Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo 

Chapter Eleven

On The Double

          It was hard to believe, but I was heading home; steaming toward Seattle on a liberty ship; in my new uniform, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. I had a statement signed by the Supreme Allied Commander, General MacArthur, that I had been cleared of all doubt and complicity, and that after an exhaustive investigation, no cause had been found warranting any charges whatsoever. My health was returning, my reputation restored and we faced a smooth spring voyage back to the U.S.

        Several soldiers on board had served in the Philippine campaign and among them they had enough duplicate ribbons to provide me with the proper set of decorations, awarded by my new friends. We had great fun. I was free. Those few weeks aboard ship were some of the most untroubled times of my entire military career. All that suspicion and misunderstanding was disappearing behind me.

        The ship docked in Seattle and the girl I had married four years before was waiting for me. I had only been in the United States for five weeks in 1941, returning from Minobu, then shipping out for Manila. Our relationship had been cerebral, long distance when I was a novice priest in Japan and of course conducted by mail. Our courtship and elopement upon returning was driven by the necessities of my abrupt departure.

        She stood on the dock in her new leopard skin coat and embraced me when I got to the bottom of the gangplank. She had waited for me. A photographer snapped our picture for the newspaper. I was getting a soldier's welcome home from the war. She was ready to take up where we had left off, and was envisioning nursing me back to health in San Francisco. I was glad to be back and glad to see her, but my orders were to proceed to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and had only a few moments to share with her. We could get together on the East coast, and renew our romance. Up until then, our married life consisted of about two long weekends.

        I was taken to a nearby military post along with the other soldiers that had been on board ship. We were organized into units and put aboard a troop train to cross the country. When we arrived at Fort Dix, I was sent to the finance office to straighten out my pay records for the POW years. The WAC Captain in the finance office insisted that I fill out claims for the jewelry, watch and personal effects I had been robbed of upon capture. I was allowed to draw $500 of what I had coming, while the Army sorted out the whole amount, and was given a weekend pass. My father and youngest brother, Robert, picked me up and we drove into New York for a weekend of celebration.

        We checked into a first class hotel and spent the weekend dining, reminiscing and nightclubbing. At one nightclub in the Latin Quarter, the emcee began making a big deal about me being there in uniform, and the next thing I knew I was up before the microphone, saying how good it was to be back to the cheers of the crowd. It was my parade.

        I returned to Fort Dix and was given more of my back pay, and assigned to 108 days of recuperative leave, which was standard for returned POW's. My wife joined me there and we drove down to visit my many relatives in the Southeast. I wanted very much to get in touch with my mother's family and her friends. It had been painful for me not to see her again and I wanted to sooth that hurt. I was beginning to heal emotionally. The end of my ordeal, once again, was an illusion.

        There had been one irritating thing about my departure from Japan; I had to fill out a form requesting repatriation. I didn't understand that. It didn't seem like it would be necessary for a returning serviceman, and MacArthur's words, " wasn't the Army that did this..." hung in the back of my mind.

        I was at my maternal grandmother's house in Virginia Beach, Virginia, when relatives from North Carolina called to say that the FBI had been there, looking for me. I drove down to North Carolina only to receive a call from Virginia Beach; the FBI had come there after I had left. I drove to the nearest military base and identified myself. I showed my identification, my orders, and my leave and told them what was happening. After a little checking, I was told, "You are to be held for trial." It seemed the nightmare was on again. I was put in the stockade, and for two days I was held there, while my wife stayed in a motel just off the post. Then, suddenly, I was released. I was told that it had all been a mistake; that it was old orders that mistakenly hadn't been cancelled: that I was free to go and to forget it. By this time, it was not easy to forget.

        I continued on my recuperative leave, but was approached by federal agents when I arrived at Fort Dix to pick up the remainder of my back pay. I insisted that before talking to them, we all go to the Judge Advocate's office where I could obtain some counsel. The agents balked at this and just said, "Well, we'll probably be back. We'll be seeing you later."

        On August 17, 1946, I received an honorable discharge at Fort Dix, New Jersey, my wife and I left for San Francisco. We moved into a big, comfortable house in the City. My health was improving, slowly. My emotional state was deteriorating, however. I had a big worry. There was serious trouble coming from some faceless enemy in the government.

