A Case of Treason: The Traitor of Corregidor
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, upon leaving Corregidor Island for Australia in March 1942, famously stated: “I shall return.” But for the thousands of American service members remaining in the Philippines, evacuation was not an option. They prepared for the uncertainties that lay ahead once they became prisoners of war of the invading Japanese forces.
One such service member was Burton Thomson, nicknamed “Stretch.” In 1938, Stretch became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. To enhance his career prospects, he volunteered for duty in a foreign country and was transferred to the Philippine Islands in May 1941. First Lt. Thomson left behind his wife, Olive, and his infant son, Kenneth. First stationed north of Manila, he was sent in August 1941 to Corregidor Island and was promoted to the rank of captain. When Japanese forces entered the Malinta Tunnel Complex on Corregidor in May 1942, Capt. Thomson became a prisoner of war. By the end of May, he was executed by Japanese forces.
The author of the book is Capt. Thomson’s son Kenneth. The first part of the book is the story of his father’s year in the Philippines and is largely told by means of details gleaned from the letters his father wrote to his mother. This gives the narrative a consistency and uniquely personal touch, which is often lacking in accounts that combine the experiences of many different individuals.
The second part of the book recounts the trial of Sgt. John Provoo, whom the U.S. government charged with acts of treason committed while he was a prisoner of war. One such act led directly to the execution of Capt. Thomson by the Japanese.
In the years leading up to his induction into the U.S. Army, John Provoo had lived in Japan, where he picked up conversational Japanese, converted to Buddhism, and immersed himself in Japanese culture. At some point after the invasion of the Philippine Islands, Sgt. Provoo made the fateful decision to offer his services to the Japanese forces.
Once Sgt. Provoo became a prisoner of war, he was required to adhere to a code of conduct, which forbade him from seeking privileges from the enemy and taking actions that harmed fellow service members. Failure to abide by the code of conduct subjected him to punitive actions under military law. In addition, aiding and supporting an enemy rendered the acts treasonous under federal law.
Under the circumstances, Sgt. Provoo’s desire to save his own skin or lessen his suffering was understandable. But he did so in such a manner that his fellow prisoners viewed his actions as actively siding with the Japanese against his own countrymen. For example, Sgt. Provoo encouraged his fellow prisoners to reveal sensitive information. Even in captivity, service members must follow the rank structure that existed prior to capture. Sgt. Provoo disregarded this and attempted to punish officers who resisted his demands. It became clear from the testimony during the trial that Sgt. Provoo’s report to the Japanese of Capt. Thomson’s refusal to comply with an order and anti-Japanese comments provided the Japanese with the justification for making an example of Capt. Thomson.
This book is not a dispassionate description of a trial of a traitorous American soldier. Sgt. Provoo is portrayed in a thoroughly unsavory light — pretentious, arrogant, self-serving, vain, and vindictive. The author makes it clear that Sgt. Provoo’s actions directly led to the death of his father and that Sgt. Provoo perjured himself on the witness stand. While the author interjects angry comments on occasion, the use of direct quotes from the trial transcript permits the reader to form his or her own conclusions about the credibility of Provoo’s testimony.
The account of the trial is an interesting dive into criminal procedure, the art of cross-examination, and the importance of decisions made before charges are filed. Sgt. Provoo’s discharge from the U.S. Army and hand-off to the Department of Justice was flawed, and his constitutional rights to a speedy trial had been violated. In the end, Sgt. Provoo’s conviction for treason and his sentence to life in prison were overturned by a federal appellate court.