The trials of Edmund Bodine: How a Kootenay woman’s parents defended Japanese officers during the Second World War

The forgotten details of the Doolittle Trial resurfaced in a book published last year

Edmund Bodine was an American pilot during the Second World War. He flew unarmed planes used for rescue and recon missions. Photo courtesy Natalie Bodine

Edmund Bodine was an American pilot during the Second World War. He flew unarmed planes used for rescue and recon missions. Photo courtesy Natalie Bodine

Michel Paradis had been searching for the relatives of a dead American pilot when he dialled the number of a woman living in a small Kootenay community.

A New York lawyer and professor, Paradis introduced himself and asked if the woman was by chance related to Lt. Col. Edmund Bodine, a man who played a key role in one of the most pivotal trials of the 20th century.

“I’ve been waiting for this call for 30 years,” replied Bodine’s daughter, Natalie Bodine.

The ensuing conversations with Natalie and her sister Elizabeth, and the archives they provided about their parents, helped Paradis write his book Last Mission to Tokyo: The Extraordinary Story of The Doolittle Raiders and Their Final Fight for Justice, which was released last year.

In 1942, the U.S. was intent on revenge after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, but lacked the technology to launch return air strikes. Pilot Jimmy Doolittle pitched a plan to fly 16 bombers on a one-way trip to Japan’s mainland that would end with the planes landing in China.

The attack was an early American victory in the Pacific Theatre that stunned Japan. The 80 pilots who took part were named the Doolittle Raiders and heralded as heroes. But eight pilots were also captured. Three were executed, one died in captivity, and four survived years of torture before they were eventually rescued at the end of the war.

Paradis’ book follows the story of the trial of four Japanese officers who were charged with war crimes for their roles in the imprisonment, torture and deaths.

Paradis, who is also known in Canada for his part in defending former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr, was researching the history of waterboarding when he first read about the Doolittle Trial in 2007.

“It was a story about fairness to your enemies, it was a story about injustice, and it was a story about revenge,” he says.

But as he began his research, in 2014, Paradis couldn’t understand Bodine’s role in the trial.

Shigeru Sawada, Yusei Wako, Ruyhei Okada and Sotojiro Tatsuta were being prosecuted at a U.S. military tribunal with the murder and torture of American heroes. There was no obvious reason why Bodine should offer to defend men who had been his enemy.

After months of searching for Bodine’s relatives, Paradis made a call and found Natalie in Harrop, B.C.

Love in a time of war

Edmund Bodine had no business defending anyone.

Before the war, he led a comfortable life in an affluent New York family. He dropped out of law school to sign up as a pilot during the Second World War, but at 27 years old was considered too old to fly fighters. Instead, he flew L-5 Sentinels, small unarmed planes used for rescue and recon missions.

Bodine still distinguished himself during the war, earning two Bronze Stars for heroism, but after the Japanese surrendered he found himself in Shanghai ferrying officers and troops around China. That was when he met Elizaveta Snigursky, a White Russian working at a hotel where Allied officers were staying.

At that point, Elizaveta had already escaped with her brother and mother to China during the Russian Revolution. She could speak five languages, including English, and despite some initial trepidation fell in love with Bodine.

But Elizaveta was stateless. As the military started shipping officers home, Bodine decided he didn’t want to leave Elizaveta. So when he was asked to take part in a open and shut case, he accepted.

“I think when he takes the job, it’s an excuse to stay with his girlfriend and that’s it,” says Paradis. “And he assumes, not unreasonably, that his job is to just stand there and look pretty while these guys get sentenced to death, because that’s what everyone expects him to do.”

Everyone except Elizaveta, who along with junior defence counsel Charles Fellows convinced Bodine that the Japanese might actually have a case.

Love may have played a part, but Natalie isn’t surprised her father took the trial despite his misgivings.

“He knew the atrocities of what happened. They had to find somebody and thought they’d found a stooge. Fortunately, my father really did believe that everyone deserves a fair trial.”

Bodine and Fellows began building their argument that the four men had little say in the treatment of the Doolittle Raiders. Knowing fluent Japanese, Elizaveta assisted with translations and understanding cultural nuances.

When Paradis visited Natalie and Elizabeth Bodine in 2015, they also found evidence of Elizaveta’s contributions in Edmund’s witness notes and transcripts.

“You could see my mother’s writing and correcting things, and giving him insight of how to approach when he put these Japanese men on the stand,” says Natalie.

A surprise verdict

When the trial began on March 18, 1946, the concepts of human rights and international law were still in their infancy.

It was two years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, which had only just ratified its charter in 1945. The Geneva Conventions, the international laws governing treatment of wartime prisoners, were not adopted until 1949.

