Nichijo: The Testimony of John
427 West Street, New York City is an old three story brick Bastille near the docks. Supposedly, it houses society's worst for their crimes against the Federal Government. In my three and one half years awaiting my speedy trial, I met a few villains on the inside, but the real villains most often appeared to be those on the outside, preparing cases against them. I had long been predisposed to sympathize with the imprisoned.
I was taken to West Street immediately following my hearing before U.S. Commissioner MacDonald, and placed in an isolated cell. For the first few weeks, I didn't meet any of my fellow "detainees". I had been led into my cell; my chains and leg irons removed, and the cell door closed behind me. I sat down on my bunk, a piece of paper in each hand; one was an undesirable discharge from the Army, the other, an indictment for treason.
Freedom did not appear to be in my future. The only freedom available to me was that freedom I had glimpsed in the face of the Buddha in Golden Gate Park, had followed to Minobu and perfected during the long years of prison camp. I reflected that this freedom of the spirit was the only true freedom there is, and I, if anyone, was aware of how real this freedom could be.
Still, I determined to struggle against the legal bonds that held me, and reviewing the history of my treatment at the hands of my own countrymen, I could feel the as yet unconquered rage within me. I would catch myself, this rage was the threat to my inner freedom: it would not defeat my tormentors; it would more likely destroy me. It would take carefully calculated action to extricate myself from this trap, not emotion.
I could still rise to the blissful illuminated heights within. I could still plunge to the depths of despair over my outward circumstance.
For the first week, alone in my cell at West Street, I was allowed no phone calls, only a few telegrams to let my family know where I was. On September 9, I was taken out of the cell and taken again before a U.S. Commissioner. A Legal Aid attorney was there to advise. The prosecution team asked for a delay and my attorney did also, asking that I be allowed the use of a telephone to arrange the appropriate legal counsel. The delay was granted and the use of the phone approved.
I was returned to West Street. My cell was on the second floor, directly across from the guard station where, apparently, I could be watched until I was better understood. Perhaps I would try to commit suicide, or display violent tendencies that could endanger other inmates or whatever.
A man named Soares was the guard Captain. He was getting to know his new charge. It wouldn't be long before we were friends. It was always thus in my worst predicaments: an ally appears among my captors.
I was given the job of chipping the old paint off the bars of my cell in preparation for repainting. It was something I could do while in my initial close confinement to earn a little spending money for cigarettes. In a few weeks, I was placed in the cellblock where I would be in contact with other prisoners and the guards would treat me more routinely.
One of the most disturbing elements of my situation was appearing almost daily in the newspapers. The trial of Iva Toguri was in progress in San Francisco. Though Major Cousins and Captain Ince had testified in her behalf, it was not going well. On September 29, she was found guilty of one of the treason charges against her.
That day, I was appearing again before a U.S. Commissioner. This time I had a lawyer named Hornstein, who had volunteered to stand up for me until adequate counsel could be arranged. He was a Colonel in the Army Reserve and had formerly been a presiding judge of the General Court Martial in Europe. With him was my WAC girlfriend, Elizabeth McLaughlin. The government was asking for another delay so that they could bring the witnesses from Japan, that were being used in Iva's trial, to New York to testify before the grand jury indicting me. Delay granted.
A week later, Iva was sentenced to ten years in prison.
If they could do this to the loyal Iva Toguri, who had taken so many risks to help us: me and my fellow POW's at that diabolical Bunkwa Camp, what chance did I have? I held little hope that I would ever escape my situation alive. It was being a prisoner of war all over again. But, understanding that, I knew how to deal with it. I had spent three and half years as a prisoner of the Japanese brutal military machine, never believing that I would live to see the end of the war; and so, I had learned to function with goals that didn't assume that I would survive. There is a certain freedom in actually abandoning your own physical existence. I had done so over and over again since 1941 and now, I found myself in a dire predicament again. Each time, finding that I had survived, the cloak of mortality had descended over me again, renewing my attachment for living, and with it, the belief that I had something to lose. Now I was free again, free to act fearlessly, the freedom of the doomed.
This determined my whole approach to the matter. Above all, I had to continue to serve my fellow POW's. I would not defend myself by testifying against them, or mentioning the treasonous intentions of some of my accusers. I would not use in my defense any excuse of duress or insanity. To the best of my ability, I would not allow any of the other POW broadcasters to take responsibility for acts that would condemn them. I realized that Iva, cast as the legendary "Tokyo Rose" was the most exposed member of the Radio Tokyo crowd, and she had been the first to be prosecuted; and I was the second. If I was easily convicted, and named others in an effort to save myself, they would follow.
