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The Enigmatic Colonel Tsuji Masanobu: Japan’s Fanatical Ideologue, Staff Officer and Cannibal

One of my patrons, Dan, recently asked me if I could write an article about Colonel Tsuji Masanobu. Professor John Dower describes him as a “fanatical ideologue and pathological brutal staff officer”. Others give him the dubious honour of being “rightly described as a maverick and a fanatic.” The ultranationalist officer indeed was a zealot, which gave him a near-perverted sense of courage. 

Col. Tsuji Masanobu (1901? – disappeared 1961?)

At the same time, he was referred to as the ‘God of Strategy’ for playing a vital role in the planning of Japan’s Malay campaign. He also authorised the offensive against Port Moresby along the Kokoda Trail. He didn’t just fight against opposing military, though – he was responsible for tens of thousands of civilian and prisoner casualties. Some historians write that if any Japanese officer should have been tried for war crimes, it was Tsuji. Yet he never stood trial. His entire wartime experience was tarnished and riddled with extreme excesses. 

And just when you think the mind-boggling activities came to an end after Japan’s defeat, Tsuji’s life arguably became even more hectic. The U.S. Military Intelligence Service recruited him as an asset, and he took part in organising a coup by the Chinese Nationalists against the Communists. Meanwhile, he played the role of a double-agent towards his U.S. handlers, having the rearmament of Japan as his concealed priority. Within this capacity, he was instrumental in organising an attempted coup and assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister in 1952, all the while becoming a best-selling author writing about his war experience.  

Oh, and to top it all off, in 1952, he was elected to Japan’s parliament, launching a dazzling political career. That was, until 1961, when he mysteriously disappeared. The circumstances around his vanishing are to this day unclear. Still, declassified CIA files reveal he might have died in the Laotian civil war, was executed by Chinese communists after illegally crossing the border, or continued his life under the radar in the employment of North Vietnam’s People’s Army. 

Now, because of certain restrictions on YouTube historical content, I will have to choose my words carefully when discussing some of Tsuji’s acts. Even then, videos such as this one are prone to be demonetised, occasionally happening to my channel. Not exactly ideal, since working on this channel is my full-time occupation. Frankly, a lot of time and work has gone into this video in terms of research. So if you enjoy House of History and want to support my work, consider supporting me via Patreon. For just one dollar a month, you will already receive access to one additional Patreon-exclusive video every month, including the entire Patreon-exclusive series so far.

Early Life (1900-1939)

Although the entire personality of Colonel Tsuji is an enigma, we’re already starting off with ambiguity looking at his birth and childhood. Tsuji was born somewhere between 1900 and 1903. In his own writings, Tsuji claims his date of birth was October 11, 1900, and on other occasions 1901. Other sources vary and dispute each other, some putting his date of birth as late as 1903. At any rate, born in the Ishikawa Prefecture located in the centre of Japan’s main island, he was a charcoal maker’s third son. 

He received education at a local preparatory military school. After graduating first of his class, he transferred to the Rikugun Shikan Gakko, Japan’s Military Academy. Here too he graduated top of his class. In 1931 he graduated third of his year from the Rikugun Daigakko, the Army War College in Tokyo. His own writings reveal he established somewhat of a core crew of friends and loyalists around him during his time in Tokyo. I suppose you could say an ‘old boys network’ developed, which would serve him nicely for the next three decades.

Being top of his class in the War College meant Tsuji became part of the Guntogumi, the “Military Sword Clique.” This clique, reserved for only a select few officers who excelled, meant fast-track promotions and recognition among all Japanese troops. Senior officers who had not attended the college even had to make way for these subordinates because of the prestige attached to their education. Minister of War in the late 1930s, Itagaki Seishiro, considered Tsuji his protégé, leading to the young officer gaining much influence early on. 

From 1937 onwards, he served as a staff officer in Japan’s Kwantung Army. This was the first time sources refer to his actions as Gekokujo. This concept became known in Japan around the 13th century. Without delving too much into it, it basically refers to lower-ranking officers, lords or soldiers overthrowing, disobeying or undermining their higher-ups. Other sources define it as ‘leading from below’ or ‘loyal insubordination.’ Tsuji was a leading proponent of it, but he certainly wasn’t alone in propagating it. 

As a staff officer, he saw his first action in Manchuria, northern China and the Mongolian border. There were several border clashes with the Soviets because Japanese officers like Tsuji refused higher-ups’ orders to withdraw. During one such incident, Tsuji led 40 Japanese officers into disputed territory guarded by Soviets, only to undo their trousers, urinate in plain sight, and retreat again.

At other times Tsuji issued orders which were the complete opposite to Tokyo’s policy regarding the Soviet border. In his own words, he wanted his troops to “annihilate the enemy if they crush the border.” He also told his soldiers they could cross into Soviet territory. Well, this policy directly led to the bloody Nomonhan incident, also known as the Battles of Khalkhin Gol, and the subsequent defeat of Japanese forces. When the Soviets repatriated Japanese POWs, Tsuji personally ordered them to take their own lives because of the dishonour capture brought them.

Tsuji replied with a near-treacherous reply upon a reprimand from the General Staff for a raid deep into Soviet territory. Speaking in the name of the Kwantung Army, he replied: “There appear to be certain differences between Army General Staff and this Army in evaluating the battlefield situation and measures to be adopted. It is requested that the handling of trivial matters in border areas be entrusted to this Army.” The only reason Tsuji wasn’t fired was thanks to his patron, Minister of War Seishiro. 

Already during this time, Tsuji was considered a fanatical ideologue and unorthodox, even among Japanese ultra-nationalist circles. Ryukichi Tanaka, a major general, said Tsuji was the “most determined single protagonist of war with the United States.” He held beliefs in line with asceticism derived from Zen Buddhism, basically living in abstinence. He didn’t permit himself any luxuries, living a sober existence, withdrawn from his fellow officers.

Japanese politics during the 1930s are a bit hectic; a lot was happening in a short period. One of Tsuji’s main events must have been his role in averting a coup by a rivalling faction. Future wartime premier Tojo Hideki had to thank Tsuji, in-part, for creating the circumstances in which he could rise to power. 

As the war in the Pacific began escalating and Tsuji saw more battle, these beliefs simmered through in his actions. He upheld the same extreme standards for others as he did for himself. 

The War (1937-1945)

One element remained a constant in his career and even after the war: insubordination and being somewhat of a maverick. I use that word without any positive connotation. Although Gekokujo was relatively common within the Japanese military, Tsuji was an extreme example. He was transferred on more than one occasion because Generals simply could not put up with his insubordination. According to military historian Max Hastings, in his 2007 book Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, besides being repeatedly transferred, even his often ultranationalist superiors considered him a fanatic and zealot. An anecdote reveals he once burned down a “geisha house to highlight his disgust at the moral frailty of the officers inside it.” 

Tsuji took part in the Malayan campaign, serving under Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya, a nickname thanks to his successful campaign. Japanese commanders credit Tsuji with planning much of the campaign, leading to some officers referring to him as the ‘God of Strategy.’ By 1941 he was one of the most influential officers of Japan’s Taiwanese Army Research Department. Malaya served as a blueprint for changes and tweaks that improved Japan’s campaigns in a tropical climate. 

Yet on the campaign Tsuji’s temper showed, with him resigning in a fit of rage because Yamashita’s Chief of Staff ignored some of his recommendations. Within a week Tsuji returned to the headquarters and continued his duties as if he had never left. Besides military targets, Tsuji was responsible for the Alexandra Hospital massacre, one of his many atrocities. 

Thanks to the reputation he earned in this campaign, he was dispatched to many Japanese frontlines as a problem solver and a pair of fresh eyes. He was instrumental in organising the campaign against the British in Singapore, emerging victorious within ten weeks. At every front Tsuji served, his superiors attributed extreme excesses and brutalities against civilians and prisoners. 

After the British surrendered Singapore, CIA documents revealed Tsuji ordered and expanded the systemic purge of potentially hostile elements. The Sook Ching Massacre cost over 5000 Chinese and Chinese Malayans their lives, although some historians estimate the death toll to be up to 50.000.

In April 1942, Tsuji visited the Philippines. His superiors later attested he ordered the Bataan Death March, costing tens of thousands of Allied prisoners their lives. He also personally ordered the execution of the Philippines Supreme Court’s Chief Justice and acting President, José Santos. 

