Note: This story was written by member and retired Air Force Colonel Ron Albers for Motts Military Museum. It is used here with permission.
Davis Porter Newton was born in 1915 in Birmingham, Alabama, the second of two sons in his family. His father died suddenly when Dave was only 10. Financially his mother and the two sons were quite well off, as Dave’s father had a number of bank accounts which were left to his family Unfortunately, the Great Depression began while Dave was still a teenager; and all the banks went broke, taking the family funds with them.
Dave was forced to enter the job market while still taking advanced courses in high school. Early on he learned to be honest, to work hard for whoever was paying him, and to treat everyone he dealt with fairly and with utmost respect. Of course, jobs were very difficult to get during the Depression. The paper route Dave wanted was obtained by a 46-year-old man with a family to support, so he was forced to mow large lawns with a non-powered push mower for 35 cents a yard. Once, he and a team of friends were paid by Sears to distribute sales flyers door-to-door. Dave received kudos for his diligence at not missing a home in his area, while his friends were punished for cheating by skipping most homes and simply dumping the brochures wherever they could hide them. He learned the same lessons over and over in a variety of sales and labor-intensive jobs before he graduated from high school. Being kind and gentle with people was a better way than using power, force, or intimidation. Being positive always works better than being negative.
His first full-time job was with Armour Packing Company, filling in for workers while they were on vacation; and he learned a variety of skills that way. The shorthand and typing skills he learned there would help him throughout his career. He still says he learned most of his lessons “the hard way.” While later working in sales for this meat packer, Dave witnessed managers severely verbally belittle one of his co-workers. While they joked to one another about the abuse they had given this subordinate, the upset salesman left the worksite and promptly committed suicide. This incident had a tremendous impact upon Dave’s life. Dave vowed he would never treat anyone harshly or unfairly; and he has been true to his word. Records indicate that throughout his military and civilian careers, Davis P. Newton remained a calm and trusted lawyer - whether he was the defending attorney or the prosecutor.
From February of 1936 until he entered the Army in March of 1943, Dave worked for the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company - a railroad owned by U.S. Steel. During this period (1937 to 1942) Dave attended night school at the Birmingham School of Law, graduating with an LLB degree. He never did attend a formal college or university. His teachers were all local lawyers and judges, as opposed to today’s law professors. They, too, instilled the same principals of honesty, respect, and fairness in Dave.
Fortunately for Dave he graduated from law school and passed the bar examination just prior to his enlistment in the U.S. Army. That same month, March 1943, he married his wife of 63 years, Mildred (“General Mil,” as he calls her today.) Dave enlisted at Ft. McClellan in Anniston, AL and was part of the Volunteer Officer Candidate School. After 10 weeks of basic training at Camp Walters, TX, the recruits were supposed to be commissioned as second lieutenants. Unfortunately, Congress had decided that there were already too many second lieutenants in the Army, so Dave and all his classmates were forced to meet a Board of Officers; and he was one of only four selected, but he was still not commissioned.
Dave and others traveled to Ft. McPherson near Atlanta in a Civil War era train to be indoctrinated into the military, be issued uniforms and other items, and undergo medical examinations and shots. On the return trip, he was impressed by a guy who was in the Merchant Marine and told him how great things were in that branch of the military service. As a result, Dave quit the Army and joined the Merchant Marine where he spent eight months with the “sorriest bunch I ever served with.” Fortunately, the Army contacted Dave and asked him to go to engineering school in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he went for four months or so. He was then assigned to the 346th Harbor Craft Company (U.S. Army Transportation Corps) in New Orleans, where he was finally commissioned a second lieutenant in April 1944. Although he was assigned a boat, there was really nothing to do at the time. When he heard that the Judge Advocate General Corps needed more second lieutenant JAGs, he jumped at the chance and was reassigned to a stevedore unit, where he represented the underdogs - GIs who were charged with various military offenses.
Soon 2nd Lt Newton was transferred to Oakland, California and assigned to Sea Bass, a
C-2 cargo ship that had been converted to a troop carrier. Although he was still an engineer in the Transportation Corps, he remained a criminal law defense attorney as they cruised unescorted to Dutch New Guinea. When he arrived in August of 1944, he was finally in the battle with the Japanese. He engineered a supply tug that was taking supplies to fighting troops on the islands and carrying the sick and wounded troops out, still as a member of the 346th Harbor Craft Company. He spent many months going between Dulag (on the Island of Leyte in the Phillippines) and various islands in this small tugboat with only a 20 mm gun, towing supply barges. He was directly involved with General MacArthur’s troops that captured Tacloban. In November 1945, Dave was summoned to Yokohama from Landia, and he only had three days to report to General MacArthur’s HQ as a war crimes investigator.
A commendation from the Secretary of War and the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Forces in the Far East presented to 1 Lt Davis in 1947 reads in part:
For meritorious service and superior performance of duty as a member of the Investigation Division, Legal Section, General Headquarters, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, from 20 November 1945 to 31 October 1946. Lieutenant Newton displayed outstanding professional competence and resourcefulness in investigating conditions which prevailed in enemy prisoner of war camps and in uncovering information relative to the perpetrators of war crimes and atrocities. By painstaking interrogation and research, he was instrumental in the positive identification and location of numerous war criminals. Through his marked ability and devotion to duty, Lieutenant Newton made a notable contribution to the successful prosecution of those guilty of numerous warcrimes committed against Allied prisoners of war.