I vowed that, if nothing else, I would give the government such a long and expensive contest that even if convicted, the government would hesitate to proceed against the others. With that in mind, I could abandon my own fate, but not that of my friends.
In the middle of October, the government won convictions of eleven prominent American Communist Party Leaders under the Smith Act. The U.S. Attorney John F. X. McGohey and his assistant Irving Saypol, who had prosecuted them, had earned promotions. On November 1, Saypol was made the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and his former boss McGohey, along with three others, Kaufman, Noonan and Sugarman, were made Federal Judges in the same district. Among them, presumably, was the judge from whom the Justice Department could "get cooperation", as alluded to by Justice Department attorney Noel E. Story, in his conversation with the Pentagon in August.
The Federal Grand Jury met in secret to put together the indictment against me, and when they had concluded their work, they insisted that the record show how much the jury had appreciated the manner in which Mr. Saypol and Mr. Story had made their presentation of the testimony.
The eleven convicted Communists were brought to West Street to await sentencing. They were out on bail within three weeks, but I got to know a few of them; especially Gus Hall, Ohio Party Chairman, Eugene Dennis, General Secretary of the Party, and Robert Thompson, New York State Chairman. I didn't care for their politics, but they were intelligent and good company. Much later I would see a man attempt to murder Robert Thompson with a lead pipe in the chow line at West Street.
It was a good season for Federal prosecutions and we were witnessing conviction after conviction as the celebrated accused paraded through West Street. We had a saying at West Street..."Here we are, the refuse of the country, awaiting disposal".
Alger Hiss was there, in the middle of November, awaiting the beginning of his second trial.
On November 17, the newspapers reported that Herbert Burgman had been convicted of treason in Washington, D.C., for his wartime broadcasts from Nazi Germany. He was sentenced to twenty years.
On November 22, I was taken before Judge Gregory Noonan and the U.S. Attorney Saypol read the indictment against me. I was charged with twelve overt acts of treason: That I had voluntarily offered my services to the Japanese after the fall of Corregidor; that I had attempted to persuade a POW to give up secret codes and ciphers; that I had ordered a POW to give up his boots to a Japanese officer and had struck him and beaten him; that I had advised a POW to reveal the location of $7,500,000 in silver; that I had reported Captain Thomson to the Japanese, which resulted in his execution, that I had informed on fellow POW's on Taiwan; and that I had participated in at least six propaganda broadcasts from Radio Tokyo. I calmly denied the charges, and said that Saypol had presented an entirely distorted picture of events that had taken place 7000 miles away, seven years before. I was mystified how the government could possibly undertake to prove this version of events.
My attorney, Mr. Hornstein, entered a plea of not guilty, and argued for bail. Judge Noonan denied bail and ordered I to be sent to Bellevue Hospital for a complete physical and psychiatric examination, at the bequest of the prosecution.
For the next two weeks, I was in a locked ward at Bellevue. The surroundings were nicer in a way, and the food was better. I was examined by the famous psychiatrist, Max Wexler, a personable man who looked rather like Albert Einstein. After extensive interviews, Dr. Wexler said that I was as sane as anyone else that would be in the courtroom, and wrote in his report to the court that I was educated, cultured, well integrated but depressed, understandably, given my predicament. All he wanted to know was: "How did you ever get into this mess?" If there was an opportunity to take the easy way out via insanity, this was it. Instead, I presented my most stable and refined facade. I was returned to West Street in time for Christmas.
Isidore Hornstein had volunteered his services in my defense without fee, but even so, there were anticipated court costs of $10,000 to $15,000, which he had no way of covering. Also, he was beginning to realize that the scope of the case was beyond the capacity of his law firm to handle. He informed me that he would remain his counsel of record, and handle preliminary matters until adequate representation could be found.
Several lawyers had offered their services, but as I interviewed them I discovered that I wanted none of them to represent me. Most assumed that the indictment was correct, and wanted to create a defense based on duress and/or insanity. I would throw them out. It was depressing, but something more depressing was coming.
