In a small yet solemn ceremony, long-time residents from the US observed Memorial Day yesterday by paying tribute to veterans and prisoners of war (POW) incarcerated at the old Taipei Prison during World War II.
The ceremony was held at the remains of the old Taipei Prison wall near Jinshan S Rd, Sec 2, next to a Chunghwa Telecom branch office.
Fourteen US airmen were imprisoned in the facility built during the Japanese colonial era and sentenced to death. The executions took place in the prison courtyard less than two months before the war ended.
Attendants honored war veterans by reciting poems and offering prayers of remembrance.
“It is a veteran who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who has given the protesters the right to burn the flag. Remember,” read Jerome Keating, a US expatriate and associate professor at National Taipei University.
The small ceremony drew the attention of passersby. Many seemed curious about the presence of a US flag on the wall and poppy wreaths, as well as a performance of the Last Post.
The owner of an oyster noodle shop just a few meters from the wall told the Taipei Times that many customers ask why foreigners gather near the wall around this time of year.
Michael Hurst, director of Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society, spent more than a decade researching the history of POWs in Taiwan. He said the captives who were kept in the prison were all US airmen.
“They weren’t considered prisoners of war,” Hurst said. “They were considered criminals right off the bat as soon as they were shot down because the Japanese accused them of indiscriminate bombing and killing innocent civilians.”
Hurst said the 14 young men executed were tried without defense. They were found guilty and sentenced to death.
“One of the sad things — and I guess Japan still does even today in the prison system — is that when somebody is sentenced to death they don’t tell them when it’s going to be. So every day you wake up, you wonder if today is the day I am going to die,” Hurst said.
After the executions, the bodies were cremated and the ashes were taken to a Japanese temple in what is now Taipei’s Ximending (西門町) area. The ashes were turned over to the US after the war to be repatriated and buried somewhere else, Hurst said.
Hurst said there were 17 POW camps in Taiwan, including two evacuation camps. Unlike other camps, which were mixed with British, Dutch Australian or Canadian POWs, the POWs in the old Taipei Prison were all Americans captured from late 1944 to the spring of 1945, just as the US was readying to bomb parts of Taiwan ahead of the Battle of Okinawa.
After the war, the Japanese military commanders and judges who conducted the mock trial of the 14 US airmen were tried during the Tokyo war crimes trials.
Found guilty of the unnecessary killing of allied POWs, Hurst said two of the chief justices were sentenced to death, sentences which were later changed to life imprisonment. The other three major people involved in the trial received sentences of 20, 30 and 40 years.
After the Americans left Japan in 1952, the war criminals were released from prison a few months later. None served their full sentence, he said.
“In the European theater, the Nazis were hunted down and many of them were brought to justice and still have been over the years. Those involved in the Holocaust murdering the Jews have all been hunted down and a lot of them brought to trial, whereas in Asia the Americans just wanted to get it over with and go home,” Hurst said.