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Spokane airman shot down over Japan in World War II part of complicated legacy of Pacific theater

A serial number and a wedding ring were all that identified Army T/Sgt. Alvin Hart when his body was pulled from a common grave near a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in April 1946.

The 14-carat gold band was inscribed “C.H. to A.H.” and gave the date Feb. 15, 1941. That was the day Alvin Hart wed Carol Hart in Moscow, Idaho, before the couple moved to a home off West Dean Avenue in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood. Hart, a Texas native, went to war in December 1942.

The details of his death, after capture by the ruthless Japanese military police known as the Kenpeitai, remain shrouded in mystery. But why he was in a bomber over Osaka, and the string of events that put him there beginning 80 years ago today with the attack on Pearl Harbor, paint a complicated tale of two countries engaged in a war of obliteration.

It’s a story that freelance journalist David Caprara, who lives at the base of the mountain where Hart’s B-29 bomber crashed in June 1945, tells in a new documentary to be broadcast Saturday on NHK World, the English-language version of Japan’s public broadcaster.

“He’s the one I’ve pinpointed the most, and the one that still kind of eludes me,” Caprara said last week from his home in Nara Prefecture, referring to Hart.

Caprara’s project, titled “The Fallen Fortress,” examines one specific aircraft and the 11 men aboard when it crashed after being struck by antiaircraft fire. Those that didn’t die in the crash were taken as prisoners of war, and all of them were among the dozens of victims of a military police commander later tried for war crimes.

Hart is the only one of the 11 for whom Caprara has found no direct descendants, but also one whose experience after the crash holds the most mystery.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle they came out alive from that,” said Caprara, who’s visited the crash site.

A war of atrocity

The United States’ strategy attacking Japan changed on June 1, 1945.

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide 32 days prior.

The United States was 66 days away from dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And the members of the 497th Bombing Group were operating under the orders of Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay.

Before LeMay, the United States’ strategy was to drop bombs that would hit precise targets and avoid civilian casualties. But bombing raids were tremendously inaccurate, and the invention of a new type of munition that could burn extremely hot and spread quickly led to a blanket-bombing approach.

“They used incendiary napalm,” said Eric Cunningham, a history professor at Gonzaga University specializing in modern Japan. “Horrific fire bombings. The bombings of May 1945 over Tokyo were ghastly.”

A campaign that had begun in March and ran through May 1945 killed roughly 100,000 Japanese, according to contemporary estimates, and burned a quarter million buildings. The raids were conducted at night to protect the American planes from antiaircraft fire.

Robert McNamara, who would later serve as United States Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War but was working under LeMay during World War II, later told the filmmaker Errol Morris that his boss was well aware of how the attacks would be perceived.

“LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right,” McNamara said in Morris’ 2003 documentary “The Fog of War.”

There’s a clear line between what happened at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and what happened four years later, before and after the guns shot down Hart’s plane.

“It really was, systematically, a war of atrocity,” said Bob Dean, a professor of history at Eastern Washington University whose teachings include the causes and outcomes of United States’ involvement in World War II. “It’s a situation where both sides had very ingrained racial and cultural stereotypes about the other.”

That was the backdrop when Hart, a 28-year-old technical sergeant, climbed aboard a B-29 piloted by 1st Lieutenant Franklin Crowe just before noon on that early June day.

The official record is scant, reading, “#1 engine set on fire by AA flak. Plane last seen losing altitude and heading out to sea.” The missing air crew report, declassified in 1973, continues, “Could not be contacted by radio with others in formation.”

All 11 men were listed missing in action.

Back in the United States, a soon-to-be-widow waited.

No word back home

Carol Hart Nelson maintained a polite tone when asking the U.S. Army about the whereabouts of her late husband’s effects in June 1948.

“As I have never been informed that his body was found, I would like to know more facts about it,” wrote Nelson, using the name Carol M. Hart, in a letter to Maj. Gen. G.A. Horkan on June 11, 1948. “My husband was declared dead by the army after he was missing in action for a year. They declared him to have died on June 1, 1945. As I have never heard otherwise, I assumed that his body had never been found.”

