The Case of the Heisted Bicycle (Military Court)

Most of what follows is true.

Mrs Yae Minami was a genuine Japanese-American internee in California during WWII. As soon as the war ended, she took a job with the Defense Department in the Occupation, married a Japanese man, and lived long and prospered as a GS-grade secretary. The last time I ever heard from her was in 1990, retired, when she received her reparations check from the government. The Democrats were so embarrassed that it was one of their guys (FDR) who had interned them in the first place, while leaving the far larger number of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, 35% of the total population, virtually untouched, it took them almost 40 years to admit their error.

(There’s a lesson in there someplace.)

Mrs Minami was my secretary, had had that job since the HQ was built in ’51, and for some reason, liked me. In fact, she made me feel like a general. 

And her assistant made me feel like a god. She was an LN (local national) named Mrs Ogawa, a beautiful woman, who took dictation for our GS-13 attorney-liaison with the Japanese government. A real piece of work, about whom I will write later, like Mrs Minami he was a Japanese-American who came over with the Occupation from Hawaii.

Mrs Minami disliked him a lot.

She told me Mrs Tai Ogawa thought I hung the moon. Ogawa-san was the Old Japan you would see in Kurosawa films about the Emperor’s court. When I entered the outer office she stood, and when I said “Good morning” she bowed gracefully and said a very proper greeting, “Ohayo gozai-ma-su”, with eyes lowered, head bowed. Japanese have three ways of speaking, to people beneath them, people their equals, and people above them…the honorific, and she always spoke to me in the honorific. So when she bowed I bowed and then she would put her hand to her mouth and titter, just like in the movies.

But Mrs Ogawa was also terrified of me. Mrs Minami said she would have been taught as a child during the occupation that Americans, like Palestinian children today are taught about Israelis, eat their babies in ritual.

They were even told black Americans had long tails, which makes you wonder why so many Japanese girls took them for husbands.


This is one of their stories.

Mrs Minami escorted a black staff sergeant in and laid his file down on my desk. He had been referred for special court martial for stealing a Japanese man’s bicycle at the local train station. I asked Staff Sergeant Jim what happened, and he said “MP’s told me I stole a bicycle at the Sagami train station.”

“You don’t know?”

“No, sir. I was pretty drunk. MP’s came and picked up this bicycle on my kitchen stoop around 0900, then got me out of bed, and took me straight to the station. Then they read me my rights. That was Saturday. When I came to work on Monday I was told by my office chief my records had been flagged, and to go see a JAG.”

“So you still don’t know what you did?”

“Oh, I know, sir. MP’s said they had me dead to rights. Gate guards say they saw me carrying a bike in the gate, and the Japanese man had already come and identified the bike as his.”

I just shook my head. “How many years you got in, Staff Sergeant?”

“I’m six months shy of eighteen, sir.”

“Shit” I thought.

“Have you been served papers by the CO yet?”

“No sir.”

(We were in a major Army command, where personnel had two commanders, an office boss, actually several, running up to a full bird-colonel in SSG Jim’s case, the G-1, and then a garrison chain of command running up to a full bird as well. The garrison command acted on all disciplinary actions, mostly Article 15’s, but usually for lower ranked enlisted. I was in charge of defense for all of them.)

“It should be this week. I’ll get all the files together, and come back and see me on Friday.”

The CID report stated that SSG Jim showed his ID at the Train Station gate at around 0130 hours. And it stated that he was carrying a bicycle over his shoulder. At 0300 a Japanese man came to the gate and said that his friends told him they’d seen a black man pick up his bicycle and carry it toward the Army gate. The gate guards called the MP’s, checked the log-in sheet of people who had been thru the gate…not a lot at that hour…and within an hour found the bike leaned against the stoop at the back door of SSG Jim’s quarters.

The bicycle lock was still in place. (Emphasis mine) My first glimmer of a defense.

