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As time was running out, something happened on Mindanao…but what?

IN AUGUST 1945, despite their hopeless military situation, many Imperial Japanese Army units fought on. On the Philippine island of Mindanao, the 100th Division, commanded by General Jiro Harada, was holding out fiercely against Allied attacks. Pushed from the city of Davao, Harada’s command had entrenched itself in thick tropical jungle. Opposing the 100th, the U.S. Eighth Army was trying to pry the Japanese troops from their jungle lair with support from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. On August 10, 1945, immediately after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Marine pilots took off for an attack on the 100th Division in what may have been one of the war’s most unusual missions.

Aboard the lead patrol bomber at a waist port and wearing a headset sat Imperial Army Second Lieutenant Minoru Wada. A former 100th Division staff officer, Wada knew the rugged terrain and the Japanese positions coming into the Marines’ sights, and was flying into combat beside his former enemies. In Imperial Army uniform and fatigue hat, he helped identify targets for the Marine raiders. A remarkable series of photographs documents the episode.

Strange as this story is, however, it gets stranger when examined nearly 70 years later.

During the war, Allied troops captured few Japanese officers; most embraced the Bushido code Prime Minister Hideki Tojo invoked in a 1941 order calling for imperial military personnel of all ranks to die rather than accept the humiliation of surrender. Wada, married and a father, seems to have stood apart from fellow Japanese officers. Though he spoke little English, the story goes, Wada was an American, born at an unspecified date and location in the United States. He had come to Japan as a youth to attend school and presumably return, which made him a Kibei—a person of Japanese descent born in America and returning home to the States, rather than a Nisei, born abroad to parents who had emigrated from Japan. After Wada attended the University of Tokyo and the Kyushu Military Academy, the Imperial Army conscripted him. He was assigned in early 1944 to the 100th Division. The division’s men were hunkering on Mindanao, holding Davao on the island’s larger eastern lobe before withdrawing to bunkers constructed in the jungle outside town.

The Allies landed in the Philippines in October 1944, but not until March 1945 did U.S. Army troops arrive on Mindanao’s west coast to begin eliminating enemy resistance. Around Davao, where the 100th Division was positioned, American soldiers received air support from Marine Bombing Squadron 611. The squadron, stationed at Moret Field, Zamboanga, on Mindanao’s southwest tip, flew the PBJ-1 patrol bomber, a naval version of the B-25 Mitchell. That spring and summer Marine aviators made more than 500 sorties in support of the army. By July 1945, American offensives had ground enemy forces on Mindanao to a nub. When not leafleting the Japanese with encouragements to surrender, Marine pilots were raiding enemy troop concentrations, like the stubborn remnants of the 100th Division holding on outside Davao.

Wada’s route into American custody is murky. A U.S. Army lieutenant colonel named L. F. Maybach turned the POW over to the Marines. William Flynn, identified as a Marine intelligence officer who had interrogated Wada, said later that he wasn’t sure if the Japanese officer had been taken prisoner under duress or if he had allowed himself to be captured.

Regardless, Flynn claimed, the prisoner made his opinions of the war known. Wada is quoted as saying through a translator, “Generals and admirals, the tough old military, forced this war on the people [and that] the common Japanese person does not want war.”

Flynn added that Wada told him he had never believed Japan should go to war and that “he would do anything, even sacrifice his own life, to stop the war and bring ultimate peace to the people on the Japanese home islands.” The dislocated lieutenant seemed content in captivity. A contemporaneous Marine periodical stated that Wada was happy with the food his captors provided and that he and his fellow POWs wouldn’t try to escape, “even if the gates were open and unguarded.”

When Wada wondered aloud what he might be able to do to end hostilities, a skeptical Flynn grilled him, trying to discern whether the Japanese officer was out of his head or attempting to lead Americans into a trap. Amid doubts about the POW’s intent, some Marines apparently decided Wada was on the level and proposed that he help pinpoint positions of the 100th Division near Mount Talomo, where enemy soldiers were hiding on a trail amid steep hills and thick jungle. The prisoner at first balked at the request, then relented, agreeing to help plan an airstrike to accompany an infantry attack.

Official photos show Wada at Moret Field, incongruous among khaki-clad Americans in a uniform the other men had grown accustomed to shooting at. Wada stands before maps, delineating Japanese positions and describing potential targets as Gunnery Sergeant Charles T. Imai, a Nisei, renders his comments in English. Wada volunteered to fly along on the strike; squadron commander Major Sidney L. Groff, the sortie’s leader, agreed to bring him in his aircraft. Groff also would be carrying air strike coordinator Major Mortimer H. Jordan in the PBJ’s Plexiglas nose.

After covering the 400 miles between Zamboanga and Davao, the squadron approached the enemy positions along the trail at low altitude. Wada called out instructions. Imai translated his remarks and passed them along to Jordan, who relayed them by radio to a flight of PBJs from Squadron 611 and an escort of F4U Corsairs. Photos from the flight and assault show Wada seated in the radio-gunner’s compartment by a weaponless machine-gun port offering a picture-window view of the sky and land below. From his perspective Wada picked out landmarks and targets, giving what participants said later was very accurate direction.

As Wada pinpointed each Japanese position, Marine aircrews let loose with fragmentation bombs, napalm, rockets, and heavy machine-gun fire. “The Japanese officer put us zero on the target and we did the rest,” Jordan said. “Maybe [we] overdid it.” Wada commented favorably on the PBJ crews’ performance, which included dropping several tons of bombs. “The raid destroyed their command capability,” Flynn reported later. En route back to Zamboanga, the volunteer navigator seemed to brood, but expressed no regret to Imai. According to Flynn, Wada was pleased with his actions.

Five days after the American raid outside Davao, Japan announced its capitulation. Among the 22,000 Japanese troops who surrendered on Mindanao were the shards of the 100th Division. As an American-born Kibei, Wada would have been entitled to return to the United States. However, he apparently adopted a new identity. Then Minoru Wada, one of the few Axis military men ever to navigate for an enemy force attacking the very men he had served beside, vanished.

Since then the story has been told and retold in print and online, nearly always accompanied by those eye-catching photographs of Wada in the PBJ-1, and quoting the enigmatic Flynn. But dig just a little deeper and questions emerge. The Flynn quotes all trace to the same interview, attributed to The Star. But which Star was that, and who exactly was Flynn? What was his rank? His unit? The photos, too, stir questions— particularly the images of Wada at the port window, sometimes looking out at a single bomber, sometimes at a sky full of aircraft. The photographs’ clarity and depth of field verge on the surreal. “The photo of Wada looking out the window with a handset in his hand is clearly a doctored photo,” a Marine Corps historian said in an e-mail. “Looks like some sort of reenactment of the event.” Archival documents also cast suspicion; a Marine Corps Reference Service Log dated December 9, 1957, states, “This strike with its attendant features was staged to publicize this theater of operations.”

So what really happened on August 10, 1945, outside Davao? Did a bombing raid occur? If so, did Marine Corps public affairs officers then scramble to capitalize on a spectacular opportunity for headlines?

And what ever became of Lieutenant Minoru Wada?


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.