Execution of Major Houck

The Execution of Major Houck

By Wayne G. Johnson

Maj. David Henry Houck was a victim of the atrocities of war perpetrated by the Japanese military. They executed him in Hong Kong on April 6, 1945 on a trumped up charge of indiscriminate bombing.

Houck arrived in China in late December 1944 to take command of the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron stationed at Suichuan, relieving Col. Edward O. McComas. On Jan. 15, 1945, flying a P-51 Mustang, he was shot down during a fighter strike on shipping in Hong Kong Harbor. (This was his first combat mission.) He was pulled from the harbor and held in custody by Japanese Gendarmerie (a mean and nasty bunch) until they transferred him to Stanley Prison in February. After several months of torture and abuse, the Japanese military charged him with bombing a civilian vessel and brought him to trial on April 5, 1945. The trial was a sham. Maj. Houck did not have defense counsel and no witnesses testified for him. The trial lasted about one and one-half hours. He was convicted after twenty minutes deliberation, with no right of appeal, and executed the next day.

A British citizen, N.E. Hunter, incarcerated in Stanley Prison, testified at the later War Crimes Trial of the Japanese officers that "a cross and black eye-cloth used by the Japanese in executions were ordered made in the prison workshop on the day before Houck's trial." Maj. C.R. Boxer, a British army officer, also confined to Stanley Prison, confirmed this fact. No other prisoners saw Houck since he was in solitary the entire time he was there.

The three members of the Japanese Military Tribunal were: Lt. Col. Nishigai Kubo, Maj. Nasamori Watanabe, and Capt. Kiochi Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi was the only law member of the tribunal. The Allied War Crimes Commission charged the responsible Japanese officers with War Crimes consisting of: 'knowingly, willfully, wrongfully and unlawfully commit cruel, inhuman and brutal atrocities and other offenses against Maj. David Henry Houck, captured United States Military Personnel, by permitting, prosecuting and participating in the illegal, unfair, false and null trial and the unlawful killing of the said Maj. David Henry Houck in violation of the laws and customs of war." Those charged with War Crimes against Maj. Houck were: Gen. Hisakusu Tanaka, governor general of Hong Kong and commander of the Japanese 23rd army; Gen. Haruo Fukuchi, chief of staff to the governor general; Capt. Hiroshi Asakawa, assistant Japanese prosecutor; and Maj. Aburo Shii, the prosecutor and legal officer who engineered the trial and death of Maj. Houck.

The War Crimes Trial of these men commenced August 13, 1946 in Shanghai and lasted until September 3, 1946. Two high ranking and highly qualified American legal officers, a lieutenant colonel and major, and Japanese lawyers selected by the defendants, conducted the defense of the accused. The trial lasted twenty days, in sharp contrast to the Japanese trial of Maj. Houck that lasted about one and one-half hours without counsel. Houck's trial was similar to the summary trial of the Doolittle flyers that were not allowed a defense and were summarily executed.

The evidence produced at the War Crimes trial was that: "On Jan. 15, 1945 at 1035 hours a flight of sixteen P-51 planes took off from Suichuan, China. At Waichow, China, eight of the planes separated from the formation, proceeding on their mission to Canton. The remaining eight planes divided into two flights of four planes each. Maj. David H. Houck, Commanding Officer of the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. (USAAF), piloted the third plane in the second flight. The mission of this flight was to attack shipping and docks in Hong Kong Harbor. Maj. Houck's plane was seen by the pilot of the fourth plane to be attacking either a 'destroyer escort' or a 'five hundred foot freight ship', and just after the attack his plane was observed to plunge into the harbor, on fire. "He attacked only one ship."

At his "trial" before the Japanese Military Tribunal, Houck denied intentionally bombing any civilian boat. Maj. Watanabe admitted in a statement given before the War Crimes Commission that the trial of Maj. Houck was: "Yes, I think that was a very unfair trial for him" explaining that he thought the trial was not fair because Houck had no defense counsel, no witnesses and no opportunity to produce witnesses. He also said he opposed the death penalty but Yamaguchi convinced him to vote for death.

After the completion of the War Crimes trial, the commission ruled as follows:

Gen. Tanaka, Governor General of Hong Kong, Guilty. Sentence: Death

Gen. Fukuchi, Chief of Staff to Tanaka, Guilty. Sentence: Death

Maj. Shii, Chief Prosecutor committed suicide prior to trial.

Capt. Asakawa, Assistant Prosecutor, Not guilty

Kubo and Yamaguchi of the Japanese Military Tribunal received life sentences and Watanabe fifty years imprisonment.

The United States Military Review Board, reviewing the decision of the War Crimes Commission, said: "While it is clear that the Commission was justified in finding that the evidence that the trial of Maj. Houck was illegal under international law and therefore that his execution was a crime of the highest nature, it is necessary to consider the degree of guilt of each of the accused."

The Review board found that: "Gen. Tanaka had given Gen. Fukuchi a 'general caution' about taking action in the case...and that there is no evidence that he (Tanaka) knew in advance that Maj. Houck would not receive a fair trial or that he knew or had reasonable grounds to believe that, if Houck should be convicted, the execution of sentence would be carried out without his personal order." (Only Tanaka had the authority to order an execution but Gen. Fukuchi signed the execution order.) The Review Board, therefore, set aside the conviction of Gen. Tanaka and reduced the sentences of the others as follows: Gen. Fukuchi: death sentence commuted to life; Lt. Col. Kuba: life reduced to ten years imprisonment; Maj. Watanabe: fifty years reduces to ten years; Capt. Yamaguchi: approved life sentence.

Nothing can undo the injustices committed by the Japanese military in the execution of Maj. Houck. American justice demonstrated that, despite accusations of the most heinous crimes, the accused would have their day in court and, if the evidence did not warrant conviction, sentences would be set aside, and the sentences tempered with mercy commensurate with guilt.

After the war, Maj. Houck's mother received a letter from another prisoner of war, "Your son's courage and cheerfulness while in Stanley Prison were an inspiration to the other condemned men and a source of admiration from his enemies. His courage and faith will never be forgotten."

David Houck's mother built a memorial to her only son at Druid Ridge Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, which bears the inscription, "Died in the service of his country." On Memorial Day, 1987, members of the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron gathered at the grave site of Maj. Houck to pay their respects to their fallen leader.