WWII veteran recounts guarding Japanese generals in Sugamo Prison
Les Mason was a tall, gangly kid from central Minnesota who didn't have combat experience against the Japanese. As it turns out, he was the perfect candidate to guard Japanese war criminals for just those reasons.
BAXTER, Minn. — It’s been a lifetime since the end of World War II.
This year, Aug. 14 marked the diamond jubilee of Victory over Japan Day. That’s 75 years. Someone could have been born on Aug. 14, 1945, and died yesterday, and they would have, in many respects, lived a full, long life. And yet those who fought in the largest, deadliest conflict in human history were already grown adults when it happened. As time marches on, memory fades and they pass on, there are fewer and fewer tangible links to the past.
He was a tall, gangly kid at the time, apparently well-suited to both play power forward and man an ice cream carnival stand. He had a looming 6-foot-4-inch frame and a pleasant, mild expression that remains a constant in the photographs, whether it’s in front of a movie theater, the gate to a military base or the door to a prison cell. At 94 going on 95, Les Mason isn’t fresh-faced and naive as he was then, but he retains that approachable, even-keeled presence in his golden years.
They needed somebody who was intimidatingly tall, yet too young and inexperienced to know what it means to hate the Japanese for what they did to American soldiers, Mason said, and so Mason — a basketball player who graduated high school on June 6, 1944, otherwise known as D-Day — was a perfect candidate to serve as a guard at Sugamo Prison in Tokyo.
The contrasts between guards and the guarded certainly went beyond the eye test. Many of these prisoners came from distinguished Samurai families that could trace their warrior lineages for centuries. Some sported decades of personal experience in a fanatical military environment where death was a matter of grace and duty, even sometimes viewed as a moment of aesthetic beauty. A few had been involved in on-and-off military conflicts all their adult lives, from World War II back to the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, to the Second Sino-Japanese War and even the First Sino-Japanese War in the mid-1890s.
Les Mason, on the other hand, was an 18-year-old artilleryman in the 33rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. The son of a high school athletics director, he had failed to join the Navy on account of color-blindness, whereupon he got a spot for himself in the Army, trained for a bit at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, was based in Fort Snelling for a while, then shipped out to Guam, the Marshall Islands and the Philippines.
It was during this time, Mason said, the he and his comrades learned the atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — an event, Mason noted, that likely spared him a near-suicide mission landing on the beaches of Japan that would have rivaled the likes of Normandy.
“My son owes his life to the atomic bomb,” said Mason, indicating his son, East Gull Lake City Administrator Rob Mason. “There were estimates that casualties could be more than a million men if we tried to invade Japan — and that’s just the American side. It would have been multi-millions for the Japanese. ... We didn’t know what to expect. You just don’t know.”
Instead, Mason found himself among the first Americans to land in Japan, but as a peaceful occupation force, not an invading army as originally anticipated.
Thus, Mason found himself touring Kyoto — an ancient city of temples and shrines — while he and his comrades were based in Japan. There were a few instances of violence, as Mason recalled an incident when a fellow American soldier out on patrol was shot by a Japanese sharpshooter, but the environment was largely peaceful. Whether they were prisoners at Sugamo Prison or civilians on the street he interacted with on a daily basis, Mason said the Japanese were “well behaved,” polite and respectful in their interactions with Americans.
This was a testament to their culture, Mason said, as well as the extraordinary authority of the Emperor Hirohito. The Japanese were legendary for their willingness to fight to the death and they were, by all accounts, ready to do just that if the Americans invaded. A poignant example is archival footage of Japanese schoolgirls being trained to stab American soldiers with bamboo shafts. Needless to say, the situation on the ground had the looks of an entrenched, bloody guerilla war.
Much can be said of how the atomic bombs broke the will of the Japanese to wage an extended siege, Mason noted, but the Japanese military was ready to die for its Emperor, who was considered a divine figure. When Hirohito ordered the nation to stand down in mid-August 1945, the whole of Japan obeyed.
A few weeks later, when Mason was touring Kyoto, he was tapped as a replacement for a guard at Sugamo Prison and promptly headed to Tokyo. Armed with a small Japanese camera he purchased for himself, he was able to document some of his own experiences.
Sugamo was a small 6-acre enclosure of concrete and iron that housed some of the most prominent Japanese officials of the war. In Japan’s military oligarchy of that period — when the Japanese High Command effectively ruled the archipelago in the Emperor’s name — these were the men holding the levers of power. Many of them were classified as “Class A criminals,” which meant they were on trial for some of the worst atrocities of the war — horrific events like the Bataan Death March and the Rape of Nanking. Here, in Sugamo, Class A criminals awaited their verdict. For some, like Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, Sugamo is where they faced execution in 1948.
As evidenced by Mason’s mementos and historical record, the prisoners at Sugamo Prison displayed a sense of aesthetics and artistry that was sometimes astonishing. Rifling through his keepsakes, Mason had a number of 10-yen notes with signatures written in the margins in blue or black ink, autographs from some of the most powerful Japanese figures during the early Shōwa period.
These are the signatures of lifelong bureaucrats and career soldiers — Japanese ones, no less — yet these signatures are in perfect English, displaying delicate penmanship and form. Some are so refined and beautiful, they have the appearance of artful calligraphy, not some haphazard scrawl of a high-level general on paper money. Mason said he was fortunate to be at Sugamo for the short time these signatures were allowed, as they were strictly forbidden shortly after 1945.
Mason’s account and the historical record both indicate Japanese prisoners in Sugamo often whiled away their time with artistic pursuits. Reportedly, Tojo was something of a gifted poet himself, quietly composing verses in his cell that only came to light after his execution in 1948. Other prisoners dedicated themselves to visual art forms to pass the time.
One such example is a folded piece of paper with a hand-drawn picture of two Japanese women wearing kimonos and drinking what looks to be sake in a tea garden. Even in rough sketches created by a prisoner locked in a cell, these images have a sense of detail and a sort of ovaline sensibility reminiscent of traditional Ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
In stark contrast to the tea garden scene is another hand-sketched memento attributed to “Shishido.” This one is a vertical representation of a western woman in a bathing suit posed as she leans against an outcropping of rock — possibly a recreation of a pin-up model. What remains impressive of this image is the granular details, the sense of sinuous form and shadowing, and the fact it was likely conjured from memory to such a fine degree that it feels more like a photograph than mere paper and graphite.
Often, it’s just a few scattered images like these that remain of these people, this place and this period of history — souvenirs, locked in a chest and stowed away in attics and closets, much as Mason’s experiences were when he returned to central Minnesota, got married, had three sons, and worked for years as a drywaller. If a tourist were to visit Sugamo Prison today, they wouldn’t find much. The complex was torn down in the early 1970s and replaced by towering skyscrapers that personify much of modern Japan.
In fact, all that is left to commemorate the prison is a boulder with an engraving that states, in Japanese, “Pray for Eternal Peace.”