Next, he sailed to the Southern Pacific Area to assist the 17th Army in conquering Fiji and Samoa to break-off Allied supply lines. Disregarding their severe defeat at Midway, the Japanese continued to plan to conquer the islands and whether they could dispatch an infantry campaign on Port Moresby along the Kokoda Track. 

Arriving at 17th Army headquarters in Davao in July, Tsujii met a commander sceptical of his aggressive plans. Major General Horii Tomitaro didn’t think it would be possible to supply the Japanese infantry when pushing through all the way to Port Moresby. Outranking Tsuji, he contacted the Imperial Headquarters. They relayed they awaited an assessment by the commander of a reconnaissance mission before giving a final order. 

But Tsuji, in his insubordinate fashion, wanted to seize the initiative. He personally ordered the infantry to launch their trek and assault on Port Moresby, declaring Headquarters gave the green light. In reality, Headquarters had not decided, but after Tsuji launched the assault, the Imperial Command retroactively gave the order. The poor preparation and less than ideal circumstances led to a disastrous campaign. Within half a year, over 15.000 Japanese and 3.000 Allied soldiers met their end in the fighting. Without much success for the Japanese.

Tsuji wasn’t there to see the results, though. Together with other officers, he sailed aboard the destroyer Asangi to Cape Killerton to prepare the campaign. En-route, the Asangi was attacked by a squadron of Allied B-17 and B-26 aircraft. They bombed the Asangi, and Tsuji suffered critical throat injuries due to shrapnel and was urgently evacuated to Tokyo to recuperate. Some Japanese generals later said the injuries weren’t that severe, but they ordered him away from the frontline anyway before he could cause any more trouble.

Just three months later, he travelled to Guadalcanal. Hastings writes that Tsuji was personally responsible for some of Japan’s most severe strategic blunders in Guadalcanal. They suffered an obliterating defeat attempting to capture Henderson airfield, with over 20 Japanese casualties for every American. Tsuji once again offered his resignation, which once again didn’t lead to anything. He was subsequently transferred to Burma to coordinate the battle against the British.

Sources vary whether it was in Burma or Singapore, but at one point Tsuji consumed the liver of a dead Allied pilot, denouncing troops that refused to join him. It shows that Tsuji crossed any acceptable boundary of human behaviour and morality. Some accounts dispute it taking place, but even if it didn’t, the fact Tsuji dining on the liver of a dead pilot is plausible is rather telling already. 

In October 1944 the Battle of Leyte commenced with an amphibious invasion of the island by the United States. Besides Yamashita as commanding officer, General Sosaku Suzuki too commanded Japanese troops. And Suzuki did not just have direct contact with Tsuji, but he wrote about his conduct in a very revealing way. According to him, it was the “Ishiwara-Tsuji clique – the personification of Gekokujo – that has brought the Japanese army to its present deplorable situation. So long as they exert influence, it can only lead to ruin.” Besides Tsuji, he referred to Kanji Ishiwara, a general of the Imperial Army. This goes to show the extent of influence superiors considered Tsuji, a Lieutenant Colonel, to have. Tanaka Shinichi, himself known for a brutal attitude, criticised Tsuji for the treatment of troops under his command

There are other accounts as well. Remember Major General Horii, who opposed Tsuji’s aggressive campaign against Port Moresby. Even though he was Tsuji’s superior, Tsuji was able to influence and dominate his campaign. In part, this was thanks to his insubordinate personality and Gekokujo. But also because Tsuji was part of the Guntogumi, the Military Sword Clique. Horii wasn’t part of it. In the eyes of many, his orders carried less weight than that of Tsuji, even though he outranked the Lieutenant Colonel.  

Post-war (1945-1950)

In late summer 1945, Japan surrendered. At the time, Tsuji served on the staff of the 18th Area Army in Thailand. He was aware he’d probably end up standing trial for war crimes if he returned to Japan. Not too wrong an assumption, as mainly the British considered him a person of interest. Instead, he took on the role of a Japanese monk in a Bangkok Buddhist temple, together with seven comrades. 

During the Tokyo trials, Japan’s Chief of Intelligence, Seizo Arisue, implicated Tsuji with instigating the infamous Bataan Death March. Yet thanks to his unknown whereabouts, perhaps still surprisingly, he avoided being indicted in absentia. Still, the United States marked him as an alleged war criminal. After Tsuji’s stay in Bangkok, he travelled through Laos and Vietnam to reach the Chinese nationalist forces fighting their civil war against the communists. Here, he briefly served as a military advisor to China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. 

Around late 1948 he quietly returned to Japan under the radar. He briefly lived a withdrawn life in residences owned by his wartime friend, crime lord and ultranationalist Yoshio Kodama. One of his friends from the war, Hattori Takushiro, made sure Tsuji wouldn’t pop up on any lists until in 1950 the United States revoked his status as an alleged war criminal. He became one of many that got away with heinous crimes committed during the war. 

During this time, Tsuji wrote his memoirs: ‘Senko sanzenri.’ With Kodama’s instrumental help publishing and promoting his book, it became a bestseller. Soon after, Tsuji published his second book about how he managed to evade capture after the war, becoming his second bestseller. 

The American Asset (1950-1952)

So why were war crime charges against Tsuji dropped? Well, declassified CIA Name Files reveal how Tsuji Masanobu and the aforementioned crime lord Kodama Yoshio were employed as agents by the U.S. Military Intelligence Service under Charles A. Willoughby. There were multiple occasions where the Americans funded operations carried out by men with tarnished records, if not outright war criminals such as Tsuji. 

Documents indicate Tsuji was employed by U.S. authorities even before the U.S. rescinded his status as a war criminal. One such covert operation was recruiting Japanese soldiers to serve in Taiwan against a possible Communist invasion from China. CIA documents reveal Tsuji dispatched former Japanese Army troops to the island to serve in the Kuomintang, China’s nationalist army. Hattori too served the Americans, although both he and Tsuji often embezzled funds they received from the CIA for their own hidden agenda: rearming the Japanese Army. 

Through Hattori and other former officer friends, Tsuji took part in one of Willoughby’s most ambitious secret operations. He was planning an invasion of mainland China by the Kuomintang, exiled to Taiwan. Together with Takushiro Hattori, Tsuji received permission to take charge of the planning. It commenced in January 1951. The CIA sent multiple serious warnings to Willoughby that both men were not to be trusted. One such warning read “In either politics or intelligence work, [Tsuji] is hopelessly lost both by reason of personality and lack of experience… Tsuji is the type of man who, given the chance, would start World War III without any misgivings.” Still, Tsuji couldn’t do much harm because within three months, the plans were leaked to the Chinese communists, and the plan was abandoned. 

And although Seizo Arisue implicated Tsuji during the Tokyo Trials, in the 1950s, he recruited him to expand Japanese intelligence operations in Southeast Asia. He figured Tsuji had connections there thanks to his brief exile. What Arisue didn’t count on was that most of those connections despised Tsuji. After many complaints, he replaced him with a former chief of Japanese Military Police, the Kempeitai. That didn’t stop Tsuji’s endeavour within Japan’s military and political history, however. 

The Final Sensational Years (1952-1961/68)

Tsuji’s writings from this time show his primary objective was to rearm Japan and establish a military junta if possible. He eagerly worked with the Americans, because, in his words, he wanted to “deceive the ally before the enemy.” Still, Tsuji, together with Hattori and crime lord Kodama, became increasingly upset with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru. He adhered to a policy of relying on the United States for military protection, refusing to rearm the military and openly denouncing nationalism and purges. 

Hattori was the first to begin hatching a plot to assassinate Shigeru to control the government by replacing him with the more receptive senior politicians Hatoyama Ichiro or Ogata Tektora. But Tsuji prevented the assassination from coming through, reasoning it would provoke the Americans and be counterproductive in the long run. Hopefully, the irony of a Japanese ultranationalist and war criminal preventing the assassination of a U.S.-friendly PM isn’t lost on many. 

Writing two best-sellers skyrocketed Tsuji to fame, especially among reactionaries. That same year he was elected to Japan’s Parliament as an independent, kickstarting his extravagant political career. He used his newly found influence to criticise the US-Japan security alliance and propagate Japan’s rearmament. His past and misdeeds stuck to him throughout his entire career, with former rivals of the army implicating him in more war crimes. This didn’t prevent him from being re-elected in 1956. 

