John David Provoo

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John David Provoo (1917–August 28, 2001) was a sergeant in the United States Army. Before World War II, he studied in Japan, but returned to the United States when the war broke out; convicted of treason for his conduct during World War II but then later having his conviction overturned, he returned to Japan for further religious studies and was ordained as a Buddhist priest. He then moved to Hawaii, where he lived until his death.[1][2]


Provoo was born in San Francisco, California in 1917.[1] He began to practise Buddhism as a teenager, and became a strict adherent; his brother George recalled in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin how Provoo would stand at the kitchen sink saving ants from drowning, in accordance with the Buddhist principle of the sanctity of life.[1] He also began studying the Japanese language around that time, with a Buddhist priest as his teacher.[3] He went on to work in a federal bank in his hometown, and then in 1940 moved to Japan to study in a Buddhist monastery near Tokyo.[1][3]

World War II[edit]

With the United States' entry into World War II, Provoo returned home and enlisted in the United States Army.[1] He was sent to the Philippines, where he worked as a G-2 clerk at the army headquarters in Manila, and was briefly considered as a candidate for the Counter Intelligence Corps due to his Japanese language skills, but ultimately rejected due to his suspected homosexuality and the time he had spent in Japan.[4] He was captured in the Battle of Corregidor in 1942 and made a prisoner of war.[5]

According to his fellow prisoners, Provoo used his fluent Japanese to rise to a position of power in the POW camp, abusing his fellow prisoners to gain privileges from the Japanese.[3] Various accounts state that Provoo personally shot an army captain named Burton C. Thomson, a veterinarian stationed on Corregidor, or reported him to Japanese troops who shot him themselves, though the exact details vary. One stated that Thomson had provoked Provoo by responded to Provoo's demand that he bring him some food with a comment to the effect that next time he saw Provoo he would kick him so hard that Provoo could taste his boot; another gave the reason as Thomson's refusal to move American prisoners out of hospital beds to make room for Japanese troops at Provoo's demand.[4][6] One POW also claimed in his memoirs that Provoo was so hated by his fellow prisoners that one had tried to kill him by putting ground glass in his food, and that Provoo later threatened to kill a colonel surnamed Cooper.[6] The diaries of Frank Fujita, one of the few Japanese American soldiers captured by the Japanese during World War II, placed Provoo on Taiwan and then at Camp Omori, a Tokyo Bay facility which housed prisoners making propaganda broadcasts for the Japanese.[7]

After the war, Provoo was arrested, but then released in 1946 after eight months of investigation which concluded that there was no evidence he had collaborated with the Japanese; he re-enlisted in the army six weeks later.[3][5]

Re-arrest and trial[edit]

Provoo was honorably discharged from the army on 2 September 1949 at Governors Island, New York; however, an hour after his release, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested him and charged him with treason.[3][8] The story made the front page of The New York Times the following day.[8] His trial, initially scheduled to begin in January 1950, was repeatedly delayed as the government sought to gather more witnesses as well as due to Provoo's own 1951 commitment to the Bellevue Hospital Center for psychiatric evaluation.[9][10][11][12] His trial finally began in 1952. The defense's star witness was General Jonathan Wainwright, called in the trial's seventh week; by his own testimony, he had never met Provoo nor heard any reports about him during the war. The general instead spoke of his experiences in Japanese POW camps. Lawyers had to shout their questions at him, as his exposure to loud shell bursts during the war had left him with severe hearing impairment.[13]

After a fifteen-week trial, the jury found Provoo guilty on charges of offering his services to the Japanese Army, helping to cause the execution of a fellow prisoner, and making two propaganda broadcasts on behalf of the Japanese. He was the eighth U.S. citizen convicted of treason after World War II, and only the second whose conviction related to actions during his imprisonment in a POW camp.[14] His sentence was announced the following week; the court spared him the death penalty on grounds of his emotional instability, instead giving him life imprisonment.[15] In total, the costs of Provoo's trial were estimated at $1 million.[16]

In August 1954, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned his conviction on the grounds that he should have been tried in Maryland and that the cross-examination about his alleged homosexuality inappropriately prejudiced the jury. By that time, the sixty-nine witnesses called to the stand at his trial had been scattered all over the country; General Wainright had even died. As a result, the Department of Justice doubted that Provoo could be retried.[16] He was indicted again by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Baltimore, Maryland, with Judge Roszel C. Thomsen presiding. However, Thomsen threw out the case in March 1955, stating that Provoo's right to a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution's 6th Amendment had been abrogated.[5] The prosecution appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which on October 17, 1955 unanimously upheld the lower court's dismissal.[17][18]


