Adachi Hatazo: War Hero or War Criminal?

Chapter 7 of Edward J. Drea’s book, In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army (U. Nebraska Press, 1998), is a biography entitled “Adachi Hatazo: A Soldier of His Emperor” (pp. 91-109). In his preface Drea describes Adachi thus:

A fascinating character, Adachi had long perplexed me. As commander of Eighteenth Army on New Guinea, he lost at least 110,000 of the 130,000 soldiers and sailors under his command. Yet today’s Ground Self Defense Forces regard Adachi with awe and reverence.

The chapter begins with a question.

Why talk about a general who is relatively obscure in Japan and virtually unknown elsewhere? … Perhaps by discussing a general officer who was neither a genius, such as Napoleon or MacArthur, nor a fool, such as McClellan or Mutaguchi[*], we gain a keener sense of what it meant to be an officer, a commander, and a leader in a major army. Moreover a preeminent Japanese military historian [Hata Ikuhiko] regards Adachi as one of only three general officers commanding troops who upheld Japan’s military tradition by not disgracing the uniform…. (The others were Lieutenant General Kuribayashi Tadamichi, defender of Iwo Jima, and Lieutenant General Ushijima Mitsuru, defender of Okinawa.)

(*Lt. Gen. Mutaguchi Renya, in command of the Fifteenth Army in Burma, launched an overland attack in 1944 on Imphal, on the Indian frontier. Lacking air cover, he chose the most rugged route through the Burmese jungle, but took along 20,000 head of cattle to feed his 85,000 troops, emulating Genghis Khan, whom he admired. Mutaguchi lost 60,000 men and 20,000 head of cattle, most of the latter before they could feed his men.)

Born into a large family of samurai stock, but unable to afford middle school (as required for a naval career), Adachi instead tested into the army’s fiercely competitive Tokyo Cadet Academy, which aimed to produce graduates who were both tough officers and refined gentlemen. Adachi “became a skilled writer of short verse (tanka) and indeed would spend some of his darkest moments in the New Guinea jungles writing poetry” (p. 92). He then entered the Military Academy, where the subject matter was all military and the discipline was harsh, especially since many of the faculty were veterans of the recent, extraordinarily brutal Russo-Japanese War.

As one of the top graduates, he was posted to the First Guards Regiment, Imperial Guards Division, in Tokyo, and then went on to the Army War College, a sure sign he was destined for high rank. “Tokyo in the 1930s was a hotbed of Army factionalism” (p. 96), but Adachi steered clear of domestic politics, and “unlike many Japanese officers at that time, was monogamous…. He was deeply devoted to his wife and family despite the enforced separations that were a soldier’s lot” (pp. 96-97).

Also unusual for officers in his day, Adachi was devoted to the welfare of his troops. “Adachi led by example and understood his officers and men at an emotional level” (p. 95). After being posted to the Kwantung Army headquarters in Manchuria as the railway control officer, he “ordered all heating in the headquarters’ building turned off” whenever troops had to be transported in unheated trains (p. 97). He was famous for drinking large quantities of sake with his subordinates, creating an atmosphere where they could speak frankly and he could correct their errors without embarrassing them unduly.

Then war erupted with China in July 1937, and Adachi discovered his calling–he was a combat commander who led from the front, always appearing where the bullets were thickest. In the street-fighting meat grinder of Shanghai where head-on assaults into fortified positions became the accepted tactics, this was no small feat. [p. 98]

He was severely wounded in a mortar barrage that September, but was back in command of his regiment in December. His right leg was permanently weakened and bent, but he refused to use a cane. In recognition of his courage and leadership, he was promoted to major general in 1938, then lieutenant general in 1940, assigned to north China, where he conducted a series of bloody but successful pacification campaigns.

In 6 November 1942, on the same day that he heard of his wife’s death after a long illness, he received orders for New Guinea.

In January 1943 Adachi flew from Rabaul to Lae, Northeast New Guinea, a major Japanese stronghold, air base, and port, where he met the survivors of Buna. For the first time in his career he saw Japanese soldiers in defeat, uniforms in tatters, some propping themselves upright on crudely fashioned bamboo crutches, others being carried by exhausted comrades. Shocked by the sight, Adachi discarded his inspection schedule and instead talked to each man, encouraging and praising them for their efforts and telling them they looked like soldiers….Tokyo ordered Adachi to buy time for the Army to consolidate an in-depth defense in western New Guinea and the Philippines…. As the pace of the Allied offensive intensified, Adachi confronted a classic dilemma. If he garrisoned every possible landing site with small numbers of troops, he risked them being overwhelmed piecemeal. If he concentrated his forces, he risked them being bypassed.

So in June 1943, Adachi decided to fight the main battle at Salamaua, because loss of that base would render Lae untenable. His decision played into the Allied plan to fix the Japanese at Salamaua while executing an air-sea envelopement at Lae…. Yet what alternatives did Adachi have open to him? [pp. 103-104]

By 22 April 1944, MacArthur had circled around the north coast of New Guinea and taken the Eighteenth Army’s largest rear area bases at Hollandia and Aitape. Adachi was cut off in eastern New Guinea, but “managed to move his 60,000 troops overland through terrible jungle and swamp terrain” (p. 107) and mount a surprise counterattack on Aitape on 10 July 1944.

His defeat at Aitape cost 10,000 Japanese lives. Now Adachi had to hold together a broken, isolated force, thousands of miles from home, and without any hope of relief. His impartiality and common sense became the glue of the defeated army. So too did his October 1944 Emergency Punishment Order that gave his officers the power of summary field execution….Again Adachi led by example. He shared the hardships and short rations, losing nearly 80 pounds and all his teeth. Disdaining a painful hernia, he insisted on making daily visits to his front-line, no matter how far distant from headquarters. [pp. 107-108]

By August 1945, he could muster only 10,000 men, illustrating the then current saying that “Heaven is Java; hell is Burma; but no one returns alive from New Guinea” (p. 108). “Preparations for a final suicide attack were underway when Japan surrendered” (p. 108).

After the war, Adachi was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes, including the summary executions he had authorized, although he was not personally involved in any such executions himself. After also testifying at the defense of every one of his indicted subordinates, “in the early morning hours of 10 September 1947 … Adachi used a paring knife to commit suicide” (pp. 108-109).

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1 Comment

Filed under China, Japan, Papua New Guinea, war

One response to “Adachi Hatazo: War Hero or War Criminal?

  1. Pingback: Japanese Troops Isolated in PNG, 1944 | Far Outliers

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