The enigma, Tsuji, died the way he lived. Or, well, rather, disappeared. In the wake of multiple political controversies, he left Japan to repeat his travels in Southeast Asia at the end of the Second World War, even choosing a Buddhist monk gown as his attire. First, he travelled to Laos in 1961 to meet the communist Pathet Lao rebels. And that’s the last any credible source reported seeing him: he simply vanished, killed in the conflict waging on in Laos.

But there are other theories out there. Some sources indicate that Vo Nguyen Giap, commander-in-chief of Vietnam’s People’s Army, covertly employed him until 1968. CIA documents indicate he indeed travelled to North Vietnam in April 1961, and some place him in Hanoi seven years later. 

A third theory goes that he crossed the border from Laos to China, where the Chinese Communists arrested him in January 1963. Upon realisation they captured the infamous Tsuji, they executed him right away. Unfortunately, much of the CIA documents are based on hearsay, and his actual fate will probably remain a mystery forever. 

Now, I briefly mentioned the Battle of Khalkhin Gol earlier. During that battle, a Korean soldier, like so many others, was captured by the Soviet Union. What makes his story so special is that he ended up not in the Soviet Union, but fighting in a Wehrmacht Ost Battalion on Normandy’s beaches during D-Day. His name was Yang Kyoungjong, and he is the only soldier known for fighting for three sides during the Second World War. Here is a video I created about him.

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America’s Last Defector in North Korea: James Dresnok

In 1962, 21-year-old American soldier James Dresnok was facing a court-martial. He was stationed at the Demilitarized Zone between North- and South Korea. The young soldier was caught forging his superior’s autograph to leave his army base to visit his favourite local woman of the night. Real classy. A few hours before he was scheduled to meet with his commander, Dresnok took a radical decision that would forever change his life. As his fellow soldiers were having lunch, he bolted through the Demilitarized Zone and surrendered to the dumbfounded North Korean border guards. James Dresnok had officially defected to North Korea, the giant prison-state, where he lived for fifty (!) years.

Early Life

James Joseph Dresnok was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on November 24, 1941. His parents, Lucille and Joseph had a troubled marriage, resulting in young James’ tough childhood. They had another, younger son, Joseph II. His father was a veteran of the United States Army and his mother was a housewife and appeared to be an alcoholic. James later described his parents as ‘fighting like cats and dogs.’ In 1951 the unhappy couple filed for divorce, leading to James briefly staying with his father in Pennsylvania while his younger brother was sent to his grandfather. James was dropped off at his aunt’s house while his father worked. He wasn’t welcome, and ran away multiple times.

James Joseph Desnok (1941-2016)

It didn’t take long for his father to drop him off in a foster home, abandoning him. He flunked out of high school that same year. Frankly, early on, James’ life hadn’t been taking a pleasant direction. Still, a radio interview with his foster father described him as a ‘normal boy, mischievous, but always with a tear of repentance in his eyes.’ Not having much going for him, and perhaps as a last resort to create some stability, on November 25, 1958, one day after his 17th birthday, James enlisted in the United States Army. Many disadvantaged youths saw the army as a way out. And it often provided salvation to these youths, shaping structure, providing income and the possibilities to educate oneself further.

Initially, this appeared to be the case for James as well. While on leave, he proposed to 19-year-old Kathleen Ringwood. They married not too long later. In an interview, much later, he attributed his marriage to an attempt to forget his childhood’s pain. Still, this marriage too wasn’t successful. Soon after they tied the knot, James was deployed to West-Germany for two years. When he returned in 1961, Kathleen had been unfaithful and was actively engaged in another relationship. Still, the couple didn’t immediately file for divorce, although it’s safe to assume there was no romance anymore. In later years James recounted how the only upside of it all was that Kathleen never got pregnant because he swore he would never abandon his children.

The Defection

Then again, there wasn’t much time for romance. James immediately re-enlisted as a Private First Class, to be deployed to the Korean Demilitarized Zone. He arrived there in May 1962, stating at that point he ‘didn’t care if he lived or died.’

During this time the Korean war was still freshly imprinted in the minds of many. The DMZ was the most tangible symbol of the Cold War divide, perhaps before the Berlin Wall was built. On the southern side, most of the services and goods were aimed at the U.S. servicemen and their paychecks. James spent all his income on the local ladies of the night. 

In August that year, James had been serving on the stakeout post for two weeks. While his fellow soldiers were allowed to go into the village, his company commander ordered him to remain at his post. That’s when James forged the sergeant’s signature on his slip, and went on pass regardless. Obviously recognised by his fellow servicemen, the following day, his commander summoned him and told him he’d expect James in his office by 3 PM, fully intending to court-martial him.

At noon that day, while everyone was eating lunch, James took the gamble. He walked into the minefield and then bolted through it. He reached the outpost of the North Korean army, when the border guards on duty surrounded him. James was blindfolded, tied up, and arrested. James Dresnok had officially defected to North Korea.

Escape Attempt

Dresnok enjoyed an unusual life in North Korea, although admittedly, any life of a U.S. serviceman in the Hermit Kingdom can be classified as unusual. Over the decades, to the outside world he became known as perhaps the most fervent Western supporter of the Kim-regime. 

But initially, it wasn’t necessarily like that. James was interrogated at length, but he didn’t have much valuable information because he hadn’t been in South Korea long. After that, he was put together with James Abshier, the first U.S. soldier to defect to North Korea after the Korean War. One year later, Corporal Jerry Wayne Parrish joined them when he defected during a regular patrol round. In 1965 Charles Robert Jenkins abandoned his patrol and he defected to North Korea out of fear that he’d be deployed to Vietnam. I’ve covered his life in a separate video, if you’re interested in his story after this one. 

These four men now became minor celebrities, appearing on propaganda posters, pamphlets, photos, and eventually films. James turned on the entire United States Army and recorded propaganda speeches, which the North Koreans would then play through megaphones along the DMZ towards South Korea. And the propaganda photos and posters made it look like the men ended up in utopia. Obviously, this was far from the truth. 

But as time progressed, the men began doubting if they made the right choice. Because, well, life in North Korea wasn’t anything the propaganda they produced made it out to be. There were widespread famines, the men were put under 24/7 guard and at least one of them, Jenkins, recounted how their guards regularly beat them. Not to mention the fact they were in a communist state with customs and people alien to them. Being 1,95 meters tall, James stood out of crowds and was shunned on the street, in stores and basically everywhere.

Four years after his defection, in 1966, together with the three other U.S. defectors, James took radical action. They sought help at the Soviet Union’s Embassy in Pyongyang. They hoped the Soviet Union would grant them asylum. Probably unbeknownst to the defectors, the Cuban Missile Crisis had recently ended, and the Soviets weren’t too eager to take in a group of U.S. defectors. 

As the Soviets refused them, their diplomats alerted the North Koreans, who detained the four men. Attempting to flee North Korea meant facing severe punishment, obviously. Perhaps even execution. Still, Pyongyang must have considered the defectors too valuable to simply get rid of them. Instead, as punishment, the men suffered a harsh routine of ‘re-education.’

Re-education

In a one-room apartment in Pyongyang, the four men were ‘re-educated’ and forced to study Kim Il-sung’s writings for ten hours per day. According to Dresnok, this was the moment he decided not to attempt to leave North Korea and simply adjust. Although admittedly, there weren’t that many alternatives. The regime didn’t use the men for propaganda anymore, and for years they would not be heard from again. 

James made a serious effort to learn Korean and soon became more-or-less fluent. Kim Il-sung’s writings, the ones he was forced to read ten hours per day, impressed him to the degree that he began translating them to English. He studied North Korea’s history, its culture, the laws and policies of the worker’s party.

They stayed in the tiny apartment for years, reading hours a day, receiving beatings from guards and realising they needed to make themselves valuable to the regime if they wanted to survive. During this time the deserters had a serious falling out, with the fight mainly centred around Jenkins and Dresnok. 

Jenkins and Dresnok

At any rate, by 1972, the North Koreans decided the defectors’ re-education was sufficient. James became an official North Korean citizen, received food rations, his own modest apartment in Pyongyang and a job. Throughout the rest of his life, James worked as an English teacher in Pyongyang, educating both the North Korean youth and troops at military bases. 

Besides jobs such as teaching English at military bases, most defectors received North Korean propaganda films’ roles. James enjoyed his first big break in 1978, playing the villain in a war epic. It elevated him to celebrity status in North Korea. He played the archetypical American villain that the heroic North Koreans would eventually beat. That was the premise – James starred in several more films like this. He played the same character in each of them: the ruthless American PoW camp commander ‘Arthur.’ Arthur became an endearing nickname for him to the North Koreans.