Japan had a robust legal system, but the Doolittle Raiders’ own one-day trial had been for show. They weren’t afforded a defence, the hearing wasn’t translated and one of the Raiders was so ill he spent the hearing lying on the ground while flies buzzed around his body.

“This period really does reshape what it means to be a human being in the world, as having dignity as a person that just didn’t exist, that we take very much for granted today,” Paradis says.

Paradis’ account of the trial shows Bodine struggling through the proceedings that any qualified lawyer would have done with ease, such as making statements or questioning witnesses, while taking on a prosecution team led by a short-tempered and determined Robert Dwyer.

But Bodine’s work led to a stunning result – all four officers were found guilty and sentenced to hard labour, but avoided the death penalty. It drew condemnation from many Americans, some of whom called for a new trial.

Bodine, having already defended men who were his enemy, and having drawn scorn from his family for his relationship with Elizaveta who by now he had eloped with, faced criticism from his own country.

“It was a shock,” says Natalie. “You also have to understand during this trial, it was covered by the U.S. media. If you look it up, it was everywhere. And my father was getting hate mail from the States, including children in elementary schools. The teachers were urging children to write letters to my father. He was very disheartened over that.”

The Bodines are seen here in 1957 while Edmund was stationed at a U.S. base in St. John’s, N.L. Natalie Bodine had just been born at the time. L-R: Edmund Jr., Edmund Sr., Elizaveta (holding Natalie) and Elizabeth. Photo courtesy Natalie Bodine

The Bodines are seen here in 1957 while Edmund was stationed at a U.S. base in St. John’s, N.L. Natalie Bodine had just been born at the time. L-R: Edmund Jr., Edmund Sr., Elizaveta (holding Natalie) and Elizabeth. Photo courtesy Natalie Bodine

Bodine went on to defend other war criminals, including a German spy. In 1951, he received his law degree, leading to a 26-year career in the army. But while the men he served with during the war advanced up the ranks, Bodine was never promoted above lieutenant colonel.

In 1954, near the end of the McCarthy era when Americans were regularly investigated for ties to communism, Bodine was summoned to a hearing. His own military had decided he was a security risk because of Elizaveta’s heritage and her correspondence with family in Russia.

Bodine’s hearing never went to trial, but it hurt him deeply. Unable to get rid of him, the military sent the family to a U.S. base in St. John’s, N.L., where Natalie was born in 1957.

The family, which included four children, eventually relocated to Tampa, Fla., and Bodine continued as a defence counsel. His clients once included soldiers who were charged with being gay during the years when LGBTQ+ people were banned from service. After he retired, he taught sign language and served on state and county governments in Florida.

Natalie remembers staying with her parents to help care for her father, who was suffering from dementia at the end of his life. He had a habit of waking in the night, dressing himself and taking his briefcase into the living room.

When Natalie asked him what he was doing, she realized he wasn’t reliving the Doolittle Trial. He was playing out the hearing against him 40 years prior.

“One night he was crying, and I went to him and said, ‘Pop, what’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘They found me not guilty.’”

Kinship

It’s easy now for Paradis to see the parallels between the Doolittle Trial and his own work.

Ex post facto laws, torture, the right to a fair trial — all the issues debated in the Shanghai courtroom nearly 75 years ago are the same ones Paradis has argued in defence of Guantanamo prisoners.

He admits to feeling a lineage to Bodine, who had to represent his country’s enemies, as well as for Dwyer, who was outraged by the Japanese government’s perversion of laws and by the torture of the Raiders.

“When I first read that trial, it kicked me in the chest how much I could understand what was going on and relate, and this simultaneous sense of kinship to the people involved,” he says.

Edmund Bodine passed away in 1994, and Elizaveta joined him one year later. They are both buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Even though she grew up with her parents, Natalie Bodine now thinks she knows them better after having worked with Paradis on his book.

“I think that I understand now the pressures both of them were under. The pressures of discrimination, how my father and mother never complained, how they just lived their life as true and honest as they could.”

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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Edmund Bodine is seen here at the military tribunal in Shanghai, 1946, when he was tasked with acting as defence counsel for four Japanese officers accused of the unlawful deaths of American pilots. Standing, L-R: Bodine, Shigeru Sawada, Yusei Wako, Ruyhei Okada, Sotojiro Tatsuta, co-counsel Charles Fellows. Photo courtesy of Natalie Bodine

Edmund Bodine is seen here at the military tribunal in Shanghai, 1946, when he was tasked with acting as defence counsel for four Japanese officers accused of the unlawful deaths of American pilots. Standing, L-R: Bodine, Shigeru Sawada, Yusei Wako, Ruyhei Okada, Sotojiro Tatsuta, co-counsel Charles Fellows. Photo courtesy of Natalie Bodine

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