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Memories of War Bring Peace at Last : History Buff Tracks WWII Fighter Pilots

February 02, 1989|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Even after 43 years, an American World War II fighter pilot kept wondering about the Japanese plane he shot down near Shanghai in 1945--the one that flipped on its nose but didn't burn.

Now the former pilot from Pennsylvania thinks he knows, thanks to Henry Sakaida.

Sakaida believes he has discovered the identity of the Japanese pilot. "The guy lived!" Sakaida said when he finally found a big missing piece to his unique puzzle.

Sakaida, who makes a hobby of pairing former combatants in the aerial dogfights of World War II, is eagerly awaiting final confirmation that the two men did indeed try to kill each other on that fateful January day.

Sakaida said he was delighted to take on the seemingly impossible task of tracking down the enemy pilot that Edward Bollen of Sewickley, Pa., only vaguely remembers shooting. He did so just because Bollen, whom he has never met, was curious about his long-ago foe.

Sakaida believes the man is Eiji Mitsui of Urawa, Japan, a one-time flying ace who not only can't remember the date he was shot down but who has also changed his surname.

'Most Unusual Hobby'

Admitting to "a most unusual hobby," Sakaida, a Rosemead nurseryman, has been able to identify dozens of World War II combat pilots who played deadly games in the skies over Asia and the Pacific.

In many cases, one of the opponents was killed in combat or has since died.

But they now see themselves as comrades with common bonds. Like others Sakaida has linked, Bollen said he hopes he and Mitsui will someday meet and exchange friendly greetings.

This case was particularly knotty for Sakaida, since in his flight report on Jan. 14, 1945, Bollen misidentified the type of plane he downed at Hankow Airfield. Most Japanese military records were destroyed after the war, Sakaida said.

Both Pilots Recall Incident

But both former pilots recall exactly the same experience at about the same time, when the Japanese plane, after it was strafed by Bollen's gunshot, flipped over into some grass while trying to make an emergency landing.

Sakaida worked on this puzzle for a month, putting pieces together through World War II flight reports he got from government archives and through friends in Japan who share his interest in history and fighter pilots.

In many other cases, he said, his research and investigation continued for years before he was able to establish combatants' identities.

"That Henry is something else!" Bollen said from his home in Pennsylvania. "I'm personally interested in people I've fought against, but I never realized I would have the opportunity Henry Sakaida has given me. When he located Mr. Mitsui, he was so excited he called me in the middle of the day, and again that evening. Henry seems like a real neat guy."

Sakaida, 38, was born in California long after World War II ended and has no personal connection with that period, nor is he a flier. During the war, his father, John, was assigned to Manzanar, a relocation camp for Japanese-Americans. His mother, Tokie, grew up in Japan. The family owns the Sakaida Nursery in Rosemead.

World War II Memorabilia

A graduate of Rosemead High School and San Jose State University, Sakaida lives in Temple City with his wife, Donna, and their two little boys. One room in their home is devoted to World War II memorabilia and includes shelves of books that fellow history buffs have written and sent him. Sakaida, in turn, has sent them copies of his 1983 book, "Winged Samurai," which tells the story of Saburo Sakai, a Japanese flying ace.

Sakaida said his interest in contacting enemy pilots began in 1975 on a vacation in Japan. A former fighter pilot asked Sakaida to help him identify the American who had shot him down over Guam in 1944.

"After checking around, I found it wouldn't be that difficult," Sakaida said. Although he was unable to determine who the American pilot was, he found himself hooked on a hobby that promised great personal satisfaction.

Several years ago he wrote a small newsletter about fighter pilots. Since then, most requests for information and research come to him by word of mouth, mostly from former pilots who keep in touch with each other.

"The reward is the smile on people's faces, you know?" he said. "If I got money out of it, that would just kind of ruin it. It's just fun seeing these people so happy, especially the ones that meet and shake hands."

In 1983, Sakaida arranged a meeting at his parents' home between Sakai and an American adversary, Harold Jones, who battled in 1942 in the skies above Guadalcanal.

Sakaida has discovered that the fighter pilots he has researched have distinct traits, among them a total lack of animosity for their opponents.

"They were technicians--super soldiers," Sakaida said. "So much training went into being a pilot, that was a common bond. They liked to fly, the thrill of combat, and now they like to relive the excitement.

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