James also was forced into a marriage with an abducted woman. The other three American deserters too were forced into marriages with abductees. North Korea’s idea behind these forced marriages was to receive offspring with western characteristics that could be used as spies. Romanian Doina Bumbea, abducted from Italy by North Korean agents, married him. The couple had two sons: Ted and James.

In 1997 Doina passed away and James remarried to a woman whose name is unknown. For sure, she is the daughter of a Korean woman and a Togolese diplomat. Their son, Tony, was born in 2001. 

Dresnok’s Final Years

James’s most recent information and footage come from the 2006 documentary ‘Crossing the Line,’ which centred around him. In it, he reiterated his conviction that North Korea is the place to be for him. Even if there are a billion dollars in gold on the table, he will not leave. He considers North Korea his home. If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, it’s definitely worth watching. 

As for the allegations about bad living conditions in North Korea, James denied everything. When Jenkins returned to Japan with his wife, he revealed many abuse cases of the prison state, the malnourishment, beatings, and the program to train western-looking children to spy. James denied all these allegations against the North Korean regime, and does not appear to have had any faltering loyalty to the communist prison-state.

But already during the shooting of the documentary Bonner and the director, Daniel Gordon reported that James was in bad health due to his alcohol- and smoking habits. For example, a scene showed James being reprimanded by a doctor for drinking and smoking too much. Gordon even openly speculated James would not be able to see the final result, although that prediction turned out to be a bit too pessimistic.

It wasn’t until 2016 when North Korean state media, Uriminzokkiri, published a short clip featuring James’ two sons, that it became clear James passed away earlier that year. Interestingly enough, both men speak Korean fluently, and they wear the typical North Korean military uniform. 

Dresnok’s sons

Dresnok’s three sons and wife survived him. All of them remain in North Korea, and the oldest two sons played roles in North Korean propaganda films, just like his father. 

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Simo Häyhä – The Greatest and Deadliest Sniper in Military History

In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded their much-smaller neighbour Finland. It marked the start of the so-called Winter War. This war, lasting for just a little over three months, saw many heroic Finnish soldiers stand up against the better equipped and much larger Red Army behemoth. One of those soldiers that truly distinguished himself was the sniper Simo Häyhä. In merely 98 days, he managed to kill 542 Red Army soldiers, a staggering number. It didn’t just propel him among history’s most successful snipers, no. In just 98 days, Simo Häyhä managed to shatter any sniper victory score, a record that has not been matched by anyone before or since. And what is more, Simo managed to achieve this using no other equipment than any ordinary Finnish soldier had at his disposal. Including a rudimentary iron sight instead of scope on his rifle.

Early Life

Simo was born on December 17 1905, in the small municipality of Rautjärvi, south-eastern Finland. Nowadays, close to half the territory of his place of birth is Russian territory, signalling the significant geopolitical changes that would take place during Simo’s life. He was the seventh of eight children. His parents ran a relatively modern agricultural business on a significant plot of land. 

Two of his brothers passed away young, leaving him with two brothers and three sisters. Throughout his childhood, he enjoyed working on the farm whilst attending school. He had a relatively small posture, only 5ft3, but what he lacked in height he made up for in physical strength. He was practically oriented with no serious academic interest. During his spare time he hunted, skied in the mountains close by his elderly home and essentially enjoyed nature. 

During his teenage years Finland suffered quite a bit of turmoil. Up until 1917 its administrative status was Grand Duchy of Finland, part of the Russian Empire. Yet when in 1917 the subsequent Russian revolutions ended the Romanov-rule, within Finland too left-wing mass movements began questioning the direction Finland should take. 

Without getting too much into the internal politics – from January to May 1918 a civil war waged in Finland. Three months of incredible bloodshed between the so-called Finnish Whites, consisting of liberal and conservatives, and the Finnish Reds, supported by the Russian Soviets. Long story short, the Finnish White Army under Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim’s command won the civil war. 

In 1922, at the age of 17, he joined the local Finnish civil guard. He finished middle school and intended to take over his father’s farm once he became too old to operate it. 

In the civil guard Simo’s talent was discovered: marksmanship. He practiced with the Mosin-Nagant M1891, a Russian-built five-shot bolt action internal magazine fed military rifle. And he was quite adept at it. Finnish militias distributed this Russian gun and ammunition for free among its members. From December 1925 to March 1927, Simo fulfilled his mandatory military service, completing his time at the rank of Corporal.

Still, after completing his military service he still participated in many marksmanship competitions. Throughout the 1930s he won multiple awards and medals. Anecdotes survive which state Simo once managed to shoot 16 targets per minute, at a 150-meter distance, whilst reloading his gun because a Mosin-Nagant could only holster five shots at a time. An awe-inspiring feat. The Finnish Civil Guard’s preferred gun in competitions was the so-called SAKO M28-30, a Finnish-built improved Mosin-Nagant. In 1937, 440 of them were manufactured to be used in the World Shooting Championships in Helsinki, which saw Finland earn the most medals. Its barrel was heavier than its Soviet counterpart, and according to gun enthusiasts, the Finn models 28 and 39 were generally regarded as the ‘cream of the crop.’ 

When not participating in shooting competitions, Simo mainly worked on his farmland or went out hunting with his dog Kille, hunting wildlife in the area. His farmhouse was filled with hunting and marksman competition trophies. 

With tensions within Europe and between Finland and the Soviet Union ever-growing, the government emphasised military service among the Finns. They were well aware of the danger that loomed just across the border. In the summer of 1938, Simo received special sniper training in the Utti Training centre of the Finnish Army. It was the first time he received official military sniper training, and his superiors recognised him for his skill and natural sharpshooting talent. There’s no doubt the many years of hunting and shooting competitions honed his skills. Combined with a healthy dose of talent, Simo mastered any gun in any climate, even relatively basic rifles the Finnish army used during the 1930s.

Simo’s Tactics

The sniper training came just in time, though. Because of it, Simo contributed significantly to the enormous losses the Soviet Union’s Red Army suffered during the Winter War. In November 1939, the Soviet Union launched their invasion of Finland after a false flag attack. 34-year-old corporal Simo was called to the front. Recognised as a skilled marksman thanks to his time in the Civil Guard, he was deployed as a sniper.

Before we get to his actual combat experience, I want to have a look at his equipment and his tactics. His preferred rifle was the trusty SAKO M28-30. According to the website of Mosin-Nagant, one of the main improvements of this gun was the ‘rear sight design’. This meant the marksman could more easily pick up a target and fired shots tended to be more accurate. The gun rarely jammed in the cold weather, and its stocks were made of Arctic birchwood, proving resistant to the Finnish severe winter cold. Now, scopes were scarce, especially during the initial stages of the war. If Finnish soldiers used telescopic sights at all, soldiers looted them from Red Army soldiers. 

Simo preferred to use an iron sight, even when the opportunity presented itself for him to use a scope. For one, because he was convinced the sun could reflect off of the scope. But secondly, he simply felt an open-sighted rifle worked better with his small 5ft3 frame. Furthermore, an iron sight didn’t require him to raise his head ever so slightly when aiming. Since a sniper’s subtle movement can give him away, this appeared to be a sensible approach. Other considerations were that scopes could fog up, which you wouldn’t want happening at crucial moments.

Combined with the distinctive Finnish snowy camouflage outfit with fur lining against the cold, he blended in with his surroundings. He put snow in his mouth when in hiding, preventing his cold breath from revealing his position. Considering Finnish winters could easily reach -40C, laying still for hours wasn’t a comfortable task. He mastered camouflage in the snowy Finnish mountains and landscapes, hiding in nature. It helped that the surroundings of where he was deployed, namely the Karelian Isthmus was a 70 mile-long stretch of land with few roads, many hills and vast woodlands. 

According to his biographer, Tapio Saarelainen, in his biography The White Death, Simo’s success can be attributed to the following:

“Simo Häyhä was the best sniper who ever lived because he understood everything going on around him. He was a skilled trekker and hunter who knew exactly how to stay hidden. His gun too was one he had used for years and he knew exactly how it would react in its environment, and his personality was ideally suited to sniping, with his willingness to be alone and ability to avoid the emotions many would attach to such a job.”