        In Australia, Major Cousens was being put on trial for treason, and his explanations of the POW broadcasts were the same as they had always been to us. They were not being received at face value. At first he had denied that he had been housed in a hotel for a large portion of his time in Tokyo, or that he had exchanged gifts with one of the Japanese girls at Radio Tokyo. The prosecution was trying to paint him as a turncoat and if they succeeded, what could be made of the actions of the rest of us? I became aware that a friend of mine, General Jones, whom I had known in prison camp on Taiwan, was the commander of the Army post at Camp Beale, California. I went for a visit. As soon as it was known that I was on the post I was sent right in to see the commander. General Jones rose from his desk to greet me and shake my hand, "You're just the man I wanted to see ...John, there's a conspiracy against you among the civilian authorities's coming from cabinet level ...the best thing for you to do is to re-enlist, so that you will be assured of your military rights."

        I needed little convincing, it was wonderful to think that I had some allies who knew what was happening and what to do about it. In the last four years, I had come to realize something; the POW years notwithstanding, I loved the Army. I wanted to experience it under better circumstances: when it was not at war, when there was food to eat, and when there was a chain of command that was in command. I wanted the discipline, and the camaraderie. On September 5, 1946 at Camp Beale, California, I re-enlisted for another three years.

        My first assignment was to take a group of recruits by train across the country to Camp Lee, Virginia, and to be their sergeant through basic training. This was an ideal way for me to begin my regular Army career, since I had never had any basic training myself. I was able to stay on top of the situation and one step ahead of what the recruits were supposed to be learning. When this group of recruits finished, we all had the Army basics. They departed, and I was temporarily assigned to a housekeeping company.

        At Major Cousens' trial Australia, Commander Bucky Henshaw had testified for the defense concerning events at Radio Tokyo and Bunkwa; and the proceedings were drawing to a conclusion, when suddenly, all the charges were dropped. The New South Wales Attorney General had withdrawn the charges on the recommendation of his superiors, the Solicitor-General and the Senior Crown Prosecutor, for undisclosed reasons. Trying to read between the lines, I surmised that perhaps the truth had come out but couldn't be publicly revealed. The following week, newspapers reported that the Major had received an honorable discharge. Yes, I thought, everything had been straightened out.

        Next I was assigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma where I became the administrative head of the artillery school. I applied for Officer Candidate School but I was turned down ostensibly because of my age. One day my camp commander came to me and said, "Hey, what's this all about? There's a big pile of reports in your file and there's orders that you aren't to be raised in grade." The stress and the nightmare were still with me. The civilian government was interfering with my Army career. My enemies were phantoms. I wanted them to materialize so that they could be confronted. I needed an open hearing or a court martial so I could deal with it. I fell into an old habit of drinking heavily.

        Newspaper reports from Australia early in 1947 were disappointing. Though charges against Cousens had been dropped and he received an honorable discharge, there remained a cloud on his reputation. He was being stripped of his former commission as Major, and denied the payments routinely made to returning POW's.

        I began to spend all of my off-duty time partying in nearby bars and enlisted men's clubs, and drinking to excess. In the daytime, I coached a boxing team, learned to fly a plane and took care of my Army duties; at night, I drank and partied. I began to realize that I had some problems that weren't going to be handled in this way. My legal problems, which wouldn't come out of hiding, were exacerbating some emotional problems that I couldn't hide from myself or cleanse myself of with booze. I felt that this high living at Fort Sill would eventually destroy me.

        In the fall of 1947, I voluntarily entered Brooke Army Hospital at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to break my cycle of debauchery. In the few weeks I was there, the most therapeutic thing that happened to me was the effort of a red-headed nurse, who brought me back to sanity in her own tender off-duty way. What she was able to do however was more than undone by a new round of interrogations by the CID (Criminal Investigation Division). It was the same old nightmare.

        I had myself transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina so that I could get into the airborne. My old file of reports, charges and rumors followed me there, and the harassment, both official and unofficial, began to get uglier. The contents of my file were allowed to leak out, and I began to get open taunts and insults from soldiers I had never met; I was even beaten up by some who had no idea what the real story was or what a cruel tradition they were continuing.

