For WWII servicemen who guarded Japanese war criminals, reunion stirs memories
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Grant McMillin, left, gets a welcoming handshake from Allen Friedman at a reunion of World War II Army veterans recently at Snug Harbor Inn in Richmond Township. Friedman was 18 when he was assigned to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo. Terry Mayer/staff.
RICHMOND TOWNSHIP — Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and Tokyo Rose may be names in the pages of a history book, but to Howard Garst, they’re a part of his life.
Garst and a group of other World War II Army veterans met late last month in Walworth County for an annual reunion of American servicemen who ran the Sugamo Prison near Tokyo. Japanese war criminals were held at Sugamo for trial after Japan surrendered to Allied forces in August 1945.
That’s the year Garst, 94, was assigned to Sugamo as a prison guard.
“My first prisoner was Gen. Tojo,” he said.
The prime minister’s directive to attack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, started the war in the Pacific for the United States. Garst’s job was to bring Tojo from his cell to the courtroom for deposition in his trial.
About 1,600 American soldiers worked at the prison from 1945 until 1952, when the complex was turned back over to the Japanese.
Garst, a native of Hinsdale, Ill., was among nearly 50 veterans who attended the reunion, held at Snug Harbor Inn in Richmond Township. The inn has hosted the event for several years.
Snug Harbor owner Linda Friedman said the reunion is open to all veterans and their families, and has become a way for them to reconnect.
“They all get together and talk about their times together,” she said.
“The guys are more open to talking about it now,” added her husband, Allen Friedman, who helps organize the reunion. “They didn’t want to talk about it then.”
Charles Washburn, a young Army private when he came to Sugamo, remembers the prisoners as “decent and quiet.”
Among Washburn’s jobs was cleaning the hoods of prisoners who were hanged and helping another serviceman who weighed and measured the height of condemned prisoners to determine the strength of the rope used to hang them.
For many of Sugamo’s prisoners, the end often came by execution. Friedman said 140 prisoners were hanged in the fall of 1948.
Among them was Tojo, who had tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest prior to his arrest. The bullet barely missed his heart and doctors managed to save him. As a guard, Garst saw the near-fatal wound whenever he brought Tojo to the prison showers.
Read the full story in the Sept. 5, 2010 e-edition of Walworth County Sunday, HERE.