Simo’s tactic was quite curious. Often, he took provisions for several days to trek into the wilderness on his own. He’d pick out strategic points, dig in and wait patiently. Sometimes for hours and hours on end, in the freezing Finnish winter, hidden among the snow. He’d pour water over the snow he rested his rifle on. It would freeze, and when he’d shoot there wouldn’t be a fluff of snow giving him away. When a Soviet patrol or infantry platoon passed, they were sitting ducks for the skilled marksman.

Simo’s Combat

During the next 98 days, Simo managed to kill 542 Red Army soldiers. That’s an average of over five per day. Not to mention the fact that winters in Finland enjoy just a few hours of daylight. Perhaps his reputation is best summed up by the Soviets’ nickname; they referred to him as the ‘White Death.’ His Finnish comrades referred to him as the ‘Magic Shooter.’

He initially served in the 6th Company of the 34 Jalkaväkirykmentti, an Infantry Regiment. He participated in the battle at the Kollaa River. A much smaller Finnish force managed to fend off four significantly larger Soviet divisions for months. The Finns had several advantages; one of the most significant ones must have been the fact Red Army soldiers didn’t wear camouflage clothing, making them easy pickings. During the war Simo received the Order of the Cross of Liberty, one of Finland’s three official state orders. He received the third and fourth class crosses of liberty as well, and in February he was awarded a SAKO M28-30 rifle with his name engraved on it. 

Lieutenant General Woldemar Hägglund commanded the Finnish forces, facing the 1st and 14th Soviet Armies. Writer Paul Feist describes this campaign as the ‘Miracle of Koolla,’ with at one point a few thousand Finns facing over 160.000 Red Army soldiers. He writes about the ‘Battle of Killer Hill,’ where 32 Finns fought off 4000 advancing Red Army soldiers. I have been unable to find an account that verifies this Battle of Killer Hill took place. Yet the Finns certainly gave the Soviets a run for their money, inflicting nearly eight times the amount of casualties they themselves suffered. 

 On March 6 1940, one week before the Winter War officially came to an end, things took a turn for the worse. A Red Army soldier shot Simo through his left jaw with an explosive bullet. Initially thought to be dead, he was put on a pile of dead bodies. His comrades nearly buried him if it wasn’t for an attentive soldier noticing his twitching, and dragging him out of the pile. He was unconscious, and the bullet blew half of his face away. In a near poetic twist of fate he awoke from his coma one week later, on the day the Winter War was concluded. As testament of Finnish perseverance, by the time the war was concluded Koolla was still in Finnish hands, against all odds. Still, the Finns ended up ceding nearly 10 percent of their land to the Soviet Union. 

Life after the Winter War


Simo had to recuperate for several years because of his severe injuries. He wanted to serve in the Continuation War against the Soviet Union, lasting from June 1941 to September 1944, but was refused due to his injuries and recuperation. It took 26 surgeries but he recovered and lived for many decades after the war. 

Over the years he participated in marksmanship competitions, winning many medals and awards. He enjoyed moose hunting, reportedly even hunting with the Finnish president Urho Kekkonen and made a living from dog breeding. The facial injuries certainly did not hold him back in pursuing an active lifestyle.

Being a sniper still means killing enemy combatants. Although it’s easy to sensationalise lives and achievements such as those of Simo’s, he himself appeared to have looked at it through a stoic lens. He felt he simply performed his duty. And he did a great job at it. He gave many interviews after the war. In a 1998 interview when asked how he managed to become such a skilled marksman, he answered simply with ‘practice.’ The follow-up question was if he felt regret for killing so many people, to which he said he ‘simply did what he was told to do, and did so as well as he could.’

So if we put Simo’s record in perspective, how successful of a sniper was he? Just keep in mind: he managed to achieve it with the most rudimentary of military equipment. The Red Army’s top sniper was Ivan Sidorenko, just 21 years old when the Second World War broke out. Throughout the war, he claimed at least 500 kills. The famous Canadian First World War sniper Francis Pegahmagabow had at least 378 confirmed kills to his name, mainly Germans. During that war the greatest Australian sniper was Billy Sing, with 150 confirmed kills. Still, these numbers are pale in comparison to those of Simo. 

Simo spent his final years in the small village of Ruokolahti in south-eastern Finland. In an interview he stated he was a ‘happy and fortunate man.’ He always ‘slept well, even during battles on the front.’ The legendary sniper passed away on April 1 2002, at the age of 96. His honorary rifle is still on display in the Military Museum of Finland. He still finds recognition in popular culture. The Swedish metal band Sabaton created a song about him, and the 2016 film named the White Death is based on his life. 

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Arthur Tien Chin: The Heroic Story of America’s First Fighter Ace of World War 2

On August 3rd 1938, the Second Sino-Japanese War was in full swing. During an engagement between the Republic of China’s Air Force and the Japanese, one Chinese pilot, flying the Gloster Gladiator Mark I, engaged three Japanese Mitsubishi A5M carrier-based fighter aircraft. When the leading plane came in for the kill, he deliberately rammed his Gladiator against it, exploding both aircraft. Somehow, the Gladiator’s pilot suffered minor injuries and burns. All that could be recovered from the aircraft was the machine gun, and when the pilot faced his commander, he asked if he could “have another plane to go with his machine gun.” Although they were in China, they spoke English with one another. Because the Chinese pilot was a US-born Chinese-American, Arthur Tien Chin. He became America’s First Fighter Ace of the Second World War. 

Arthur Tien Chin 1913-1997

Road to China

Arthur Tien Chin was born on October 23 1913, in Portland, Oregon. He was the first of six children to a Cantonese father from China’s Guangdong province and a Peruvian mother. His grandparents on both sides emigrated to the United States.

When Japan invaded Manchuria after the Mukden Incident, Arthur felt motivated to come to China’s aid. Decades later, when a reporter asked him why he went, he simply replied: “China called me.” He wasn’t the only one, and according to the Federal Aviation Administration, it became a mission of the Chinese-American community to train promising pilots for military duty in China. Around 200 men and women received training in the United States and ended up serving in China. 

In 1932, just 18 years old, Arthur enrolled in aviation training under Allan D. Greenwood, Oregon’s aeronautics inspector. Thanks to Chinese businessmen’s generous donations ensured 34 young Chinese-Americans could take courses at Swan Island Airport in Portland.

In December that year Art was appointed as a warrant Probationary Pilot. Not in the United States, though. To provide some context about 1930s China: several Chinese provinces were still governed by warlords, often only giving token allegiance to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government. As such, provinces often had their own air force – 16 when the Chinese-American pilots arrived. Together with between 11 and 15 other Chinese-American pilots, Arthur joined the Cantonese Air Corps of Guangdong. Their pay was no more than the equivalent of 25$/month, which stood in sharp contrast to the later-established American Volunteer Group pilots, who received the equivalent of 500$/month. 

In 1933 he was promoted to Second Lieutenant. Three years later, Canton’s Air Corps merged with the Republic of China Air Force, which mainly used the Curtiss Hawk IIs. Some sources indicate it wasn’t a merger, but Arthur and his fellow pilots defected to the Republic’s Air Force. 

Curtiss F11C Goshawk (Hawk II)

At any rate, the merger proved to be a unique opportunity for Arthur. Thanks to the deep ties between China’s nationalist government and Germany at the time, Arthur and John Wong, one of his fellow U.S.-trained pilots, were provided the opportunity to receive training in Germany. Both pilots enthusiastically accepted, and they received air-to-air gunnery training at the Luftwaffe’s Lechfeld Air Base. 

After successfully completing his training in Lechfeld, he was promoted to First Lieutenant and briefly served as a flight instructor back in Guangdong. It appeared his main handicap in his social life was that he spoke Cantonese with an American accent. Not really a handicap at all, and photographs reveal him sporting a thin pencil-shape moustache and a pipe. He became known as a ladies man. But he soon met and married Eva Wong, daughter of the Chinese diplomat Wu Tingfang. The couple had two sons, Gilbert and Steve. 

During this time, Arthur received command of the 6th Squadron, and in June 1937, he was appointed as Vice Commander of the 28th Pursuit Squadron, part of the 5th Pursuit Group. The squadrons part of the 5th Pursuit Group consisted of Chinese pilots, with the occasional Chinese-American pilot. They flew the Curtiss F11C Goshawk, known simply as the Hawk II, an American naval biplane fighter aircraft. The Chinese Nationalist Air Force purchased 52 Hawk IIs, and the squadron Arthur served in would see some real successes with the plane. Still, the plane’s design and qualities were soon outdated, having an open cockpit, a fixed landing gear and two rifle-calibre machine guns.