His service record showed that he enlisted in 1957, and aside from basic training and whatever schools Admin soldiers go to, he spent 12 of his remaining 16 years in the Far East, including two tours in Vietnam, either in Saigon or Cam Ranh Bay or both. He was in his fourth tour in Japan. A very clean record, not so much as a reprimand.

Instead of waiting til Friday, I called SSG Jim and asked if I could over that afternoon. A Japanese woman met me at the door, showed me in, and SSG Jim introduced her as his wife, Yeiko. She fixed tea, we exchanged pleasantries, and while we sat their two daughters came in from school, one about 12, the other about 9. Two more beautiful specimens of humanity you’ve never seen. There is likely no fairer people on earth than the offspring of an African-American male and a Oriental woman.

I wondered out loud why he hadn’t been called into the colonel’s office and read the riot act, or offered an Article 15. I asked if they had marital problems.

No. This was their last overseas tour and the last time she and the kids would be able to spend much time with her family, who lived only a couple of hours away. They wanted to retire and resettle on the West Coast or Hawaii, their next duty station hopefully in California where he could begin looking for another career to transition into.

I got the impression that everything they were planning was for the benefit of the family. Nice people.

I asked SSG Jim if he knew that the bike the MP’s retrieved from his kitchen stoop was still locked. He said he didn’t. “Does that matter?”

“Well, yes,” I answered”, at least as far as the issue of intent goes to proving the Theft charge. But it wouldn’t help on the Article 134 charge, which is a catch-all charge in most military cases, that a soldier is charged with any misconduct that brings disrepute to the Army, public drunkenness to point of stealing a locked bicycle probably high on that list.

Both SSG Jim and Yaiko’s face fell.  It was obvious the ability to retire on what amounted to $470/month was a big part of their plans.

CPT Ted was a good friend. He’d been there a year or more longer than me, and had been an Admin lawyer, mostly writing legal opinions for the General. Never tried a case. A career man, I think they assigned him this case because, like some officers in Vietnam who needed some command time in the field, Ted needed some trial experience to pad his career file and this was a case they couldn’t lose. So why not let Ted handle it?

Next day, Ted came into to see me. He delivered the formal charges, signed by the garrison commander, charging SSG Jim with two counts of Article 134, for theft and public drunkenness.

I asked him if Col Weeks (the commander) had considered just calling SSG Jim in and giving him a reprimand. After all, there was no harm. No damage. And SSG Jim had 18 years of service.

This was where Ted gave the prosecution’s game away, for he corrected me, saying “17 years, 6 months.”

They would be going after his pension.

“Why not an Article 15? You can only get one stripe either way.”

“Colonel’s option”, he answered. (A field grade Article 15 could, besides extra duty and restriction, take half Jim’s pay for 2 months, 30 days in the slammer, and one stripe, back to SGT (E-5). A Special Court could give him a year in jail, forfeiture of 2/3rds pay for a year, plus a stripe, but not likely. The stripe would be the killer, as it could cost SSG Jim as much as $200/month, almost half his expected retirement pay, for the rest of their lives.

Seemed a little mean to me, something our garrison commander was not prone to do.

Mrs Minami provided the answer. Because the victim was a Japanese national, seems Mrs Ogawa’s GS-13 boss, Michael, had a say in it, as did our new JAG, a colonel from Harvard, to deal specifically with problems between the Army and the Japanese government. 15 years on the job, he’d never been outside the Charlottesville- Ft Myers corridor.

Seems SSG Jim was just a pawn in a make-nice campaign. For  proof, our Command Sergeant Major controlled a fund for solatiums, “Gomen-nasai” (“I’m sorry”) money, a private compensation for small wrongs done by soldiers to local nationals. Seems the CSM’s overture had already been nixed by Mr Ogawa’s boss, GS-13 Michael.

Hell, I saw the bike, 100 bucks (Y 35,000) would have bought him two new bikes.

The fix was in, and SSG Jim was going to be sacrificed on the altar of making a new prick colonel look good.

