Lordsburg Revisited: A Closer Look at the Lordsburg Court-martial
More than sixty years ago, in the spring of 1942, issei prisoners of the US Justice Department began arriving in Lordsburg, New Mexico under military guard. They detrained at the Ulmoris Siding a couple miles east of the town center.
The Southern Pacific train riding the historic Santa Fe line habitually stopped at the siding after midnight. In the darkness of night, the internees were marched along a dirt road two miles to their new home, a prison camp controlled by the U.S. Army.
On July 27, 1942, a train pulled into the Ulmoris siding carrying 147 Japanese from another camp, Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, ND. Under a full moon and suspicious circumstances, two issei prisoners were shot gunned and killed along the road.
After a cursory military investigation and court-martial, the accused shooter, Private First Class Clarence Burleson was found to have lawfully killed the men.
There is a dearth of credible evidence related to the crime. The only known witness to the shooting, one of the victims, Toshiro Kobata, died before daybreak. The other victim, Hirota Isomura apparently died instantly.
Is it possible, after sixty years, to piece together fragmentary testimony riddled with apparent contradiction, half-truths, and perhaps, outright lies? Is there enough evidence to sustain a credible reading of the court-martial record?
The Government Line
The official explanation of the shooting is that two prisoners attempted to escape and were lawfully shot by a guard as they approached the barbed wire fence.
Perhaps the least critical minds of the time would have accepted this story. Imagine living in Lordsburg, a dusty town leftover from the early mining days and the Apache wars. Then after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a load of Japanese prisoners arrives -- saboteurs and dangerous aliens among them. Two wind up dead. They were shot trying to escape -- end of story.
Today, the traveler aware of Lordsburg's violent history might feel unsafe in the unprotected desert below the Burro Mountains.
Ten minutes in town would quell any anxiety. Drive slowly through the neighborhoods and Lordsburg's residents will wave to you from their porches.
They will inform you that an escape from the isolated camp would have been difficult, possibly unthinkable. The site is located in harsh territory. The same rough terrain provided the Chiricahua Apaches some protection at the tail end of the genocidal campaigns against them.
But could these two issei -- a farmer from Brawley and a former fisherman from Terminal Island have attempted such a daring escape? The army officers seemed to think that was a plausible explanation. By dawn, most of their story was hacked into place. The investigators recorded testimony from the alleged shooter stating that the prisoners were "making a break" and were properly shot in response. The sentry supposedly followed strict instructions by calling "Halt!" twice before firing.
In what may prove to be part of the army cover-up, the "Report of Death" entered in the court-martial record as "Prosecution's Exhibit 'C'" notes that the victims died as result of being shot in the back "...by 12-gauge shotgun while attempting to escape...." No doctor signed the form. Richard S. Dockum, 1st Lt. Cav., the camp secretary, did sign it. He found it appropriate to retell of the escape attempt later on the form and again twice on the form of the other decedent.
The Walking Blues?
Were the two internees strong agile judo types that might overwhelm a guard, take his weapon, and flee for the hills? Unlikely. The issei victims were not healthy men. They were separated from the main group precisely because they deemed themselves unable to walk the two miles to camp. Kobata suffered from tuberculosis for 16 years according to his friend, Hiroshi Aisawa.
Fukujiro Hoshiya, good friend of Isomura reported that "he hurt his spine about 1[?] years ago, falling off a boat."
A Very Much Stoop
The prosecution at the court-martial in El Paso succeeded in preserving for the record Hoshiya's description of the health of his friend despite strenuous objections from the defense. After a page of objections to the prosecutor's queries, Hoshiya was allowed one simple sentence: "At the Bismarck Camp, he walked with a very much stoop." During cross-examination, the defense attorney tried to intimidate Hoshiya into testifying that Isomura could actually stand and walk straight.
"Q. Do you or do you not recollect answering that question: 'Could he have straightened if he wanted to?'
A. I do not recollect answering that question because his spine was in such a bad condition that he could not stand up if he wanted to."
The attorney tried to characterize Hoshiya's statements during the initial investigation as contradictory. The record, however, is quite consistent:
"Q. You say he couldn't run at all. Would he stumble if he tried it?
A. My yes! He would fall down. ...They say he was trying to run away but he couldn't run."
Another internee whose name is illegible in the photocopied transcript of the "Record of Witnesses," declared, "Because of his illness, Mr. Isomura was permitted to eat earlier than the regular group. I used to see him going back and forth from the dining hall. He walked bent and had to take short, quick steps. When he stood still, his whole body would tremble. He was known for his honesty."
About Kobata, Miyoshi Okita, a respected Buddhist priest from Los Angeles, stated, "Mr. Kobata was of a gentle and quiet nature. I am sure that he was not the kind of man who would resist the guards."
The medical investigator, Phillip Bond found nine wounds in each of the men. They were shot with a sawed-off shotgun loaded with double-ought buckshot each containing nine lead slugs.
According to the trial testimony, they were each shot once at a distance of around 30 yards. Visibility under the light of the full moon was good but not ideal for target practice. According to the alleged shooter, Burleson, "...you could see the bulk of an object fairly well. You couldn't see them well enough to tell whether they was red-headed or black-headed or anything to that effect, but you could see the bulk of the men reasonably well."
Nevertheless, the medical examiner found that nine slugs hit each of the men. The thirty yards, the low light, the spray of the shell, the small, moving (escaping) targets did not prevent the shooter from scoring nine out of nine, twice.