There was ample opportunity to achieve aerial successes because on July 7, 1937, a firefight between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge caused irreconcilable conflict. The already abysmal relationship between Japan and China escalated into a full-fledged war. 

War in China

By August 1937, the Imperial Japanese Navy began launching a steady stream of bomber raids against China’s Chuyung airbase in Nanking. The entire 5th Pursuit Group, of which Arthur’s 28th Pursuit Squadron was part, was deployed to defend it. 

Hawk II

On August 16, the Japanese launched their first two raids against the Chuyung airbase. Six Mitsubishi G3M “Rikko” bombers reached the airbase by 10 AM that morning. Due to foggy weather, the Air Raid Warning Net didn’t warn any Pursuit Squadron in time. Both Arthur’s 28th Squadron and the 17th Squadron, stationed at Chuyung, had to prepare their aircraft in haste to fend off the Japanese.

The subsequent aerial battle is documented in relative detail. Due to the raid’s late warning, only a few pilots managed to intercept the Japanese bombers in time. Among them was Arthur. Yet by the time their Hawk II’s reached the bombers, the first few Mitsubishi’s already dropped their bombs on the airfield. The Hawk II’s weren’t really out-of-date but had difficulty keeping up with the Mitsubishi’s.

Nevertheless, Commander of the 17th Pursuit Squadron, John Wong, managed to score three victories against the Japanese bombers. Quite an impressive feat. As for Arthur, he pursued another Mitsbushi, caused significant damage, but was unable to keep up with it. Still, records state the Japanese pilot ended up crash-landing off Korea’s southern coast. His plane had been hit 58 times, but the pilot and gunner both survived. Arthur’s Hawk II didn’t survive the battle unscathed: it was hit ‘many’ times during the pursuit, although it received no irreparable damage. Interestingly enough, The Republic of China Air Force awarded Arthur a victory, even though Arthur never confirmed he saw the aircraft crash (and as we now know, the aircraft had to crash-land). 

Due to the shortage of equipment and difficulty organising China’s defence against the invading Japanese, the 28th Pursuit Squadron was split up into two after this battle. Captain Chan Kee-Wong was sent to north-eastern China, whereas Arthur received command over the remaining four Hawk IIs. They were stationed in southern China, in Guangdong, to protect the Shaokuan Aircraft Factory. 

Mitsubishi A5M

In September that same year, another Japanese air raid by Mitsubishi G3M bombers targeted the Hankou-Guangdong Railway. Arthur’s Hawk IIs, supplemented with three Hawk IIIs, flew against the raid. Arthur didn’t claim a kill during the subsequent dogfight. However, although the Hawk II’s shot none of their planes down immediately, Japanese records show one of the G3Ms crashed above sea after running out of fuel and being severely damaged. As it appeared, it was Arthur’s Hawk II that did the bulk of the damage. 

New Equipment

In October, Arthur’s 28th Pursuit Squadron received good news: China’s Nationalist government had purchased 36 Gloster Gladiator Mark Is. These British-built biplane fighters were a welcome addition to the outnumbered and outclassed Chinese air force, not to mention they were faster and more modern than the Hawk II. Gladiators had an enclosed cockpit and four machine guns. Upon the arrival of the plane’s parts, the pilots assembled the aircraft themselves and in January 1938, two dozen of them were ready. Sixteen other Gladiators arrived in January and were assigned to Arthur’s 28th and the 29th squadron serving with him.

Gloster Gladiator

Most of Arthur’s eventual victories were attained in the Gladiator, but he suffered three serious plane crashes with them as well. Before most of his victories, things soon took a turn for the worse. Early morning, February 9, eleven Gladiators were meant to be transported to Nanchang, north of Guangdong. However, a snowstorm messed up that plan. Royally. At first, the guiding Vought V-92C Corsair had to return mid-way because its engine started to falter. The Gladiators continued their journey, but two of them got lost and ended up landing completely off-route. Arthur got the worst of it, though. Flying low to see if he could spot a landmark of Nanchang, he crashed into a hill. He suffered minor injuries, but the Gladiator was written off. Only eight of the eleven Gladiators ended up making it to Nanchang.

Within three months, Arthur recovered and began flying again. Flying his trusty Gladiator, he shot down a Nakajima E8N single-engine two-seat reconnaissance seaplane. In June that year, he was promoted to Captain and officially received command of the 28th Squadron. He had been vice commander up until then. Not too long after, he downed another Mitsubishi G3M bomber. 

On August 3rd, Art saw some of his most intense action. General Claire Lee Chennault, who rose to fame as commander of the American Volunteer Corps, the Flying Tigers, but by that time still an advisor of the Chinese Air Force, gave a detailed account of what happened. According to him, during a mission, Art “engaged three Japanese Mitsubishi A5M carrier-based fighter aircraft.” When the leading plane came in for the kill, he deliberately rammed his Gladiator against it, exploding both aircraft. Somehow, Arthur suffered minor injuries and burns, but the only thing that could be salvaged from his crashed gladiator was the machine gun. When he faced Chennault after the affair, he asked him if he could “have another plane to go with his machine gun.”

The Mitsubishi A5M is an interesting plane as it was much faster than any fighter in China’s service. Two months after Art’s encounter with the A5M, his squadron was re-equipped with the Soviet-built Polikarpov I-15 biplane. Although Arthur flew multiple missions in the Polikarpov, he appears to have never claimed any victories in it. Art eagerly hopped into his old trusty aircraft when the option to return three Gladiators into service came along.

In November 1939, he nearly shot down a Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-15 light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. Later that month, he downed another G3M. In total, between 1937 and 1939, Art achieved nine aerial victories and he reached the rank of Major in December 1939.

The Crash

But that same month, things took a turn for the worse. Tasked with escorting three Tupolev SB twin-engined monoplane bombers, a Japanese squadron intercepted Art’s squadron near Kunlun pass, Guangxi. 

During a dogfight, one of the Japanese Mitsubishi’s, presumably an A5M, shot the fuel tank of Arthur’s Gladiator. They say bad things come in threes, and this was the third time Arthur suffered a plane crash. He managed to parachute out and survived the subsequent crash, but his plane went up in flames. Art suffered third-degree burns over most of his body and face. This meant his aviation career came to an abrupt end. To make matters worse, the military could not treat him for three days due to a lack of facilities. This delay worsened his already severe injuries, leading to a slow and challenging recovery over the next several years.

It would take years, and many men’s careers would have ended at this point, but Art’s wouldn’t. He had received many medals by this point. Among them were the Five Star Medal, two Orders of Renaissance and Honour 3rd Class medals, the Order of Resplendent Banner with Special Rosette, Medal of Victorious Garrison 2nd Class, Awe-Inspiring Medal 3rd Grade and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal.

Arthur and Eva

Together with his wife and sons, they moved to family members near Liuchow Airfield. Over here, Art received treatment and slowly recovered from his burns. Now, Liuzhou was located close to the frontlines. Shortly after the couple settled down, a Japanese bombing raid targeted the airfield they resided nearby. What followed was one of the most grizzly scenes imaginable. 

Hearing the aircraft approach and bombs dropping, Art’s wife first took their two children to the bombing shelter. Due to his injuries, Art was immobile. His arms, body and face were wrapped in bandages, and he was unable to see. His wife was too late in getting him to the bombing shelter. Many years later, in an interview, Art recounted how Eva threw herself on him, shielding him from the shrapnel and bombing blast. She didn’t survive. Art did.

Arthur (on the right)

He and his sons fled to neutral Hong Kong, where Art received multiple surgeries in an attempt to restore his eyesight and mitigate most of the damage his burns caused. Still, when in December 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he fled with his two boys across the front lines back into friendly territory. General Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers, drafted a letter requesting urgent air transportation for Art and his family. They arrived in New York in summer 1942, where he again received extensive treatment in the New York hospital. 

It took nearly two more years to restore his face reasonably. Once he gained enough strength, he made numerous appearances at war bond rallies and on the radio, speaking to increase American morale and the war effort. Some sources indicate he was briefly married to a nurse, with whom he had a daughter. They amicably divorced before 1945, though.

Art’s Final Flight

By early 1945, Arthur wanted to do something more result-oriented. Although he wasn’t fully recovered yet, he applied to the Chinese National Aviation Corporation, a co-owned airline by the Chinese nationalist government and Pan American World Airways. The U.S. Army Air Forces contracted the corporation to supply U.S. forces in the Pacific and Indian war theatre. Having logged over 3000 flight hours and having ample commanders willing to write letters of recommendation, Art began his airline career there.