That was two years after Alvin Hart’s ring had been discovered in the shallow grave near Osaka, and also two years after Carol Hart had remarried to Robert Nelson.

Two months later, in August 1948, The Spokesman-Review reported new details on Alvin Hart’s death. His name appeared on a list, along with 56 other servicemen, in charges against Lt. Gen. Sanji Okido, head of the Japanese Kenpeitai at the time Hart’s plane was shot down.

“They struck fear into the hearts of the Japanese,” said Cunningham of the kenpeitai. “They were the SS, they were the Gestapo.”

Fifty-five of those men, including Hart, did not survive their capture in the waning months of the Pacific campaign. The lack of publicly available information didn’t sit well with Doug Comella, of California, a U.S. Air Force veteran who set up a website dedicated to their memory.

“I decided I needed to remember these men,” said Comella from his home last week.

The primary documents Comella uncovered told some of the secrets of Hart’s fate at the hands of Okido and his men. Caprara, working the last several months, has attempted to tie together the rest, including the fate of a gift Hart gave a Japanese man who, in spite of the firebombs raining down on civilians, showed kindness to the young American airman.

Compassion or hatred?

Alvin Hart was badly burned and his teeth chattering when he was brought out of the woods near Mount Omine, descendants in the village told reporter David Caprara recently.

“He probably thought, you know, this might be the end,” Caprara said. “But this guy who captured him, his own son had just been killed recently, and he looked around the same age as him, in his 20s.

“So he took compassion on him and fed him strawberries from his garden, at his house.”

The interviews formed an article that Caprara wrote on the crash for the newspaper Japan Times in July. That includes the account of a magnetic compass Hart turned over to the head of the local Civil Defense Unit as a gift for his treatment in the village.

Caprara said the kind treatment and proper burial of the men who died in the crash was made all the more amazing by the account of the firebombing earlier that day in Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city. The journalist also spoke to a man who said he’d been trapped inside a schoolhouse by the incendiary bombs during that June 1 attack.

“The windows of the glass were so hot, and everyone was just in there sweating because the entire street was just burning,” Caprara said. “And this kid was like, ‘We need to run,’ and the teacher was crazily laughing at him. ‘Where do you think you’re going to go? You’re in hell now.’ ”

The United States bombed Osaka over several months beginning in March and including that June 1 raid. More than 10,000 civilians died in the bombings, according to estimates.

It is with that knowledge that Caprara said we should understand what happened next. Those details are contained in the records collected by Comella, from sources including the National Archives and a German university that collected the postwar trial records of Okido and other men like him.

“A lot of times where I’ve seen, reading through these trial things, the actual men … the actual soldier shooting the POW never was sentenced, or tried,” Comella said. “It was always the higher-ups who ordered it in the first place.”

Okido’s trial was held at Yokohama, Japan, lasting from August 1948 to January 1949. He was tried as a “Class B or C” war criminal, as a member of the military who’d committed atrocities against “civilians, races, groups or prisoners of war,” according to a U.S. Army report prepared on the trials.

The allegations were that most of the 55 prisoners who’d died had been beheaded, killed by firing squad or poisoned. Ten, including Hart, likely died from mistreatment, illness or neglect.

Comella said there are records clearly indicating the circumstances surrounding the death of several of the men.

“With (Sgt. Hart), there is ambiguity, I will tell you, galore,” he said.

The defendants included Okido and the 26 other men he commanded at the military police’s headquarters in Osaka.

Evidence at trial included a letter written on Okido’s command saying that Kenpeitai forces were to “solemnly dispose” remaining POWs. Okido gave a statement that he did not intend for the men to be executed contrary to international law, but also that he hadn’t investigated claims of the surreptitious executions carried out over the final two months of the war.

Fifteen of the defendants were found guilty, including Okido. Five, including Okdio, were sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor on Jan. 3, 1949. Okido, then 58, died 13 years later.

