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George H. W. Bush’s Brush with Cannibals

Of all the war theaters of the last centuries, one tends to stand out above the rest for its brutality and hopelessness. The Pacific Theater of World War Two is perhaps only rivaled by the First World War’s western front. Between the humid, bug-infested islands, the guerilla warfare, and the Japanese military’s cruel treatment of PoWs, the Pacific Theater had young men begging to be sent to Europe. But they probably didn’t know about one more horrible aspect of the war in the Pacific— cannibalism.

Supply lines have always played a crucial role in military success, and, between all of the island-hopping warfare and Japan’s limited resources, they often broke down in the Pacific. Because of this, armies on both sides of the conflict had little food and water, and, in the most extreme circumstances, this drove the Japanese military to eat human flesh. George HW Bush, the 41st President of the United States, barely escaped one such instance of cannibalism. The incident that he narrowly avoided reveals a dark tale of just what led some Japanese troops to this grotesque practice.

On June 16th, 1942, just four days after his 18th birthday, a young man from Massachusetts enlisted in the US Navy. That man was the future 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush. Within a year of joining, Bush became one of the youngest aviators in Navy history. He began as a reserve pilot stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, but in 1944, he was called to join the Pacific Theater. He flew a Grumman TBF Avenger, and, in his first run, he successfully torpedoed Japanese positions on Wake Island, earning himself a promotion to lieutenant. 

Later that year, Bush and a small squadron of planes took off from an aircraft carrier for a torpedo run over an island called Chichijima, a tiny speck of land barely twice the size of New York’s Central Park that sits 700 miles south of Tokyo. Japanese forces mounted anti-aircraft guns and opened fire, hitting three planes, including Bush’s. As the future president later recalled, “The plane was burning. The cockpit was beginning to fill up with smoke…I thought it was going to explode.”

Because of the damage to the plane’s fuselage, Bush couldn’t communicate with the two airmen in his Avenger, so he dove out onto the plane’s wing and pulled the ripcord for his parachute. On his way down, he hit his head on the tail of the plane’s horizontal stabilizer, leaving him slightly disoriented as he crashed into the water. Several Japanese vessels closed in on Bush’s position as he swam for his life to an emergency raft. Then, a group of American planes swarmed in to fight off the ships as the young lieutenant escaped. 

Looking back to that day, Bush recalled crying and vomiting into the water as he paddled himself away from the battle when, out of nowhere, his rescuer appeared. An American submarine, the USS Finback, surfaced right in front of him. At the time, he thought he was hallucinating, but Bush’s rescuers pulled him in to safety. When they asked him if he was okay, he could only manage four words— “Happy to be here.”

In all of the excitement, three American planes were shot down, and eight airmen, all except Bush, were captured by the Japanese. For his part in the raid, Bush would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, but he never stopped wondering about the fate of his fellow flyers. He often asked, “Why had I been spared, and what did God have in store for me? In my own view, there’s got to be some kind of destiny, and I was being spared for something on Earth.”

Whether or not he was touched by the hand of God, he was destined for a long and successful career in American politics. Over the next fifty years, Bush would serve in a handful of distinguished positions, including US Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador to China, CIA Director, and, of course, the President of the United States. However, it wasn’t until a decade after his one presidential term that he finally learned the gruesome fate of the men who flew with him that day.

In 2003, historian and author James Bradley released a book called Flyboys, which told the tales of American pilots who flew in the Pacific Theater. Bradley’s book was full of compelling discoveries, but one particular story caught people’s interest. 

Bradley had been given access to top-secret files that detailed the revelations of a series of war crime trials on the island of Guam. During the hearings, several Japanese soldiers revealed the fate of the Navy pilots who were shot down over Chichijima. In the aftermath, Navy officials decided that the details were too horrific to share with anyone, including the victims’ families, but Bradley uncovered them for the world to see.

The eight pilots all ejected into the water near the Chichijima shore, only to be captured by Japanese troops and thrown into the island’s prison. To celebrate the day’s small victory, a Japanese officer, Major Sueo Matoba, threw a large feast for his men, where they toasted the win with cups of saké. But the rice wine would not be the only notable inclusion in the night’s meal.

Before the banquet, one Japanese soldier blindfolded an American prisoner, marched him to a fresh grave, and beheaded the man. The prisoner was a radio operator named Marve Mershon, and the soldier who did the deed later declared his respect for Mershon for accepting his fate with calm serenity. However, any esteem he may have held for the man was immediately negated by what happened next.

The prisoner’s body was taken to the camp doctor, who then cut open the American man’s chest and removed his liver. Then, the surgeon sliced off six-pounds of flesh from the thigh. The officers dined on the liver, while the enlisted men ate the thigh meat.

Over the following weeks, the soldiers killed three more prisoners, again harvesting the liver for visiting officers to devour. One senior Japanese naval officer spoke of the delicacy that Major Matoba served him during a brief stint on the island. Another man discussed the chef’s preparation for the dish, saying he “pierced [the liver] with bamboo sticks and cooked [it] with soy sauce and vegetables.”