Within the deposition of one of the anticipated prosecution witnesses was the startling revelation that I had been a suspected traitor even before the war had begun. It was revealed that because of my unconcealed belief that Japan was being antagonized into confrontation by American economic sanctions, and my open adherence to Buddhism, that my loyalty was suspect. Military intelligence, of which I had been a part, had been gathering information on me in Manila, and during the last month before the fall of Corregidor, the MP's had orders to shoot me if I appeared to be signaling the Japanese. I had risked being killed by my own forces each time I left the tunnel to recite the Lotus Sutra from the hilltop during bombing raids: I had felt some covert hostility from the sentries at the time, but I had regarded it as the accustomed religious prejudice. I could see now, deeper roots of the rumors that seemed to spring up so quickly during the early days of Japanese occupation. The revelation was devastating news to me.
It was in this frame of mind that I appeared in court March 7, 1950. Mr. Hornstein was asking to be relieved from the case. Judge Medina was outlining a plan in which I would be assigned two attorneys by the court at the government's expense. I stood up and said despondently, "If I have anything to say about it, your honor, I would rather dispense with counsel and plead guilty." This caused quite an outburst in the courtroom. Mr. Hornstein was on his feet insisting that I had a good defense and was only acting in despair; that I had been changing my mind like this in recent weeks. Even U.S. Attorney Saypol objected to my making the plea while I had no counsel.
Judge Medina ruled that he could not accept my plea on an impulse. I replied, "It is not an impulse, I have been thinking about it for some time. I have been a long time getting justice; when my superiors in the Philippines lost confidence in me, I was dead."
A dapper Italian gentleman, Peter Sabbotino, stood up in the courtroom. "Just a moment your honor, I'll defend this man." One member of the prosecution team snapped, "Your honor, this attorney is just trying to jump on the bandwagon for publicity." Sabbotino turned to the young attorney, "I will have you know I was a quasi officer of the court and a former magistrate in this jurisdiction. I demand an apology." Judge Medina said firmly, "You certainly will apologize to the honorable Mr. Sabbotino."
As always in my darkest moments, an ally would appear from an unexpected quarter. Sabbotino's offer was accepted and I felt my hopes renewed.
During the next three weeks, I had a number of interviews with prospective attorneys to add to the defense team, but with much the same results as before. Finally I found two that I liked very much, George Plotkin and his wife Clara Storper. I was impressed by their realism and their belief in my version of the events listed in the indictment. Plotkin described the trial that we faced as a very heavy situation that was going to be very discouraging at times, but that they would succeed, "There is justice in this country, but you have to fight like hell to get it."
The Plotkins' support buoyed my spirits even higher and gave me the will to struggle, and the glimmer of a belief that I might overcome the entire set of accusations.
Another event raised I spirits even further. One day I heard a familiar voice chanting on the sidewalk outside West Street. It was the voice of Bishop Nippo, my beloved master who had accompanied me to Minobu in 1940."Namu Myoho-renge-kyo", he chanted, finding a tone that resonated against the grey brick walls. Inside, I began chanting, too.
Nippo had come all the way from Argentina, having heard of my plight through the international press. He had come as soon as he found out that I was in trouble. He had gone to the authorities at West Street and identified himself as my spiritual advisor, but had been told that they had spiritual advisors on the prison staff, a Protestant and a Catholic, and that was all that were allowed in the facility. In their minds, that seemed to cover all bases. Nippo returned to Argentina without seeing me, but just our voices resonating through the brick walls and iron bars had been an uplift.
I did get to know the Catholic priest that was allowed to meet with the prisoners. I told him everything, my whole life story, my entire religious history and war experiences. The priest became convinced that I was innocent of the charges against me and that I was suffering from some dangerously naive assumptions. "My son, you have made a terrible mistake: You have mistaken the government for Almighty God. They are poles apart." I had. I had always assumed that the government was a fatherly, omniscient entity, which would ultimately determine the truth and then do the right thing. I thought that upon a thorough hearing, the facts would come out, and I would be exonerated.
I gained other illuminating insights from the priest, but this was the most relevant to my present situation. We seldom talked about religion, per se, but at times we did; and during the course of our friendship, I received the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church.
For the remainder of 1950, the defense team worked on preparing for trial. Over 700 potential witnesses were on their list, and they needed to be found, contacted, and depositions taken before the prosecution's team could get to them. In this effort I had the invaluable help of the American Bar Association, and various POW organizations. By the middle of August, they had completed most of those contacts and needed only to get affidavits from witnesses residing in foreign countries. There were sixty-two in Japan. The government expressed resistance to the idea citing the expense. Later a compromise would be reached where a much smaller number of witnesses would be contacted and only preliminary statements would be obtained, by long distance.
In January of 1951, the government requested a further postponement of proceedings, because their team was in Japan taking depositions from their witnesses.