The trials of the Kenpeitai were part of a postwar effort to eliminate from Japan the militaristic sentiment that fueled aggression in the Pacific, said Cunningham.

“What the American army attempted to do was to rewrite the history of Japan, that Japan was moving along this nice path toward liberal democracy but then the evil army took it over and started this war,” Cunningham said. “The Japanese people were more than happy to adopt that as the official narrative.”

Telling that story also explained Alvin Hart’s death away as a consequence of a brutal regime. And it appears that any attempt to add to that story was also thwarted in the coming decades.

‘Contact might have an adverse effect’

Thirty years after the crash and execution of the American prisoners of war, a flurry of dispatches were traded between the U.S. embassy in Tokyo and the headquarters of the Air Force.

Otani Shigemitsu, the man who had headed the civil defense force in the village outside Osaka and who had received Hart’s magnetic compass when he was arrested, wanted to give it back.

“So, if you could help to get in touch with the family, it would be really appreciated, because the Memorial Day of the End of the War is just around the corner,” wrote Nakao Toshio, the representative of a village history group, wrote the U.S. embassy on July 16, 1975.

By that time, Hart’s remains had been returned to Valhalla Memorial Cemetery in Burbank, California, at the request of his mother. He was interred there in March 1949, where his headstone remains today.

The request from Toshio eventually reached Air Force headquarters. Handwritten notes, contained in Hart’s “individual deceased personnel file” that Comella obtained, indicate the military was not inclined to accept the offer.

“Can’t see where it would accomplish anything good – in fact contact might have an adverse effect,” the note, dated Dec. 10, 1975, reads.

Caprara could find no surviving descendants of Hart, and efforts by local genealogists to discover relatives were unsuccessful. He had no children with Carol, but she and her second husband, Robert Nelson, had a son and several grandchildren, one of whom is also named Robert Nelson, an Iraq War veteran who still lives in Spokane.

That Robert Nelson said his grandmother died when he was in the seventh grade, and he never knew of her first husband, much less a compass that had been left with friendly Japanese civilians nearly eight decades ago.

“This was all news to me,” Nelson said last month. “I had never heard of Alvin Hart. Being a little kid, I just thought my grandparents were born married.”

He said his grandfather and namesake was also in the Army, serving in the European theater and seeing action during the Battle of the Bulge. The younger Robert Nelson drove an M1A1 tank during Desert Storm, and he said he could empathize with what his grandmother’s first husband must have been feeling boarding the B-29.

“Let’s go get this done. That’s the only way we can go home,” Nelson said. “I’m sure almost every soldier thinks that. I want to go home, and let’s get this over with.”

The U.S. Army Human Resources Command Public Affairs Office combed through its records of Hart and the compass. The office said in responses emailed last week that, to their knowledge, there was no communication between the Army and the family regarding the compass. Carol Hart Nelson died in 1983, eight years after the offer of returning the compass was made.

The Public Affairs Office also said there is no record of the compass ever being forwarded to the Army.

Unlimited suffering

Hart’s tale, of the compassion shown to an enemy combatant by civilians and the cruel treatment of the military police, along with the decades of trying to reconcile Japanese military aggression with the American response and partnership in the intervening decades, shows just how complicated history can be, even as we remember the more than 2,400 Americans killed 80 years ago at Pearl Harbor.

“In any war, there’s a revenge motive,” said Cunningham. “There’s no such thing as a rational, antiseptic war, when you’re bombing people and trying to kill them.”

Caprara’s work has been about trying to understand the mindset of the Japanese who would have seen these airmen fall from the sky.

“It kind of follows me, through this process of discovery, contacting family members and understanding the Japan side,” he said. “Kind of looking at the suffering that was wrought on both sides.”

At the center of that suffering were the men, like Hart and his counterparts on the Japanese side, who became “cogs in a military machine,” Dean said. He noted that, in an attempt to save lives by speeding the end of the war, there were stories of firebombings that also struck U.S. prisoners of war. Ships full of American prisoners were also sunk.

“The whole thing is just full of tragic ironies,” he said, “of one kind or another.”

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