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Local groups in Tokyo suburb strive to shed light on US POW's 1945 beating and murder

Nagao Ogawa stands outside an air raid shelter in the garden of his home, which he said he would enter in the event of air raids during World War II, in the city of Tachikawa, Tokyo, on Sept. 5, 2019. (Mainichi/Ken Aoshima)

TOKYO -- In the closing months of World War II, when the U.S. military stepped up its bombing campaign against the Japanese mainland, a number of B-29 bomber crew members ended up on the country's soil. Depending on the circumstances they found themselves in, some were captured and later returned home, while others were killed.

    Among those who met a terrible fate was Staff Sgt. Serafino Morone, a B-29 crew member who was one of two surviving members of a 12-man crew shot down near the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on Aug. 9, 1945 -- the same day the U.S. military dropped an atomic bomb on the southwestern Japan city of Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union entered the fight against Japan.

    While fellow survivor Staff Sgt. Lester Morris was captured by military police and later repatriated, Staff Sgt. Morone was found and subsequently strung up in the schoolyard of the Nishiki national school. There, 800 people reportedly gathered and some beat him with a bamboo stick for 2 hours. He was then taken to the grounds of a temple by members of the Tachikawa military police unit and others, who sat him in front of a hole they had dug earlier, decapitated him, and buried him.

    Although some military personnel were tried and convicted of war crimes in connection with Morone's murder, details of the case didn't emerge until around 30 years later, in the 1970s, when the citizens' group the Tachikawa city cultural association conducted interviews that brought the information to light.

    The investigations were reportedly difficult. Choji Ozawa, the now deceased former head of the Tachikawa city library and the principal author of a report called "Natsukusa no Haka," literally translating to "The graves of summer grass," wrote, "The locals were hesitant to speak about it. There were some who told us to make sure not to reveal their identities after talking to us."

    According to Nobuko Takeuchi, another member of the association, some were conflicted as to whether they should come clean about the case in which fellow residents participated in harming Morone. "There were disputes over whether to publish (the accounts) or not," Takeuchi said.

    There were also barriers presented by the information itself. The records of what went on at the Yokohama war crime trials, in neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture, were kept by the U.S., and at the time it wasn't possible to read them in Japan. Takeuchi said, "We went all the way to the court in Yokohama, but it wasn't fruitful." Legal records collected from Japan's Ministry of Justice lawyers were also not available to the public at that time.

    In "Natsukusa no Haka," Ozawa wrote, "We wish only to record the truth," and there have since been court and ministry of justice records released to the public that verify much of its content.

    Shigeya Narazaki, 72, a former high school teacher and the deputy chair of the Tachikawa city history compilation committee, has collected testimonials about the killing of the B-29 crew member on video, along with the bombing in the Tachikawa area. Speaking quietly, he said, "Wars stoke up hatred. We must not forget that ordinary people in this country also committed acts of misconduct. I feel that, when thinking about the war, this is an important viewpoint."

    People willing to talk about what happened have slowly come forward. At an August 2019 learning event held at a facility in the city near the scene of the incident, Narasaki explained what happened, and saw 84-year-old Nagao Ogawa raise his hand. Ogawa started by saying, "I was at the school on that day, too."

    Akio Iwase, an 85-year-old resident of the Tokyo suburban city of Hamura who read the first article in this Mainichi Shimbun series telephoned the company's Tama Bureau to recount his memories. He said he went to the schoolyard as a fifth-grader at the Nishiki national school, but did not join in line to beat Staff Sgt. Morone. Iwase explained, "Following the old lady who was at the front of the line, a disabled soldier picked up the green bamboo stick and struck his (Morone's) back." Iwase said it was the first time he had talked about the incident. "It's always been in my mind, but I've never once spoken about it, even to my family," he said.

    (Japanese original by Ken Aoshima, Tama Bureau)

    This is the third and final article in a series on largely unreported incidents occurring at the end of World War II. To read the first and second articles in this series, click on the first and second Related Articles, respectively.

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