        My wife, alone most of this time back in San Francisco, had had enough. With little desire to follow me from camp to camp; to be a nomadic Army wife, she divorced me. Our marriage of 6 years had little for her to build her life around. I had returned from the Pacific covered with barnacles and pursued by monsters of the deep. It would have been too much for anyone.

        I was thrown into the stockade along with another soldier on a charge of an alleged homosexual liaison, but the charges were dropped, when it could not be proved.

        The pressure was making me increasingly agitated and emotionally unstable, and in the spring of 1948 I was sent to Walter Reed Army Hospital. This time I was hospitalized for four months. Again, it might have been helpful had I not been regularly questioned by federal agents. It's difficult to shake your paranoia when you actually are being persecuted. In August 1948, the Department of Justice made an official request to the Army that I be kept close to Washington, D.C. I was assigned to a headquarters company at Fort Meade, Maryland, with no regular duties. There was one good assignment during this period, which I relished. The Army put together a road show using Army personnel, and since I had some theatrical experience, I was made one of the directors. The show was called "On The Double", and featured a small band and a chorus of WAC dancers. We toured small out-of-the way Army posts in the South, traveling in two Greyhound buses. I even struck up a romance with one of the WAC dancers. It was a happy interlude in an otherwise dreadful Army career, but it was hardly an environment in which I could avoid alcohol. I drank constantly throughout the tour.

        When the troupe returned to Fort Meade, I was again assigned to inconsequential housekeeping duties. In March, however, I was sent on an errand to the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, to return to Fort Meade with a prisoner. I was probably not the best person to be sent on this detail. Anyone who was a prisoner automatically had my sympathy. The prisoner was nearly finished with his sentence, and I liked him and trusted him. Before long the handcuffs were off and we were sharing a bottle of whiskey on the train. We proceeded to Fort Meade without incident, and the prisoner was delivered on time, though inebriated. Shortly thereafter, I joined him in the stockade, inebriated as well.

        In addition to the obvious charges, I was inexplicably charged with sodomy. Nothing of the sort had happened on the train, and the Army ultimately would drop all the charges, but a second unsubstantiated charge of homosexuality had again been inserted into my service record. Charges from the train incident were used as a pretext to detain me most of the remainder of my Army "career".

        On April 2, I was taken out of the stockade and hospitalized in the Psychiatric ward at Walter Reed, where I could be treated for alcoholism and the anguish it helped numb. The sympathetic and well-meaning doctors let me know privately that they were willing to open a way for me to take a side door out of my whole problem, to establish a defense of insanity. I was never one to slink away from my persecutors; what I craved was open confrontation.

        The staff Judge Advocate at Fort Meade stated that it was not the policy of the Second Army to proceed against me because of the train incident since it was assumed that the actions were not criminal but the result of illness. The Army was more likely to have me discharged on a Section VIII hearing, a psychiatric discharge ...but the Justice Department didn't want me discharged in such a way, and not in Maryland.

        Throughout April and May, I was interrogated at least five times by the FBI and often under the influence of some medication or another. I recalled being given a thick, dark pink elixir that seemed to have the effect of lowering my defenses, made me feel amicable toward my interrogators, helpful and cooperative. In this state I listened to recordings of broadcasts made at Radio Tokyo, and identified the voices speaking. The responses I made were typed up and I signed them on May 11.

        On May 12, I was not given any medication and my memory of what had been happening in the preceding days gave me a lot to worry about. I made a formal request for military counsel because I was being investigated for and being threatened with the charge of treason. My request proceeded through channels. On May 18, I was told that my request was denied since I was not being considered for court martial. The military could not provide me counsel on matters concerning the Justice Department.

        One might suppose that a man in my position would just completely crack up, and perhaps it was hoped I would. I didn't. I calmed myself. I didn't want to give them further excuse to hold me in the psychiatric ward with no charges. As always, I wanted them to get on with it, to raise the whole matter to public scrutiny, to confront the accusations in open court, where I had always been certain I could acquit myself if allowed to speak. It was only in silence and obscured from open inquiry that my persecutors had any power at all. I knew that there were literally hundreds of ex-POW's somewhere that could corroborate everything I said.