On 1 Nov 1946 1 Lt Newton was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army at his own request. He wanted to become a civilian War Trials Prosecutor (a promotion he accepted mainly because it meant more money. In addition to his wife, Dave was still supporting his mother.) His experience as a war crimes investigator helped him immensely with his new role, and he actually continued to do the investigative work. His extensive background and work experience had also made him a skilled writer and typist, so he prepared all of his own reports. He remained in Tokyo prosecuting these war crimes until March, 1951
Using the techniques of respect and fairness he learned as a youth, Lt Newton was able to interrogate Japanese and Americans alike about war crimes committed against our U.S. POWs in Japanese prison camps. One camp in particular was Yokosuka Navy Garrison Ofuna Provisional POW Camp (near Yokohama.) While it was run by the Japanese Navy and only supposed to briefly hold prisoners from U.S. Navy vessels sunk or captured, it ran for more than three years and held Americans from all branches of service for lengthy stays. It was never reported to the International Red Cross, as required by the Geneva Accords, and it was said to have been the most brutal of all the Japanese prison camps. While about 4% of American POWs in Italian and German camps died in captivity, 40% of those interned by the Japanese died, so one can imagine how terrible this place was. Lt Newton interviewed Japanese at all levels in their chain of command, down to the actual guards, and was able to document the terrible - and totally unnecessary - illegal abuse of our POWs. They were brutally beaten for absolutely no reason - some beaten to death. They had their meager ration of food and water cut even more. They were placed in isolation, again for no apparent reason other than to make them suffer. In spite of serious illnesses, malnutrition, and severe injuries these Japanese commanders never allowed the Americans to be treated by a doctor. Medical assistance was totally withheld from these POWs, again causing many to die needlessly under the worst possible conditions. By proving that the conduct of some Japanese was willful and wanton, Lt Newton convicted three commanders who were given the death penalty. In a bit of irony, two of those Japanese commanders wrote letters to Newton commending him for his fair and dignified treatment of them in his investigation and prosecution. They had expected to be abused or treated harshly, instead of with the respect and calmness displayed by their judge. Sixteen other Japanese personnel received a total of 349 years of imprisonment. One received a life sentence, and another committed suicide after his first day of interrogation.
These Ofuno trials ended in 1948. Unfortunately, in 1951 the custody of all war criminals reverted to Japan; and eventually all the prison sentences were commuted. (The U.S. was worried that the Japanese would align with the communist Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War and, therefore, wanted to appease the Japanese.)
Following his duties at the war trials, Dave was assigned to Okinawa until 1956 as a civilian with the Army Corps of Engineers. He was sent as a legal advisor but was promoted to Chief of the Legal Unit, Engineer Section, HQ U.S. Army Forces Far East and Eighth U.S. Army. They managed massive construction projects after the war.
He was then reassigned by the Corps of Engineers to projects in Nashville and Cape Canaveral before being asked to become Chief Legal Counsel at DCSC (now DSCC) here in Columbus, a position he held from 1962 until he retired in 1985 at the age of 70.
In his retirement years, Dave has done many presentations about the Japanese war crimes, and he has also written extensively about them. In 1999 he wrote a detailed source document about one of the POWs in Ofuno, Major William H. Walker, a downed B-29 pilot. Dave added that Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, USMC, “posthumously” received the Medal of Honor because it was unknown that he was alive and a POW at Ofuno. The Japanese didn’t tell the Red Cross about that particular prison or any of its POWs there. Of all the prisoners in the camp, Major Walker was treated the most inhumanely. For months on end he was beaten with a baseball bat and often went a week at a time without food. Captured on December 27, 1944, Major Walker was tortured until he was repatriated on August 27, 1945. He died three days later aboard a hospital ship, the U.S.S. Benevolence. He weighed 200 pounds when captured and only 97 pounds when freed. The brutality of the Japanese towards this one individual was incomprehensible. Yet, Major Walker never gave them one bit of information. He simply refused to talk. As a result of Dave Newton’s research and publication, there is now a memorial to Major Walker at Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base. Had it not been for Dave’s extensive efforts, Major Walker would have been forgotten.
Among the things Dave continually mentions is his respect for the Nisei. These were second generation Japanese Americans, and two of them served as interpreters during the war trials. Newton has an incredible admiration for their skill, dedication, and professionalism. While their families and friends were being held in camps in California, these two wanted to prove that there were no better Americans than they were. And they succeeded.
Dave and Mildred still live in their own home in Columbus and are quite active. He often visits Motts Museum and can literally talk for hours about his military experiences. It’s amazing the details he can remember from events that happened more than 60 years ago.
We hope you’ll have the opportunity to meet him some day. He is a living textbook on
the Pacific Theatre of WW II.
Mr. Newton passed away peacefully on October 21, 2009, here in Columbus from complications of old age. His wife, Mildred, preceded him in death.