For most, Tojo and Tokyo Rose are just words and grainy black-and-white photos on the pages of a history book. They are relics of World War II and of the country’s fight against the Japanese from 1941-45.
To Howard Garst, a veteran of the War in the Pacific, they are real, flesh and blood characters. Not just because he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in the Philippines.
He knew them personally, guarding the two of them at Sugamo Prison in Tokyo after the war’s end.
Garst, now 91 and a resident of Brookfield’s Hollywood section for the past 57 years, was an unlikely guard for two of the most notorious figures for Americans during World War II.
He grew up on a farm south of Hinsdale and attended Lyons Township High School, graduating in 1934. He married his wife Dorothy (“Dot”) in 1943, just months before he was drafted into the Army, attached to the 14th Anti-Aircraft Command and trained as a radar specialist, reaching the rank of corporal.
In 1945, he ended up leaving the West Coast on a troop ship, heading west into the Pacific. It was a month-long journey on the Kota Baroe, a Dutch ship packed with soldiers.
“I saw Pearl Harbor,” Garst said. “It was a terrible mess. We never knew where we were going. I was aboard that ship for 32 days.”
Eventually, the ship docked in the Philippines, not far from Manila. The area was still scarred from the battles that raged there in February and March of 1945.
“There were dead Japs still laying there from the battle,” Garst said. “They had chased the Japanese into the mountains, and there were still a few of them left. We moved from there onto the China Sea side, where we guarded an airstrip.”
Garst readily admits he was lucky to avoid much action during his time in the service. He arrived in the Philippines just after the pitched battles in the islands and was there in early August when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.
“Our main reason for coming into the islands was to prepare for the invasion of Japan,” Garst said.
While in the Philippines, Garst had two remarkable experiences. The first was being present at the surrender of Gen. Yamashita, who was sent to Luzon in 1945 to defend the island against the U.S. invasion.
“Yamashita was with his 12 bodyguards-12 of the tallest Japanese I had ever seen,” Garst said. “They loaded them into a truck and the Filipinos started throwing stones at them.”
Yamashita surrendered to U.S. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright on Sept. 2, the same day Wainwright had witnessed the signing of surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Wainwright arrived in Luzon at the airstrip Garst was assigned to guard.
“When he came back to the airstrip, he was standing near his C-47 [transport plane],” Garst recalled. “He pointed at me and said, ‘Come over here, sonny.’ I gave him a salute and he said, ‘I’d like to share something with you.’
“He pulled a pen out of his pocket. It was one of the pens used to sign the surrender on the SS Missouri. I think it was a Waterman pen.”
Yamashita was later tried and executed for war crimes.
Up close and personal
After Japan’s surrender, Garst was shipped out again, this time to Japan itself. After a choppy crossing in an LST, Garst arrived in Yokohama, where he saw firsthand the devastation wrought by American bombers.
“We lived in a bombed out silk factory, and on the side I sold cigarettes for two dollars a pack,” Garst said. “From there, in late October, I was sent to Sugamo Prison.”
Sugamo was built in the 1920s to house political prisoners. When Japan surrendered, the largely untouched prison housed some 2,000 people suspected of war crimes, including Gen. Hideki Tojo, the infamous Japanese war minister and, later, prime minister who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Tojo had been captured by the Americans in September and attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He survived the attempt and was housed at Sugamo while awaiting trial for war crimes.
Garst drew special MP duty at Sugamo and lived in a Quonset hut on the prison grounds.
“One of the things that amazed me most was going to the death chamber,” Garst said of being given a tour of the prison by a fellow soldier. “He showed me where the gallows were.”
At first, guard duty was pretty dull-sitting up in a guard tower on the wall of the prison. One day, he was given a slip of paper telling him to report to Tojo’s area of the prison.
Garst accompanied Tojo to the shower room, where he was “required to stand close to him.”
“He used Barbasol shaving cream. I had to confiscate the blade when he was done shaving. I saw the hole in his side where he shot himself.”
Then he accompanied Tojo to a submerged water tank where Tojo took a bath.
“I had to stand right there and make sure he didn’t drown himself,” Garst said. “I didn’t say very much to him.”
Garst summed up the experience in a memoir/scrapbook he and his family made in 1992.
“It seemed so strange that a tiny, shriveled up old man could be responsible for all the destruction and lives at Pearl Harbor,” Garst wrote. “Here I was staring at a nude character and being one of the very few who saw this man in his birthday suit.”
Later, Garst would accompany Tojo to deposition hearings prior to Tojo’s trial.
On several other occasions, Garst was dispatched to a separate wing of the prison, which held female prisoners. Among those prisoners was Iva Toguri, better know to every U.S. serviceman as Tokyo Rose. Toguri, an American citizen, was in Japan visiting relatives in 1941 when hostilities between Japan and the U.S. broke out.
She was unable to leave the island and later participated in radio propaganda broadcasts aimed at American servicemen. When Japan surrendered, Toguri was arrested and held at Sugamo Prison before being set free due to a lack of evidence. In 1948, she was charged with treason and stood trial in the U.S. She was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She served six years of that sentence and in 1977 was pardoned by President Gerald Ford.
She later moved to Chicago and worked in her family’s import shop on Belmont Avenue until her death in 2006.
“I was given the assignment on three or four occasions to take Tokyo Rose to the dentist,” Garst said. “I talked with her, and she was a charming lady. She was one year younger than I was. We’d talk about the weather. We were never allowed to speak about anything regarding her being there.
“She was a cute little chick.”
In February of 1946, Garst was discharged. He went to college after the war in Chicago and got an accounting degree. After that he spent 27 years as treasurer of the AAMED medical supply company. He and his wife, Dorothy, moved to a brand new home in Brookfield in 1950 and raised two daughters. Dorothy Garst died 20 years ago.
“I never looked for publicity,” Garst said. “I just felt that my life has been enhanced by what I saw and where I’ve been.
“All I can say is thank God for taking care of me.
“I look back on my life and where I’ve been and think I’ve had a good life. The only thing that would make it better would be to have my wife with me.”