        On June 2, I was released from Walter Reed and sent to the stockade at Fort Meade, ostensibly on charges stemming from the incident on the train. I was immediately granted counsel on these charges but since it had already been determined that these charges were not going to be pursued all the way to court martial, it was just a charade. Within days, my counsel was transferred to a distant post and I was promised that new counsel was being arranged. In fact, I did not get a new military counsel until August.

        In the stockade, I was in contact with too many other prisoners and guards to keep my situation quiet. Early in July, I was taken from the stockade under guard, and placed in a cell in the back of an abandoned firehouse. I was the only prisoner held there. I spent the next two months there, the remainder of my Army enlistment, held as completely incommunicado as could have been managed. Was it an unrelated coincidence that the trial of Iva Toguri was beginning San Francisco this very day? My commanding officer in Tokyo Major Cousens, and my accuser Captain Ince, had been called to testify in Iva's defense. Both told it exactly as it was, Iva was no traitor and a tirelessly selfless asset to the POW's at Bunkwa.

        My guard detail at the firehouse had just one prisoner to watch, and little else to do. They did have instructions to perform a little drill, however, with a rather direct significance for me. It was target practice, actually, firing squad practice, conducted just outside the firehouse using a single man-size silhouette target.

        I recall the unusual quality of some of the interviews the FBI conducted with me in the firehouse. The court record mentions twelve occasions during the month of August. I remember that several times the agents would arrive with an opened 7-Up bottle and would give it to me to drink. The walls of the firehouse, which had been rough, seemed to become smooth, and so did I. I felt smooth and yielding; I would calmly answer questions without embellishment, modification or explanation. I would sign whatever I was told to sign. The days following these interviews I would feel that the statements I had signed were misleading because of their brevity, and contained things I hadn't said.

        As had happened so often in my long history of captivity, I had made friends with one of my guards. I was able to get some messages out to my WAC girlfriend. The message was generally, "Help!" On one occasion, I asked her to contact one of the FBI agents that had been there the day before with the Seven-Up bottle: I wished to clarify some of the things I recalled saying. On another occasion, she managed to gain the ear of Senator Knowland, who was in a position to demand to know my whereabouts and status.

        Efforts to resolve the situation were of no avail. Plans had apparently been made by the Justice Department. I was to be held without charges until the day my enlistment was up, September 2, 1949. Then I was to be subjected to a treason trial as a civilian. That last day in the Army there was a flurry of very odd procedures around mustering me out. It was a choreography of paperwork, legal gibberish and formalities, which I had no way of assessing at the time; not knowing how these obvious machinations served the purposes of my faceless nemesis.

        September 2nd I was taken in handcuffs under military guard to Fort Jay, Governor's Island, New York, about 300 miles away. Among the many papers I was presented was my transfer from the Second Army, which included Ft. Meade, Maryland, into the First Army, Fort Jay. Moments later I was asked to sign a document accepting an undesirable discharge. I refused. Then I was given a direct order to sign; I did. The Army removed my handcuffs and removed the uniform off my back. FBI agents gave me a plaid suit to put on, then their own handcuffs, and led me to a waiting car.

        Soon I was being driven though the streets of New York when I heard the FBI agents' instructions over their radio..."take him in through the front door. Don't let the reporters talk to him but give them plenty of time to get pictures..." Before we reached the courthouse, I was put in leg irons and chained around the waist and through the cuffs. As I was led up the front steps, my leg irons wouldn't allow me to make the step and I had to hop. I was led into a hearing room. I was doing my best to make light of the situation and put the FBI agents at ease, but when the U.S. Commissioner entered the room and sat down things took a more serious tone. I still naively saw this as my opportunity to clear the air; finally something could be confronted, in public. I started to speak, but the Commissioner broke in immediately..."I advise you not to speak ...don't say a word." The Commissioner read the prepared arraignment. I was being charged with treason, and since the maximum penalty was death, I was to be held without bail. I stared intensely at the Commissioner, aghast, the words of the arraignment hanging ominously in the air. I never believed that the government would carry its misconceptions this far. Now I could see how deadly serious they were.

        The Army had been a comfort to me, an extended family. But the Army had not been all-powerful; it had to maneuver around and finally acquiesce to civilian authority. After all, this is America.


Copyright © 2015, 2022 John Oliver