She nursed a war criminal

October 15, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson

FIFTY YEARS AGO, former Japanese dictator Hideki Tojo tried to cheat the hangman when orders went out for his arrest as a war criminal. Marking his heart location with a crayon, he shot himself in the chest with a pistol.

Although other senior officers committed suicide after Japan's surrender Sept. 2, 1945, Tojo bungled his attempt.

His wound was serious but not fatal. A top U.S. Army medical team, including 1st Lt. Rebecca Schmidt, a 26-year-old nurse from Long Green, Baltimore County, was assembled to nurse the 60-year-old former strongman so he could stand trial.

"I can't even tell you what happened that day," Rebecca Schmidt Enderle, now 76, said as she recounted her high-speed, hush-hush trip from the hospital ship Marigold at Yokohama to Tojo's bedside in a former schoolhouse at the edge of Tokyo, which had been converted to the 98th Field Evacuation Hospital.

In an interview from her home in Keytesville, Mo., Mrs. Enderle recalled: "Grace [Lt. Col. Grace Dick Gosnell, now 87, of Lonaconing, Md.] came in and told us that we had to go to another duty station. She couldn't tell us where, but she said, 'There's a Jeep waiting on the dock. Take your toothbrush.'

"[The late] Bertie Gorsuch [of Baltimore City] and I bounced along in that Jeep, up and down, over streets that had been bombed.

"They didn't tell us where we were until we got to his room," Mrs. Enderle said. "Tojo had just been brought in after the doctors had treated his wound; they left the bullet in him. I went in the room first and the flashbulbs almost blinded me. That's how my picture was taken."

The picture

She was referring to a photo of herself in a khaki field uniform, standing beside the wounded Tojo's bed, that appeared in The Sun Sept. 24, 1945. The picture transmission was delayed; Tojo had shot himself Sept. 11.

"That first day we couldn't wait to get back to the ship and tell everyone what we were doing," Mrs. Enderle said. But after the initial flurry, she said, the hospital settled into a regular routine with the prize prisoner-patient being "treated royally."

"I had mixed emotions about him," Mrs. Enderle said. Although they were dealing with one of the world's most hated men, she said, the medical staff remained completely professional.

Mrs. Gosnell said she knew where her nurses were going but couldn't tell them. "They were wonderful nurses. Nursing is the same no matter where you do it," said Mrs. Gosnell, who later worked at University of Maryland Hospital and at the former Veterans Administration Hospital on Loch Raven Boulevard. She still volunteers in Allegany County nursing homes.

"We were there every day for two weeks," Mrs. Enderle said. The three two-nurse teams worked 12-hour shifts so that a nurse was always in the room along with an interpreter and an armed guard. Another guard stood outside, she said.

Mrs. Enderle described Tojo as a cooperative patient, but one who "wouldn't keep his feet under the covers. He never seemed irritable. We shaved him and bathed him and changed dressings. He recovered without complications."

Facilities were so scant that the nurses improvised a wooden folding chair to prop him up in the bed, she said.

Only a little food

While nursing Tojo, "I can't remember talking to him at any length, just the occasional thing," Mrs. Enderle said. Tojo ate regular U.S. Army food, but only small amounts. When he had enough, he passed his hand across his throat and said, "full," she recalled.

The former Japanese prime and war minister posed with her for a photograph that she still prizes, but among her most vivid memories is of missing out on another souvenir.

Tojo's medal-bedecked tunic hung on a chair. "I often thought I would love to have one of those medals as a souvenir," she said. "Then one day I came in and found that he had divided them up among the guards and interpreters. Oh well, I don't know what I would have done with it anyway."

After two weeks, the nurses returned to treating liberated POWs aboard the Marigold. Tojo was transferred to the Army General Hospital in Tokyo to complete his recuperation and prepare for trial.

Having been overseas since 1942, Lieutenant Schmidt was sent home for discharge.

Admits starting war

Meanwhile, Tojo and other Japanese leaders went before an International Military Tribunal. Tojo, who was premier and war minister until July 1944, when the Allies started to close in, admitted his responsibility for starting the Pacific War but denied committing war crimes.

Nonetheless, on Nov. 12, 1948, after a 400-day trial, Tojo and seven others were sentenced to death as war criminals. He was hanged Dec. 23, 1948, one week before his 64th birthday.

Mrs. Enderle and her twin sister, Katherine, graduated from the St. Joseph Hospital nursing school in Baltimore. In April 1942, they joined the University of Maryland's 42nd General Hospital. The unit had served in World War I, and Mrs. Gosnell said it was the first medical unit into Japan after the formal surrender Sept. 2, 1945.

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