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A Very Important Prisoner

By Gene Santoro
8/20/2018 • World War II Magazine

Iwo Jima code clerk Taizo Sakai paid his captors back for sparing his life by revealing secrets about Japanese military activities elsewhere in the Pacific.

Weeks after six young warriors planted Old Glory atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, U.S. Marines continued to slog it out with marauding bands of Japanese on the north side of the tiny volcanic island. That’s where the Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had holed up in a fortified bunker.

“By mid-March we pretty well understood where Kuribayashi’s headquarters was,” says Richard White, a regimental Japanese language officer. “But the firefighting had not abated and there wasn’t much to do other than plan ahead and ultimately overrun the headquarters site.”

At 5 a.m. on March 17, 1945, Lieutenant Candy Johnson hit paydirt in unlikely form. The platoon leader discovered a Japanese soldier, naked except for a jockstrap and a pair of field boots, clutching a surrender leaflet as he hid among ammo boxes in a partially destroyed casement.

Retired Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes, then a young captain fighting in the area, recalls: “Johnson was one of the few lieutenants we had left alive. He didn’t speak Japanese, and it was clear the Japanese fellow did not speak English. So Johnson got on the radio to his company commander, Captain Fiorenzo Lopardo.”

In a rarely seen first-person account, Lopardo, who died in 2004, wrote: “The first question I heard from [Johnson] was, ‘Fio, are we taking prisoners? I got a guy here who wants to give up and he’s got his hands on his head and he doesn’t have any clothes on—oh, goddamn it!’”

Just then, a bullet penetrated the front of Johnson’s helmet at an angle, flew around inside and finally dropped out the back end. Johnson was yelling into the phone: “A bullet just went through my helmet! I’m not hurt or anything, but a bullet just went through my helmet!”

Some folks are just born lucky. Rattled as Johnson must have been, he kept his wits about dealing with his POW. Instead of figuring him for a decoy in a set-up and shooting him—“which,” Haynes notes, “nobody would have blamed him for”—Johnson got his prisoner into some Marine gear and hustled him back to Lopardo.

Johnson’s prisoner, like the other 1,073 Japanese captured on Iwo, was treated according to the Geneva Conventions despite the fact that Japan had not signed them. Such restraint was even more remarkable considering that the Marines who paid in blood to secure Iwo and other islands in the Pacific were all too aware of the murderous tricks Japanese played during mock surrenders and of the barbaric way they treated American prisoners of war. From brass to grunts, however, the Marines had also come to understand that humane treatment of prisoners was often simply the smart thing to do. This was certainly the case with Johnson’s POW, whose capture turned out to be an intelligence bonanza.

When Captain Lopardo took custody of Johnson’s prisoner, he promptly phoned battalion Japanese language officers in the rear. No answer. The POW seemed to understand a little English, but they couldn’t really communicate. Lopardo, who had been a language major at Notre Dame, tried German, Italian and Spanish. “All at once,” Lopardo writes, “he says, ‘Parlez vous Français?’ And I said, ‘Oui,’ and we started talking, all in French.”

The Japanese in Marine mufti identified himself as Master Sgt. Taizo Sakai, and told Lopardo he was in charge of communications for General Kuribayashi.

Lopardo thought fast. He had Walter Mann, his radio man, stick Sakai in a foxhole. “He ordered, ‘Protect him so he doesn’t get hurt,’” Mann recalls. “He then jumped down in the foxhole with Sakai and they kept talking.”

Squatting in the black ash with the prisoner, Lopardo jotted notes in French on the back of his March 7 field orders. Sakai told him he knew Japan had lost the war. He said Japanese troop morale was very low and that enlisted men were angry at their officers and losing faith in the emperor.

When Lopardo produced a map and asked about nearby islands, Sakai pointed to Okinawa and said, “If you land here, they’re waiting for you because that’s what you guys do all the time.” Or, as the confidential Preliminary POW Interrogation Report No. 122 rephrased it: “POW claimed that staff members were seldom surprised by U.S. landings because the logic of U.S. strategy necessarily points to future objectives. POW had named Okinawa as the place where we were most likely to land next.”