Provoo found it difficult to get over his treason trial; he described it as being like "towing a shipwreck" behind him.[1] He settled in Baltimore, Maryland, but had trouble holding down a job due to the publicity which had surrounded his trial; eventually, his wife divorced him.[19] In 1957, he was arrested in Lincoln, Nebraska, and at trial pled guilty on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a 16-year old runaway boy also from Maryland.[20] He was sentenced in August 1958 to three years in prison.[21]

Life as a Buddhist priest[edit]

Provoo went to Japan again to study Buddhism after his release from prison.[1] He was promoted to a high position in the Nichiren-shū Buddhist School, more or less equivalent to the Bishop position in the Catholic Church. At that time, Provoo was qualified to teach Buddhism and decided to come back to America and teach there. There was a shortage of Buddhist schools in America and he wanted to help Americans like himself who were interested in Buddhism and wanted to study it seriously. For him, going to another country and learning their language and culture was a burden and he wanted to make it easier for others.[1]

He returned to the United States in 1967 and led a Buddhist group on the island of Oahu. He later led a Buddhist group near the town of Pahoa on the Big Island (Hawaii). He also started up the non-profit Buddhist School of America.[1] On the Big Island, he built a small temple and some cabins. He lived there and would usually have a few students living with him. As a Buddhist teacher, he went by the Buddhist name "Nichijo Shaka".[1] He had earned the honorific titles "Reverend" and "Bishop" but preferred to be called "Nichijo".

In addition to teaching students, Nichjo would occasionally go out and conduct religious services for people in the community and occasionally people would come to him for counseling.

He died at Hilo Medical Center on August 28, 2001; his ashes were buried at the Hawaii Veteran's Cemetery No. 2.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Asato, Lisa (2001-10-27). "Treason trial shadowed ex-soldier’s life". Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  2. ^ "Obituaries". Honolulu Star-Bulletin. 2001-10-04. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "Case of the Buddhist Sergeant". Time Magazine. 1952-11-24. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  4. ^ a b Sayer, Ian; Douglas Botting (1989). "Richard Sakakida". America's Secret Army: The Untold Story of the Counter Intelligence Corps. Grafton Books. ISBN 0246126906. 
  5. ^ a b c "Justice Denied". Time Magazine. 1955-10-31. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  6. ^ a b Donovan, William N.; Ann Devigne Donovan (1998). P.O.W. in the Pacific: Memoirs of an American Doctor in World War II. Rowman and Littlefield. p. 56. ISBN 0842027254. 
  7. ^ Fujita, Frank; Stanley L. Falk; Robert Wear (March 1993). Foo: A Japanese-American Prisoner of the Rising Sun. University of North Texas Pres. pp. 191–192. ISBN 0929398467. 
  8. ^ a b Kennedy, Paul P. (1949-09-03). "FBI Seizes GI as a Traitor Upon His Release by Army". The New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  9. ^ "Provoo Case Delayed". Daily Independent Journal. 1950-01-19. Retrieved 2008-02-06. [dead link]
  10. ^ "Provoo Treason Trial Delayed". The New York Times. 1951-01-04. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  11. ^ "Treason Trial Adjourned". The New York Times. 1951-06-19. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  12. ^ "Provoo Committed to Bellevue". The New York Times. 1951-08-30. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  13. ^ "People: Names make news. Last week these names made news.". Time Magazine. 1952-12-22. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  14. ^ "Guilty of Treason". Time Magazine. 1953-02-23. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  15. ^ "Life for a Traitor". Time Magazine. 1953-03-02. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  16. ^ a b "Million-Dollar Loss". Time Magazine. 1954-09-06. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  17. ^ Fellman, David (1978). Defendant's Rights Today. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 113–114. ISBN 0299072045. 
  18. ^ "Court Frees Provoo Of Treason Charges; Provoo is Freed in Treason Case". The New York Times. 1955-10-18. Retrieved 2009-12-21. 
  19. ^ Kepner, Jim (1997). Rough News, Daring Views. Haworth Press. p. 126. ISBN 0789001403. 
  20. ^ "Provoo Pleads Guilty; Joined Maryland Youth Who Ran Away From Home". The New York Times. 1957-09-08. Retrieved 2009-12-21. 
  21. ^ "Treason Trial Figure Jailed". The New York Times. 1958-08-30. Retrieved 2009-12-21.