NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — History often gets stripped to its bare facts. But some of the most fascinating stories from the past start with relationships.
“Legacies: The MacArthurs in the Far East” is a new exhibit at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, which tells the story of a warrior’s last days, and how two battlefield enemies formed a friendship that lasted until death.
“This collection is one of a kind,” says Christopher Kolakowski, Director of the MacArthur Memorial.
At its center is Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, known as the “Tiger of Malaya” during World War II. He was convicted of war crimes in the Philippines and met his end at the gallows. The man who lead him there was Lt. Colonel Charles Helderman, a U.S. Army Captain at the time of his execution in 1946.
But this exhibit is a treasure trove of insight into one of the most important officers of the war.
“Think about how few senior generals there were in the Japanese military at the time, particularly this one, who is arguably the greatest Japanese battlefield commander of World War II. Six months before these two men met, either one of them, because the war would have still been going on, would not have hesitated to kill the other one.”
But in the 90 days that preceded Yamashita’s hanging, these two men formed a bond. Yamashita was one of the most feared battlefield tacticians of the Imperial Japanese Army.
But apparently had a softer side. Historians say he loved horticulture, art and poetry. Helderman, on the other hand, could be described as a classic “man’s man.”
“He worked as bartender, a car salesman, and he started boxing,” says daughter-in-law Suzanne Helderman, who lives in Williamsburg.
She guarded her father-in-law’s posessions since his death 10 years ago. She says Yamashita left him his personal effects following the general’s execution.
They include Yamashita’s letters, artwork, even the piece of rope that ended his life after the war. But this relationship, which began after the war, begs the question: How did a patriotic American Army officer befriend an ememy general of the Japanese Empire?
“My father-in-law personally felt that the general was, I hate to say, “railroaded.” That was the term he used when he spoke to me.”
Yamashita presided over the Japanese occupation of Singapore, which included war crimes against captive Allied personnel and civilians.
Some argue Yamashita was culpable for these acts because he failed to prevent them.
General MacArthur himself signed Yamashita’s death warrant. Captain Helderman watched over Yamashita 24 hours a day as he awaited execution to prevent the general from taking his own life. Their extended time together led to deep conversations.
“He related to my father-in-law during their many walks around the compound where the general was incarcerated.”
Kolakowski sees a lesson for the ages, as two men who represented each side in a world war, found pieces of commonality.
“They are able to meet on some level of common humanity and develop a respect and possibly even an affection.”
Captain Helderman one last show of respect nine years after Yamashita’s execution, when he delivered Yamashita’s last letter to his widow, thus ending a story with a deep message for all time.
“We should always keep sight of the common ground we can always find amongst each other.”
Here’s a link to the memorial’s website: http://www.macarthurmemorial.org/