With the Okinawa invasion just two weeks away, this probably wasn’t what Admiral Chester Nimitz wanted to hear, but he sure needed to. Lopardo didn’t know when the invasion was scheduled, but he knew he’d struck gold.

Meanwhile, as Lopardo waited for the language officers in the rear to pick up their phones, he used the remaining cover of darkness to deal with pressing tactical problems. The Japanese still lurked in caves under the island’s north end, and Sakai offered to help the Marines find some. He would broadcast the plea to surrender, but he warned Lopardo to expect they would make last-ditch charges with yells of “Tenno -heika Banzai” (“Long Live the Emperor”). Lopardo responded, “Tell ’em if they banzai we’re going to kill them.”

At the first cave’s mouth, the Marines set up an A-4 machine gun and waited. The Japanese came charging out just as Sakai predicted. Lopardo writes laconically, “They accommodated us real well.” Sakai turned his back as his compatriots were mowed down and said, “They’re fanatics.” They repeated this several times until midmorning, when Sakai was finally taken to regimental headquarters for questioning. Before he left, he gave Lopardo pictures of his wife and himself with his family. “I can’t go back,” he said simply. “I am officially dead because I surrendered.”

Ulrich “Rick” Straus, a U.S. Army language officer during the occupation of Japan and author of the thought-provoking book The Anguish of Surrender (University of Washington Press, 2003), says Sakai’s mindset was typical of Japanese soldiers: “As an intelligence officer, you have to understand who your prisoners are, the culture that has shaped them. With the Japanese, if they surrendered they thought they had so disgraced themselves that they had lost their homeland, their family and friends, the strongest bondings they had. Japan being so socially oriented a culture, it was like they had no identity left. In addition, because the Japanese government denied even the possibility that Japanese soldiers could become POWs, they couldn’t and didn’t instruct their troops on how to behave if they were taken prisoner. Neither society nor the government prepared them for the situation, and this in Japan, a country where people were and are used to being schooled in how to deal properly with every situation.

“And so Japanese POWs expected the worst,” Straus continues. “When they were asked, in accordance with Red Cross and Geneva Conventions guidelines, where they would like to be sent after the war, none said Japan. Many said Africa, which was probably as far away and as impenetrable a place as they could imagine. None of them sent messages home. At least half changed their names. Many disfigured themselves to disguise who they were.”

In The Anguish of Surrender, Straus uncovers the history and procedures of American intelligence in the Pacific, retells Japanese POW memoirs and makes a strong case that understanding your enemy, treating him as human, and taking time and care to extract good information is the best and most productive way to proceed with prisoners.

“It took a while even after we regained the offense during the war to convince the brass that capturing the Japanese was a good or worthwhile idea,” Straus explains dryly. “Remember, we knew they used tactics like pretending to surrender to lure American troops into ambushes. This didn’t create a lot of enthusiasm on the front lines for taking prisoners.”

But intelligence officers like Captain John Burden fought that. Burden had been a plantation doctor treating Japanese workers in Hawaii, was one of the first graduates of the Fourth Army Intelligence School and became the first Japanese language officer in combat, on Guadalcanal in December 1942.

Burden also had the guts to criticize the accepted military practice of turning a blind eye to the treatment of prisoners. Just back from Guadalcanal, he wrote a scathing report blaming American officers for the lack of Japanese POWs, many of whom died suspiciously en route to the rear. Among his implemented recommendations: Any soldier bringing in a POW got a three-day pass and ice cream.

“It took patience and time, like a good interrogation,” says Straus, “but eventually officers like Burden got across the idea that it was worth it. Even so, few Japanese surrendered unless they were wounded, and many killed themselves in banzai charges or individually, seppuku. To surrender, after all, was to be dead, to bring disgrace on your family and friends. But by Iwo Jima that had started to change.”

In their regimental-level interrogation of Sakai, Richard White and John McLean, who died in 2005, quickly determined he should be sent further up the chain of command. “He was much too hot for us to handle,” White said. “And we sent him back to Division after we had gotten what we could which pertained to our area.” The preamble of Preliminary POW Interrogation Report No. 122 stated that the “POW was above average in intelligence and fully cooperative.”