Perhaps worst of all is Major Matoba’s account of why they ate the human flesh. According to Japanese folklore, a man’s courage and power dwell in the liver, and Matoba must have bought into this legend. In his trial, he stated that he ate human liver “to gain the strength of a tiger” and because it was good for the stomach.

The four remaining prisoners were violently clubbed to death, but their bodies were left intact. Perhaps the soldiers’ appetite for human flesh had been satiated.

Bradley shared this story with Mr. Bush in 2003, before the book was released. According to the author, the ex-president sat in silence and shook his head without showing an ounce of shock or horror. But this wasn’t a sociopathic response, Bradley said. It was indicative of the horrors that Bush witnessed in the Pacific.

Following Bradley’s book release, detractors stepped forward, claiming that the story was fabricated or exaggerated. After all, lack of food was a common theme in Pacific Theater stories told by both sides. Many of the islands that troops fought on were hundreds of miles from supply bases, and few ships or planes could be spared to make those dangerous trips. American and Australian soldiers reportedly ate just about anything short of human flesh, including bugs and rats. But the Japanese situation was even worse than that, with tens of thousands of troops lost to starvation during the conflict. Surely, the soldiers only resorted to cannibalism when absolutely necessary, and then only by eating the dead, not killing prisoners for their meat. 

We may never know the answer to that question for sure. Still, several Japanese historians have stepped forward to confirm reports of voluntary cannibalism witnessed by men from both sides of the conflict.

In fact, the first Japanese whistleblower, a man named Kenzo Okuzaki, spoke out shortly after the war was finished. Okuzaki is a controversial figure, though. In the 1950s, he was placed in solitary confinement for a decade due to charges of manslaughter. However, Okuzaki was an easy target for government officials because of his outlandish and outspoken criticism of the Japanese leadership. Having fought in the war, Okuzaki claimed that some officers forced enlisted men to eat their prisoners even when unnecessary. He even released a critically acclaimed documentary called “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On,” which sought to force Japanese officials to take responsibility for the horrors they imposed on regular Japanese troops, who wanted nothing to do with such horrendous atrocities. 

Okuzaki’s claims were then confirmed by Japanese historian Toshiyuki Tanaka. Tanaka sought to reveal the darker sides of Japanese history to his people, a record that has long been covered up by the country, as is often the case with the darker side of any country’s history. While Tanaka couldn’t prove that cannibalism was commonplace, he did reveal more than 100 instances of it throughout the Japanese military. These stories range in severity, but they at least prove that some groups would kill enemy combatants for sustenance.

One such group was the Suzuki Unit, a company stationed in the Philippines. A soldier named Rikimi Yamamoto said during his trial that the unit “frequently ate human meat…Since no other meat was available, Filipinos were captured and butchered. I was so hungry I ate it, although I would have preferred pork.”

As chilling as that is, the group’s doctor gave an even more harrowing account. He said, “When Lieutenant Alejandro Sale captured the Suzuki Unit, he found human bones [and] human flesh in the process of cooking, human skulls and fragments of the human body around the premises of the camp…It can therefore be concluded that the killing of Filipinos and the eating of their flesh were of common knowledge to all the members of the Unit.”

There are many more similar stories told by PoWs held in Japanese camps, but the testimonies of two more Japanese officers go a long way in explaining the motives for these actions. One man, an Admiral Mori, reminded his squadron that “during the Sino-Japanese war Imperial troops dined regularly on human flesh, using it as a medicine to make them invincible in battle.” Another commander, Tsuji Masanobu, forced his troops to eat human liver, saying, “The more we consume, the more we shall be inspired by a hostile spirit towards the enemy.”

Combined with the Chichijima incident, Tanaka and other historians believe there is plenty of evidence to show that some Japanese officers had their men eat human flesh regardless of their need for food. However, they also noted that cannibalism was far from universally accepted. Okuzaki, the crazed documentarian, stated that many military men were threatened with death if they did not partake. Similarly, some Australian troops told stories of finding defected Japanese soldiers who deserted their units because they started eating prisoners. 

Following the Guam War Crime trials, where most of these stories were revealed, many of the perpetrators were justly punished for their crimes. There was no official charge against cannibalism at the time, so the offenders were tried for murder and “prevention of honorable burial”. Of those who may have partaken, four officers were hanged for their crimes, and 26 enlisted men were imprisoned for eight years. 

In retrospect, many people argue that eight years for cannibalism is a mere slap on the wrist, while others claim that it’s fair considering the intense pressure and indoctrination within the Japanese military at that time. What do you think? Is there enough evidence to prove that Japanese troops consumed human flesh for any reason besides need? This is a dark question, but is it ever okay for starving people to resort to cannibalism? There are examples of this extreme behavior from people in dire circumstances, including the survivors of the Uruguayan Flight 571 crash, a story that we covered on this channel. And what if George Bush Sr. hadn’t evacuated his plane in time? How different would the world look today if two of the last six presidents were never involved?

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