I got to know many of the inmates at West Street; more communists, tax evaders, deportees, immigrants who had attempted to smuggle their family heirlooms past customs, junkies and drug dealers; the camaraderie of crabs caught in the same net.
I looked forward to the visits of the Plotkins' especially. Attorneys were among the few people from the outside that I was allowed contact with. When they could, they would bring me a pastrami sandwich and vanilla milkshake.
I painted two oil paintings as gifts for them: one of the Kuonji Temple at Minobu and the other a portrait of the founder, Nichiren. The Plotkins became aware of my blind side, as had the priest. I showed an unwillingness to believe that the government could act with malice, I clung to the idea that the government was trying to discover the truth. George Plotkin told me, "You've got to disabuse yourself of the idea that you're going to get a fair hearing; you are not." And I said, "You mean it's like war." Plotkin replied, "Now you've got it!"
I began to spend more time in the law library, studying the cases of treason and the various defenses available. I began to work up some of my own motions and to get more involved in the nuts and bolts of my legal proceedings. My rapport with Guard Captain Soares was invaluable for this effort. Soares allowed me into the library after hours where I could work on my case late into the night, with good light and a typewriter. The Captain also gave me a job in the basement laundry so that I would make extra money and have some freedom of movement within the building.
In the early part of 1951, U.S. Attorney Saypol was busy with another case and I soon met the defendants, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I was in touch with both of them. I would see Ethel as I went downstairs to the laundry, and through the wire divider of the rooftop exercise yard. I liked them both. At worst, they were misled, idealistically soft-brained, at best, they were what they had intended to be in their hearts: They hadn't passed along atomic secrets for money or personal gain; they had done it out of a desire to balance the world's power. They had thought it too dangerous for one superpower to hold so great an advantage. They had quixotically taken it upon themselves to correct it.
The presence of the Rosenbergs at West Street brought on an ominous and melancholy atmosphere. They, such gentle people, were being slowly, unceasingly prepared in the press and the courts, for the electric chair at Sing-Sing. In the evenings the whole building could hear Ethel singing Madame Butterfly from her cell. Their trial was held in the month of March 1951, and they were convicted on March 30. A week later they were sentenced to death by electrocution. A week after that, Ethel was moved to Sing-Sing; and Julius, "Rosie", followed her there in the middle of May. It would be two years before they would be actually executed.
My efforts in the law library had produced a writ of habeas corpus asserting that the government had no jurisdiction in the case since I had been illegally separated from the service, that I was still in fact in the Army and therefore subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. On March 16, the writ was dismissed and the trial date set for May 18, 1951. It was delayed again. My defense team was completely ready for trial by the summer of 1951. The fifteen-month delay before the beginning of my trial was the result of motions by the government.
In July, a prisoner was transferred from the Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas for legal proceedings in New York. His name was James Martin Monti. If anyone in WWII had had a more bizarre set of experiences than me, it was Monti. He had been a U.S. Air Force officer in India, and one day he had an inspiration about how he might bring the war to an early conclusion. He hitched several rides aboard military planes until he reached Italy, where he stole a USAF fighter and flew it to Berlin, where he attempted to persuade the astonished Germans to surrender. The Germans chose to humor him and use him as a propaganda broadcaster. "Yes," they said, "we want peace. We want you to go on the radio and tell the Allies we want peace." Monti was eventually given a German uniform and regular duties broadcasting propaganda. Obviously, at the end of the war, he was in a lot of hot water with the American military. He had pleaded guilty to treason and had been sentenced to twenty-five years. His presence at West Street was part of an attempt to withdraw his guilty plea. I listened to his whole story. I felt very sorry for him, he had sincerely believed that he could get them to surrender.
Monti 's legal attempt had been unsuccessful and he had been returned to Leavenworth. I was sent to Bellevue for evaluation prior to trial, which at that point was scheduled for September 5, 1951. It was a routine observation period at the request of the prosecution, and it meant another delay in the start of the trial. For over a year more the prosecution would exhaust every imaginable excuse for delay.
Finally, ten years after the events on Corregidor, for which I faced the death penalty, the trial began. In that ten years, I had spent three and a half years in Japanese prison camps; had been held for eight months without charges or counsel in postwar Japan; had spent three years under a cloud in the Army, the last six months of which I was held without charges or counsel in military stockades; and a full three years at West Street without bail awaiting trial.
"Here we are, the refuse of the country, awaiting disposal."
2015 John Oliver