Master Sergeant Taizo Sakai was indeed an intelligent and cultivated man, a graduate of Tokyo Imperial University, the Harvard of Japan. He was 5 feet 1 inches tall, 28 years old and married with a young daughter. Between 1939 and 1943, during his first Japanese army hitch as a communications clerk, he served in China and traveled widely around the country to Beijing, Nanking, Hankow and numerous smaller cities.

In November 1943, Sakai was discharged and worked as a clerk in his father’s Tokyo mining office. Shortly after the American invasion of the Marianas in June 1944, Sakai was drafted again and assigned to communications duty on Iwo Jima, where he became Kuribayashi’s clerk in charge of handling coded messages with the Japanese high command.

Sakai provided his captors with history on Japanese code intercepts of American operational orders from the Battle of Leyte Gulf through Iwo Jima. He served up information on the training and operations of the Special Intelligence Section on Iwo, which was meant to remain hidden after Iwo’s fall to monitor U.S. radio communications and relay them to the Home Islands.

Sakai was clearly a man with a sense of irony. He mentioned that on February 15, Kuribayashi had sent a dispatch to the General Staff in Tokyo, saying that the entire U.S. fleet was at Iwo Jima and now was the time for the Japanese fleet to come and wipe it out. The response, he said, was that on April 1 the entire Japanese fleet would gloriously set forth and “push the Americans back to the mainland.” As Sakai and his questioners knew, that was a bitter joke masquerading as morale-boosting bravado. The Imperial Fleet was mostly a memory, and April 1 would be too late for any support to help Japanese forces on Iwo.

Sakai illustrated how low morale was by explaining the glee with which the code unit on Iwo destroyed its equipment: “The men exclaimed that having been thrust into a cheap, losing war and having received cheap food, cheap clothing, and cheap quarters, it was a pleasure thus to treat expensive equipment. For its destruction to be ordered was retributive justice.”

Most important, he explained the Japanese were waiting on Okinawa because “the general strategy of the U.S. followed a logical plan and that usually they were not surprised when we hit any particular place.” He dismissed Formosa, the other potential U.S. target, “because of its proximity to the Chinese mainland”—a shrewdly unnerving assessment that tallied with the Americans’ own. He mentioned handling dispatches about the Northrop P-61 night fighter and the yet-to-be-operational Consolidated B-32 bomber. And he filled in knowledge of Japanese codes.

No wonder Sakai was sent posthaste to Nimitz’s headquarters, whence he was sent to Washington and Virginia for further intensive questioning. One result: His input helped planners prepare for heavy resistance during the invasion of Okinawa by confirming which Japanese army and navy units were awaiting U.S. forces.

There is one last twist to Taizo Sakai’s story. When he was released at the end of the war, he vanished. Completely. General Haynes says, “We have been trying to find him or any of his relatives for at least the last 20 or 25 years, using the photographs he gave Lopardo of him, his wife, and his little daughter.”

After the war Fiorenzo Lopardo graduated from Harvard Law School and eventually became a Superior Court judge in California. But until his death in 2004 he never forgot Sakai and treasured his pictures. He impressed their importance on his son Stephen, who has continued his father’s search for Sakai to no avail. “My dad wanted to get him back his photographs,” he explains. “Sakai told my dad, ‘I know they will take these away from me, so I would rather you have them.’

“My dad told me, ‘I loved this guy.’ On the back of one of the pictures Sakai wrote in French, ‘Sois sage,’ which means, Be wise. On the other he wrote, ‘Oh ma douleur,’ which translates as, Oh my pain or hurt. That’s when he told my dad, ‘I am dead. I am officially dead. I can never go back.’”

Though Straus feels certain Sakai could have returned to Japan, General Haynes notes: “We have worked through the embassy in Tokyo, through the two or three surviving Japanese who were on Iwo. To date we have been unable to locate him. One can only assume he changed his name and probably the name of his family. For all practical purposes he disappeared.”

 

Gene Santoro writes for the New York Daily News and is the author of several books, most recently Highway 61 Revisited (Oxford University Press, 2004). His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and American Scholar.

Originally published in the March 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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