies, only made a superficial examination since because, he said, he had “no interest in the dead Jap.”23

Despite the reputation of militaries everywhere of guarding their own forces when accused of crimes against civilians, it is admirable that the sentence Hicswa was ultimately given in that first year after Japanese surrender was so long, especially in the face of huge public and political pressure for his release in the US.

In the end, though, the most interest part missing from this story is the Japanese side. Did anything get reported on this in Nara at the time? Did rumors spread? Did Kubai and Takeda leave any writings behind about their involvement in the case? Did the families of Sugita and Nishimoto take any action? What actions were taken at the government level between the US and Japan to handle the fallout from the case?

Any readers here know more?

UPDATE: In the comments Nakanoshima points to a 2008 speech in Congress by 8th District Congressman Bill Pascrell honoring WWII vet Hicswa as a “a proud American, willing to do whatever was needed to defend and protect the freedoms and liberties that make this country so grand” and makes no mention of his conviction for two murders. I haven’t contacted Pascrell and it is possible he didn’t know about this fact, but given the huge support for Hicswa in his local community, it would not be surprising if he was aware of the details of the case. If it is the same Hicswa, he has surely long since served his time for the crime, but to be honored in Congress is, at the very least, awkward.

  1. See Eiji Takemae, The Allied Occupation of Japan (New York: Continuum, 2003), 67, and Terese Svoboda, “U.S. Courts-Martial in Occupation Japan: Rape, Race, and Censorship,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 21-1-09, May 23, 2009.  

  2. Terese Svoboda, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret from Postwar Japan (Saint Paul, Minn: Graywolf Press, 2008).  

  3. Since these are US government documents, they cannot be copyrighted and if you find such claims being made of scanned versions of them, you can and should ignore them as spurious. Keep in mind that you may be bound by terms of license agreements you enter into when you access online archives containing such documents – a devious way online collections now get around the whole copyright issue altogether.  

  4. Opinion of the Board of Review, War Department, Army Service Forces, Office of the Judge Advocate General, 98th Infantry Division Trial by G. C.M. of Private First Class Joseph E. Hicswa 171 (5).  

  5. ibid., 179 (13).  

  6. Does anyone know if there was any mention at all in the censored Japanese press of this case? Or of Japanese historians who have looked into it?  

  7. “Home town tries to save soldier condemned for killing Japanese” New York Times 1946.1.15, 15.  

  8. Doesn’t that seem like a lot of high school students for a population of around 9,000 plus surrounding villages?  

  9. “Murder in Japan denied by Soldier” New York Times 1946.1.17, 16  

  10. “Move for Hicswa Grows” New York Times 1946.1.18, 5. See also this photograph of the Hicswa family under a “Welcome Home” sign. Getty Image 99s/36/HUTY/13630/43 #3137252.  

  11. “M’Arthur to review GI’s death sentence” New York Times 1946.1.19, 6. “Review for Hicswa Case” New York Times 1946.1.24, 4.  

  12. “M’Arthur writes to Hicswa’s mother” New York Times 1946.1.30, 4  

  13. “Japanese plead for GI” New York Times 1946.2.1, 2  

  14. “The Press: Case History” Time 1946.1.28. Also somewhere in the Newsweek 1946.1.28 issue, with a report on the commutation of sentence in May.  

  15. “Hickswa escapes, caught” New York Times 1946.3.4, 10.  

  16. All references I find to Hicswa during his imprisonment is in Yokohama, not in Tokyo.  

  17. Svoboda ibid., 82-84. She also writes that pressure from Hicswa’s mother’s had forced an inspection of the stockade, resulting in more lax security.  

  18. See the uploaded document above, 189 (23). See also “Hicswa Sentence is cut to 30 years” New York Times 1946.5.8, 10.  

  19. New York Times 1946.9.21, 6.  

  20. “Hicswa recaptured by army in Japan” New York Times 1946.9.29, 53. Despite his two escapes, in 1952, his prison term was cut to 25 years. “G.I.’s sentence cut to 21 years” New York Times 1952.3.18, 9.  

  21. See the uploaded file linked above, 187 (21).  

  22. “Hicswa Sr. is Seized” New York Times 1947.7.30, 23  

  23. 174 (8)  


  1. RECOGNIZING MR. JOSEPH E. HICSWA — (Extensions of Remarks – May 22, 2008)

    [Page: E1020] GPO’s PDF

    Apparently, Mr. Hicswa became a hero. He was honored in The Congressional Record on May 21, 2008.

    WEDNESDAY, MAY 21, 2008
    Mr. PASCRELL. Madam Speaker, I would like to call to your attention the work of a man I am proud to represent in Congress, Mr. Joseph E. Hicswa. Mr. Hicswa is being recognized, with pride and gratitude, on Monday, on
    [Page: E1021] GPO’s PDF

  2. He also received a $1000 political donation from a “Joseph Hicswa” after the speech.

    Joseph Hicswa (Retired/Retired), (Zip code: 07055) $1000 to STUPAK FOR CONGRESS on 12/23/09
    Read more:

    But surely this is not the same man, even though it is the same state. Perhaps a descendant?

  3. Well, the accused had a father of the same name, apparently, so it’s possible that it’s a family name. But the Congressional record cites him as having served in WWII. I can’t immediately find any record of Hicswa’s release from military prison, either.

  4. Jonathan, you are right, I missed that WWII reference…maybe it is him.

    I see a 1920 census entry for a 20 year old son Joseph of John Hicswa who immigrated (from Poland?) in 1904. He is probably too old to have fought in the war. He is probably the Joseph b. 1899 d. 1982.

    The Joseph E. Hicswa I’m talking about in the posting was 20 in 1946 according to the Time article I linked to, which would make him 85 today. Also Passaic is right next to Wallington, which makes the location correct too.

  5. To Konrad M. Lawson – Excuse me please. I addressed the prior message to “Ronald” when I meant it to you Mr. Lawson. I often pray for the victims, Yasuichi Sugita and Choji Nishimoto.

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