On March 1, Arthur was officially discharged from the Republic of China’s Air Force. Two weeks later, the Chinese National Aviation Corporation contracted him. From then on, he regularly flew planes to resupply American troops on the frontlines. By July, Arthur rose to the role of co-pilot, reapplying and regaining U.S. citizenship in the process. None of the sources I’ve read made mention of him ever losing U.S. citizenship, but I am assuming he lost it when he entered into service of the Chinese Nationalist Air Force. 

Arthur was stationed in India; he flew over the Himalayas to supply troops in China. It’s pretty notable that this flying route, which was fittingly referred to as ‘flying the hump’, was considered by some as just as dangerous as flying a combat mission over Germany. Over 300 aviators went missing in the area, never to be found again.

It wasn’t all dangerous though. In India, he met his third wife. Vivienne Yang too worked at the corporation. They married in 1948 and the couple had one child, Matthew. Around the time Matthew was born, they left their jobs and returned to Portland. There, Arthur worked in a mail sorting centre of the U.S. Postal Service. 

Interestingly, in 1993 the Chinese National Aviation Corporation’s employees received recognition for their contribution to the American war effort. All of them received a veteran’s status. Together with other former colleagues, Arthur received the Air Medal for meritorious achievement of his flights between March and August 1945. 

Arthur Chin passed away on September 7, 1997. Not even one month later, on October 4, he was inducted into the American Airpower Heritage Museum’s Hall of Fame as America’s first ace of the Second World War. Eleven years later the U.S. government renamed a Post Office in Beaverton, Oregon after him. In his lifetime, the comic book ‘China’s Warhawk’ was based on his exploits. 

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Isoroku Yamamoto: Japan’s Admiral and Mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor Attack

Isoroku Yamamoto was the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy during the Second World War. He was a veteran of the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and commanded the attacking fleet during the, for the Japanese disastrous, Battle of Midway and the Guadalcanal Campaign. But that’s not necessarily what he’s remembered for. Yamamoto was the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor Attack on that fateful day, December 7th 1941. The infamous attack is engraved in the collective mind of Americans, and frankly large parts of the world. It directly led to the United States’ involvement in the bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen.

Isoroku Yamamoto (1884-1943)

Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the American press described Yamamoto as the ‘personification of the Japanese warlords’ eager to wage war against the United States. He was inherently anti-American, right? Well… no it is a bit more complicated than that in fact. 

  Yamamoto did not just study at Harvard University, but one of his roles during his career was as the Japanese naval attaché in Washington. He knew the United States, its culture, military and economic power. In fact, he was one of the highest-ranking commanders advocating against war, quite literally going against the Japanese Warhawks. In fact, during the late 1930s, the Japanese military issued 24/7 protection to Yamamoto, because they considered an assassination attempt from the pro-war nationalist camp a likely course of events, due to him being known as “Pro-American”. Yeah, this is the man that was literally the mastermind behind Pearl Harbor. That raises some questions: how did this come to be? 

But perhaps just as interesting as asking this question, is looking at Yamamoto’s eventual demise. Because in February 1943, the U.S. Office for Naval Intelligence managed to decode Yamamoto’s travel schedule. They realised they struck gold and arranged a secret operation with a killer squadron of Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined fighter aircraft, tasked with intercepting his flight squadron. This secret mission became known as the aptly named “Operation Vengeance”: the mission to kill Admiral Yamamoto.

Early life 

Isoroku Yamamoto was born on April 4, 1884, as the sixth son of Samurai Sadayoshi Takano. He received education at the Imperial Japanese Naval Acadamy. He served on the cruiser Nisshin during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, losing two fingers on his left hand during the decisive battle of Tsushima. It led to his rather funny nickname, ‘80-sen’ because a manicure cost ten sen per finger at the time. His superiors recognised him as a capable, ambitious and keen navy officer, sending him to the Imperial Naval Staff College. 

By 1916 he was a lieutenant commander when his parents passed away. Subsequently, the Yamamoto family adopted him, an adoption process which was customary at the time. In 1918, he married Reiko Mihashi and the couple had four children. Merely one year later, he left for the United States to attend Harvard University and study the oil industry. After graduation in 1923, he returned to Japan. He was promoted to Captain and began advocating the expansion of the Japanese Armoured Fleet, which the army disapproved of. Up until then, the military saw the Navy mainly as a transport branch for infantry. Yamamoto became fascinated by aviation after taking courses at the Kasumigaura Training Center. He soon became its director and became known for supplying the Navy with elite, well-trained pilots.

Yamamoto (1925)

He didn’t stay in Japan for long, though. In 1926 he was assigned as the official Japanese Naval attaché in Washington. This post gave Yamamoto the freedom to travel through the country and gain insights into their economic and military power and potential. During this time, the experiences he enjoyed greatly influenced his opposition to a German-Japanese alliance and war with the United States right before the war did break out.

The Brink of War

Yamamoto returned home from the United States in 1928. He briefly assumed command of the light cruiser Isuzu, before being appointed as commander of the aircraft carrier Akagi. In 1930 he was promoted to Vice-Admiral. He served as a special assistant to the Japanese delegation during the second London Naval Conference. Thanks to his diplomatic tact, or, according to a 1941 article in the San Bernardino Sun, his willingness to ‘torpedo’ the conference, he was one of the main factors in assuring Japan could expand its fleet according to the London Naval Treaty.

During subsequent years Yamamoto kept advocating for expanding the number of aircraft carriers, producing elite pilots, and ensuring a robust combined air and sea force for Japan. Although he still received scorn from the army for his ideas, slowly but surely they became a bit more widely accepted among other Naval officers.

Now, within this capacity, in 1933 he commanded the so-called Dai Ichi Koku sentai; or the First Carrier Division. This was an aircraft carrier unit of the Imperial Japanese Navy, consisting of two fleet carriers: Akagi and Kaga. Because of his previous successes in negotiating an expansion of the Japanese fleet, he became the Tokyo Naval Command spokesman at the London Naval Conference of 1934. Two years later he became vice-minister of the Navy, once again tirelessly advocating for a potent combined air and sea force, as he saw that as crucial for the Navy’s success. 

Meanwhile, within Japan, the Warhawk party grew, steering towards an all-out war against Japan’s neighbours and the United States to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Yamamoto was not part of this camp though. Because he tended to propagate a neutral stance and avoid war, the Japanese Warhawks attempted to eliminate him because they saw him as a pro-American traitor. Already in 1931 he vocally opposed the Japanese invasion of Chinese Manchuria and subsequent Second Sino-Japanese War. Another telling example was his response to the USS Panay Incident. In 1937, after Japanese aircraft bombed and sunk a U.S. gunboat, the USS Panay, on the Yangtze River, Yamamoto personally apologised to the U.S. Ambassador.

The army ordered him to be under protection 24/7 to prevent potential assassinations, which shows how controversial his stance was. Still, in August 1939 Minister of the Navy Mitsumasa Yonai promoted Yamamoto to the Combined Fleet commander-in-chief. Sources indicate one of Yonai’s motivations to do so was to save Yamamoto’s life, which, in his words, “could only be achieved by sending him out to sea.”

In September 1940 Japan, Italy and Germany signed the Tripartite Pact. It was Japan’s response to U.S. Congress voting to begin building new military ships, planes and the export embargo of some American goods to Japan. Yet joining the pact led to the United States placing an embargo on oil, steel, and iron exports to Japan. Sources indicate Yamamoto warned Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe to not start a war with the United States, as Japan would not be able to compete with its economic and military power. During this time he was promoted to Lieutenant-Admiral. 

Yamamoto with staff of the combined fleet

As time progressed, Yamamoto began considering war against the United States inevitable. He concluded that protecting the logistical transport routes such as the Dutch East Indies’ oil supply would invariably lead to conflict. Against better judgment, Yamamoto had to begin planning a strategic offensive against the United States. He was the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet after all. He ordered the construction of two new aircraft carriers, convinced that in his words: “A swarm of ants will defeat the strongest snake.” An intercepted personal letter of him from late 1940 indicates that he resigned himself to war by this point. Although he personally may not have been in favour, he now did everything he could to ensure a Japanese victory. Realising time was of the essence as the empire could not sustain a prolonged war against the United States. 

