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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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Soldier kills woman

 

1957_0604

June 5, 1957
Tokyo

Until the moment he pulled the trigger on that day in January, Spc. 3rd Class William S. Girard of Ottowa, Ill., was a just bored 21-year-old soldier with an IQ of 90 guarding a machine gun on a firing range.

Until the moment Girard pulled the trigger, Naka Sakai of Somagahara, Japan, was just a 46-year-old wife and mother of six children from an impoverished village scavenging shell casings from the range.

Maybe as a warning, maybe out of boredom, Girard had his companion, Spc. 3rd Class Victor N. Nickel, throw some empty cartridges out on the firing range. As Sakai and the other scavengers scrambled to pick up the precious brass, Girard fired a warning shot: a spent casing from a grenade launcher mounted on a borrowed M-1 rifle. But the casing struck Sakai, killing her and touching off an international furor.

1957_0604_girard Beyond those few facts, the case is cloudy. According to the scavengers, some soldiers treated them well and saved empty brass for them while others threw spent cartridges in the bushes "as if they were feeding chickens," one said. Still others played a game of luring the scavengers and then shooting over their heads to frighten them away, according to a story by writer John Hersey.

To the U.S. military, Girard was acting while on duty and thus under American jurisdiction while Japanese officials insisted that Girard shot Sakai during a rest period, making him subject to local laws. After deliberations, U.S. military authorities decided to surrender Girard to Japan for a civilian trial, provoking furious protests from U.S. veterans groups like the American Legion.

According to Hersey, Girard was  "a short, slight, sandy-haired man with a faded scar on his forehead, a prominent nose and wide-flying ears, a thin-lipped mouth and weak chin. He leaves his mouth open much of the time in court. Before the killing, Girard was a kind of bumpkin clown. He drank quite a bit and ran up petty debts in the Japanese shops near his camp."

Girard's Japanese wife was a hindrance and help. Haru "Candy" Sueyama was born in Formosa and came to Japan as a teenager, where she worked various jobs before meeting Girard as a bar hostess. "Her kind is deeply scorned by the Japanese," Hersey said, describing her as small, freckled and brighter than her husband. Still, she paid the traditional visit of condolence and apology to the Sakai family on behalf of her husband.

The trial revealed the unbridgeable gulf between Japanese and American customs. "Girard will never look apologetic enough to the Japanese," Hersey wrote. Americans, even sensitive Americans--and Girard cannot be charged with overdeveloped sensitivity--simply do not have it in their tradition to fall to their knees and bow to the floor in abject humility, either literally or figuratively."

Even an attempt to present money in a condolence gift misfired and seemed to be nothing more than "a materialistic American attempt to buy off justice," Hersey wrote.

Girard, who was reduced in rank to private, was ultimately found guilty and given a three-year suspended sentence, a lighter punishment than he might have received in a court-martial, U.S. legislators noted. On his way home to Ottowa in December, Girard was booed by other soldiers. At her first American Christmas, Candy Girard told a reporter: "I'm just happy. I'm just happy."

Akikichi Sakai and his six children received $1,748.32 ($12,527. 21 USD 2006) in consolation money for the death of his wife. He said: "I do not thank you for it."

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