Could Burleson have performed this feat of marksmanship? Were these magic shotgun shells or, perhaps, something else altogether?
I am no munitions expert, but the ones I have spoken with claim that a nine out of nine with a sawed-off shotgun, low light and moving targets could only be performed at close range -- ten feet, likely less.
Many in the Japanese American community today recognize that Isomura and Kobata were ill and were killed for no good reason. The internees could not have tried to escape. I, however, have come to the conclusion that perhaps they were trying to escape. The so-called escape story seems to fall under the category of 'half-truth' rather than 'outright lie.' If one sees a soldier rushing forward with a loaded shotgun, the natural reaction (crippled or not) is to try to escape. Isomura was slower, was shot first and apparently died instantly. Kobata made it a few steps further before being shot. He survived.
Harold C. Stull, 1st Lieutenant, Corp of Engineers spoke with Kobata after he was shot. He noted that Kobata appeared to be paralyzed (he was shot in the spine) and asked for water. Stull's testimony regarding the events following the shooting is very important. He was not part of the group assigned to take the issei prisoners to the camp. His testimony is not riddled with inconsistencies, bizarre statements, or pat alibis. His statements may play a critical role in deducing whether the other men nearby could have done what they claim. He seems to provide a check on the others' testimony.
Much testimony is simply not credible. Joseph F. Kelley, Private Ist Class, was pressed into duty after a night of drinking in town. He claims to have gone off to a fireplug to quench his thirst seconds before the shooting occurred. According to himself and others, he then called for help, notified everyone in the area, drove to the compound, informed another guard, got kicked out of the truck, walked back to the scene, got in the truck again and drove to the compound. In fact, everyone near the scene of the crime claims that they heard about the shooting from Kelley. Even the internees heard about the killings from a guard who was in town drinking prior to the shooting. Quite a talker! Yes, but could he have informed everyone?
Colonel Clyde Lundy, the camp commandant was, by all accounts, a heavy drinker. His right hand man, Dockum, tells quite fascinating stories about the man. Lundy's safe, apparent repository of important items, was stocked with hard alcohol. Every weekend, there was a lively event in the officers' club. Masquerade balls, barrels of mixed drinks, farm animals, etc. And guess who was forced to clean up the mess?
Dockum claims that Lundy never drank while the flag was raised above the camp. However, he does recall glasses clinking during a mighty dust storm that blew Old Glory down.
Crime and Punishment
At the time of the shooting, the Japanese were confined to their barracks day and night despite the stifling Lordsburg summer. Why? Upon arrival at Lordsburg, the issei were forced to clean up after the weekend festivities and perform labor outside the camp for Lundy's friends in town. After a while, the issei refused to work. They organized a strike. In response, Lundy shut everyone in their barracks, posted a guard and allowed only short bathroom breaks.
One day after the shooting, Lundy released them from lock down.
Lundy's testimony at the court-martial is hardly believable yet it informs the careful reader in ways not foreseen by the colonel. Remember, he had the run of the place. He could get away with anything. But can history catch up with him now?
Lundy's quarters happened to be located near the site of the shooting. Lundy, himself claims to have been awake in the wee hours that morning. He was the only person to have heard the shooter call "halt." And he distinctly heard him holler twice as per Army protocol. But he denies seeing the shooting and after hearing the shots, he went looking in the main compound -- in the wrong direction.
Give Me Medicine to Kill Me
Kobata survived the shooting but he did not survive the night. He died in the dispensary at 5:30 AM. The official word is he died of his wounds. Sounds likely enough -- but for one thing. Lundy repeatedly insists that Kobata asked the medic, Phillip Bond to "give [him] medicine to kill him."
Why did Lundy feel the need to testify that Kobata requested a coup de grace? And how is it possible that a messy situation could have such a pat official explanation?
Prior to the shooting, the Japanese prisoners organized a strike against the forced labor brigades demanded each morning. Lundy must have bristled at the insolence of the Japs and the attack on his authority. He confined the entire camp to their barracks until further notice. The prisoners were allowed out only to go to the bathroom.
The issei knew this was illegal under the Geneva Convention and later they pressed for fair treatment under that standard. Their suit eventually led Eight Army headquarters at Fort Bliss to retire Lundy, close the prison at Lordsburg and move everyone to Santa Fe.
Before that, however, in the the middle of the hot Lordsburg summer, Kobata and Isomura were separated from their group, likely driven up the road, dropped off near Lundy's cabin and shot. The most likely explanation of the shooting came not from any army official, but from the issei themselves.
In the "Record of Witnesses" in the court-martial record, Sematsu Ishizaki, the first of four issei witness whose oral testimony was transcribed asserts his opinion: "I don't think they were trying to run away because they [the internees] were striking here and [Lundy] had the internees shut up in the barracks for more than 10 days, and it [the shooting] was done just for an example." The day following the killings, Lundy released the issei from house arrest and the forced labor resumed.
Some Questions for Further Study
Why does one of the officers testify that the gun Burleson was holding after the shooting was not the gun he was issued?
How could the crippled issei arrive at the the shooting site 400 yards behind the healthy men if they had not been driven?
Mitchell later recounts in a written interview with Mollie Pressler that he witnessed the mercy-killing of a man. Who was that?
Ishizaki testified that the internees were not counted nor given physical examinations upon entering the camp as was the usual procedure. Does that help us determine the credibility of the guards who claimed to carefully count the newcomers?
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