Outbreak of War

Yamamoto figured that Japan’s only chance to win a war was to paralyse the U.S. Navy, mainly its aircraft carriers, in their own base before they had an opportunity to attack Japan. Having intricate knowledge of the U.S. economy and their military, he realised that if this failed Japan could, at most, hold out for a year before the tide of war turned. It led to him devising and planning the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, launching Japan into the global conflict costing countless lives. The entire strategy of the Pearl Harbor attack was contrary to traditional Japanese warfare. This time, the goal was to launch a surprise attack, paralyse the fleet and subsequently force a decisive battle. Once the battle was won, he hoped the American morale would be low enough to begin peace negotiations.

Yamamoto (1942)

And we all know what happened during that fateful day of December 7th 1941. Taking some caveats into account, the Japanese generally considered the attack to be a success. For the next six months, they rapidly expanded their territory in the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese commanders were surprised by the rapid advancement of their troops and the ability to conquer territories. 

Instead of forcing a decisive battle, as Yamamoto advocated, the Imperial General Staff decided to invade Birma, giving the United States a bit of breathing room. On April 18th 1942 the Americans launched the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. It proved the Japanese mainland wasn’t safe against U.S. aerial power. This swayed the Imperial General Staff to agree to Yamamoto’s plan to fight a decisive battle: the Battle of Midway. Commanding the entire Imperial Japanese Naval Fleet, Yamamoto figured Midway was the key to Hawaii’s defence. He hoped to lure the American fleet into a trap and to deal it a decisive blow. 

The Akagi and Kaga aircraft carriers he commanded years ago, were part of the fleet he deployed to Midway. Together with the Soryu and Hiryu, Japan’s vital aircraft carriers were all put in the ‘Midway basket’, if you will. Yamamoto sent a smaller fleet to the Aleutian Islands as a diversion. What he didn’t know was that instead of baiting the American fleet, they were baiting him. The Americans had broken Japan’s codes and received intel about his planned attack early on. 

During the battle, the Americans under the command of Admirals Frank J. Fletcher and Raymond Spruance managed to sink all four Japanese aircraft carriers. The battle resulted in an American victory, and a devastating Japanese defeat. From then on the Japanese operated on the defensive, with the momentum decisively shifting in the American favour.

Yamamoto continued attempting to conquer Samoa and Fiji. In order to set up a reliable base in the vicinity of these objectives, Japanese troops landed on Guadalcanal and constructed an airstrip. In August 1942 the Americans landed on the island, in what became known as the Guadalcanal campaign. Forced to fight for the island, Yamamoto could do nothing but endure the war of attrition that followed, losing face at the homefront, and losing many soldiers on the actual frontlines. 

Operation Vengeance

Now, a lot has happened since the attack on Pearl Harbor, by this point well over a year ago. But the Americans hadn’t forgotten. In order to understand what happened next, we have to take a look at Yamamoto’s base from where he operated. Rabaul, located on New Guinea, was one of the most important, if not the most important Japanese military base at that point in time. With well over 100.000 soldiers and navy personnel garrisoned, Yamamoto coordinated the Imperial Japanese Navy’s campaign from his headquarters there. It was basically a fortress. In addition to the military personnel, the island housed many anti-aircraft defences and an underground tunnels network. 

P-38 Lightning

In late February 1943, the Office of Naval Intelligence of the United States intercepted coded messages indicating Yamamoto would visit the Solomon Islands in April.  Not just that – but as they decoded more messages, they realised they acquired Yamamoto’s detailed travel schedule. He was going to fly from Rabaul to Balalae Airfield. Knowing he valued punctuality, the Office could estimate where he would be at all times, knowing the speed of Japanese transport aircraft and the fact he’d adhere to the schedule. 

Yamamoto’s trip commenced on April 18th. It was the perfect opportunity to take revenge for the Pearl Harbor attack and take out the man responsible for it. Under the command of Major John Mitchell, the Office began planning their operation. 

As for Yamamoto, his visit was planned just after the Japanese suffered their defeat during the Guadalcanal campaign. The idea behind Yamamoto’s visit was that it would boost the morale of the Japanese sailors and officers holding the Solomon Islands. Little did the Japanese know this trip would end up having the opposite effect.

That fateful day, April 18th, Yamamoto travelled from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea to Balalae Airfield on the Solomon Islands. Two twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M Betty aircraft carried both the Admiral and his crew. Six long-range fighter aircraft Mitsubishi Zeros escorted them. 

Meanwhile, on the American side, the Office of Naval Intelligence decided against using aircraft carriers. Positioning them in the area might have deterred the Japanese from continuing their trip as scheduled.  And if it didn’t deter them, the Japanese would indeed have sent their Naval fleet to destroy the carriers upon noticing. Because the operation required a bit more stealth, the Office decided upon using eighteen single-seated, twin-engined Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft. 

Yamamoto a few hours before his death

The P-38s were outfitted with two extra fuel tanks, giving them a much-increased range compared to Wildcats and Corsairs. Of the eighteen, four P-38s were designated the so-called ‘Killer Group.’ These were tasked with taking out Yamamoto’s G4M, while the other fourteen P-38s covered the group against potential counter-attacks. After all, the operation took place close to Japanese air bases. The squadron did not exceed an altitude of fifteen metres above sea-level, in order to evade Japanese radar detection. 

On April 18th, 7:25 AM, the eighteen P-38s took off from Fighter 2 Airfield, on Guadalcanal. Two of them suffered technical difficulties not too long after take-off. Meanwhile, the Japanese squadron had taken off from Rabaul. They climbed to an altitude of around two kilometres. Thanks to the Japanese’s punctuality, the P-38s ran into the squadron at the exact right time: 9:35 AM. The four P-38s, part of the Killer Group, dropped their additional fuel tank and began climbing to the Zeros and G4M squadron’s height. Due to technical difficulties, one of the P-38s had to abandon its climb early on. With twelve P-38s acting as a cover squadron, the three P-38s continued climbing to take out the G4M. 

The sudden appearance of P-38s must have been a surprise to the Japanese pilots. After all, they were merely 15 minutes away from the Balalae landing strip. As soon as the Zero’s pilots saw them, they engaged in a dogfight. One P-38, piloted by Thomas Lanphier, fought the Zeros while the other two chased the G4M, one of them containing Yamamoto. Lieutenant Rex T. Barber shot down one of the G4Ms and narrowly avoided collision mid-air. The G4M crashed in the Bougainville jungle. 

Lieutenant Besby F. Holmes damaged the other G4M, but the job was eventually finished by Barber who shot the aircraft out of the sky. This one crash-landed in the water. One of the P-38s was shot down by a Zero. Now, both G4Ms crashed, but the commander of one of them survived. Aboard the G4M that crashed in the water was Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki, who in fact survived the crash and was picked up by the Japanese Navy. Ugaki is fascinating in his own right for he survived the end of the war for Japan, only to become Japan’s final kamikaze pilot. I’ve created a video about Japan’s last kamikaze attack which I will link to at the end of this video.

But Yamamoto, well, he was aboard the first G4M that crashed into the jungle. And he did not survive the crash. Japanese films depict Yamamoto as stoically meeting his end, although he was more likely struck by a P-38 Lightning’s ammunition, striking his aircraft’s right-wing, causing it to crash. As such, it is generally assumed he died before the plane crashed, being directly hit in the head. If you would like to see a film about Yamamoto’s life, consider watching the 2011 Japanese war drama film Isoroku, depicting his career and actions during the war.

Yamamoto’s funeral

Operation Vengeance was a definitive success, although if Yamamoto had been in the other plane, he would have survived the attack. Thanks to this mission, Pearl Harbor’s mastermind met his end due to a well-executed secret operation by the Office of Navy Intelligence.

The killing of Admiral Yamamoto was poetic justice from the American perspective. Precisely a year previous the Americans bombed Japan during the Doolittle Raid, proving the Japanese mainland was within reach. And exactly one year later they again struck a decisive blow against the Japanese.

The wreckage of Yamamoto’s plane still lies amidst the Solomon jungle. It is accessible, but only by trekking through thick vegetation and swampy grounds. A Japanese search-and-rescue party recovered Yamamoto’s remains the next day. His remains were cremated, and he was given a state funeral on June 5, 1943, over a month after his death. When studied, Yamamoto lived a life that appeared to be full of contradictions during an incredibly challenging time in history. As for Japan, it would take a little over two more years before they finally surrendered after the dropping of two atomic bombs by the United States.