CPT Ted handed me a formal offer in exchange for a guilty plea; about half of the max; a reduction in rank to E-5, no jail time, and only 6 months forfeiture of 2/3rds of his pay. At which time he would be an E-5 sergeant on this 18th anniversary, and would return to the States with his family.

CPT Ted smiled. After all. He had a cod-lock cinch on the case.

SSG Jim came to see on Monday, and I told him the offer. I asked him if he could live with it. Or would he rather take his chances with the jury?

He came back on Monday and told me that he’d done some checking with some old AG mates back in the States. He said he’d never get his stripe back, and that if he made it to retirement there would be a sizeable difference in retirement pay since E-5’s were normally separated at 15 if they couldn’t make rank. It would be a crap shoot that he’d even be allowed to make it to 20.

Jim was only 37. It was a lose-lose for him. And for his family. But I was mad, because some weeny colonel wanted to make this a show trial just to kiss some mayor’s honorable butt.

So, with Jim’s blessing, on Tuesday, I marched across the hall to CPT Ted’s office, laid the unsigned plea offer on his desk, and said “See you in court.”

He looked up dumbfounded, but I just wheeled and left the office. Turns out we were never friends again.

On the day of trial, a couple of weeks later, the only doubt was what CPT Ted thought he knew and what I knew he didn’t.

He prepared for presenting his case, while I prepared for selecting the jury.

A panel of five men were escorted in, three officers, and two enlisted. I knew all the officers. An enlisted man is entitled to at least one-third of the jury to be enlisted. One was an E-7, the other an E-8, both had more service time than the officers.

We had a lieutenant-colonel, a major and a captain.

We, CPT Ted and I, each had one strike, he chose the E-7, I took the LTC. We were down to three.

The trial began. And Ted, straight by the evidence handbook, proved the elements of the case by establishing the ownership and original location of the bicycle, and the “chain of evidence”, who actually saw it going from the train station to the defendant’s back stoop.

It would normally take less than an hour, but since one of the gate guards was Japanese, as well as the owner of the bike, we had to have an interpreter be sworn. Very tedious and slow.

I only cross-examined the bicycle owner, and asked him if he had been approached by members of the command offering US Dollars  for his trouble in retrieving the bicycle. He answered “No”. Then I asked him “Would you have accepted it, had a $100 offer been made?” at which time CPT Ted jumped up and objected  Too late. Everyone on the jury knew an attempt to offer a solatium had been made, but forces inside the command had prevented it.

I put SSG Jim on the stand, where he testified he was very drunk, didn’t remember a thing, and was very sorry. I then had him confirm his status of being 6 months shy of being locked into retirement.

Now, almost no one ever comes to these trials, except a few military people with nothing better to do than roam the halls. But this day SSG Jim’s wife, Yeiko and their daughters attended. I asked Jim if his family was in the courtroom, and he said “Yes Sir.” CPT Ted stood up to object, but before he could open his mouth, I said, “The defense rests, Your Honor.”

Ted made a great final oration, since he had all the facts, and all the guilt as required by law. It took him twenty minutes to sum up what could have been summed up in five.

Then it took me five minutes to sum up what, had I been William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes Trial, would have taken an hour. “This cross of gold!” Even if I didn’t have the jury in the bag, I had to act like I did. I simply pointed out the 18, not 17 ½-year career, the loss of pension, which all on the jury but the captain had the same skin in the game, and Oh, the humanity! Five minutes tops.

The jury came back in ten minutes and found SSG Jim “Not Guilty” on both charges.

Captain Ted was wroth, as the Bible says. He stood up from his table, then threw The Manual down. If there had been a dog, he’d of kicked it. He said, his words, “This wasn’t supposed to happen. You were supposed to take the deal. How can you get an acquittal in a case that was a cod-lock cinch? What kind of lawyer does that?”  

People forget just how far a check for $467/mo and being able to buy a USAA automobile policy could go to a family of four in their late 30s, for the rest of their lives.

“You’ve never played the game unless you play for more than you can afford to lose.” –Steve McQueen



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