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Making Friends of Old Enemies : World War II Hobbyist Researches Dogfights to Reunite Americans With Japanese Adversaries


That isn't a canopy of palm fronds or fruit tree branches that Henry Sakaida sees when he sometimes gazes up from his wholesale nursery in Rosemead.

In his mind, Sakaida is looking into a sky full of roaring Corsairs and cannon-firing Zeros--nimble World War II fighters locked in combat over South Pacific islands named Bougainville and Guadalcanal.

And inside the warplane cockpits, Sakaida sees the young faces of men such as Wendell Twelves and William Hopper and Sadamu Komachi and Yasushi Kanai.

Sakaida knows the terror all four pilots are experiencing as they dance their deadly ballet.

He knows because they've told him.

Fifty years after the war, Sakaida has an unusual hobby: He hunts down former air combat adversaries in hopes of turning enemies into friends.

So far he has tackled nearly 75 dogfights and claims a 90% success rate in identifying the participants. Some fliers want to face their former enemies again. Other's don't.

"They are very professional when they meet in person. There's no animosity, they talk shop," Sakaida says. "They inevitably ask each other, 'What did you think of us?' "

Each side usually admits to being impressed by the other. They are saddened if they learn their adversary didn't survive the war.

"At the time, those actions seemed very impersonal," said pilot Robert W. Wilson of Fallbrook after Sakaida identified Munetoshi Harada as the pilot of the Zero he shot down March 12, 1944, over New Britain, an island off Papua, New Guinea.

"It was man (me) against machine (him). But when you put the name of the Japanese as Harada, it makes it so human. It all seems so pointless."

Curiosity about the personal part of war led Sakaida, 42, to his unusual detective work.

As a boy, he enjoyed gluing together model warplanes and then crashing and burning them in the back of his family's Grand Avenue nursery grounds. One day he decided to find out who flew the real ones and faced the real-life dangers.

He was 13 when he got the address of a war history center in Tokyo. His father, Tadashi, translated into Japanese his request for information about zero pilots. Eventually, he was corresponding directly with Japanese combat pilots.

His first case came in 1975 when a former zero pilot asked him to help identify the American who had shot him down 31 years earlier over Guam.

Sakaida engineered his first face-to-face reunion in 1983. Onetime fighter pilot Saburo Sakai met former U.S. Navy dive bomber gunner Harold L. Jones of Unionville, Nev., and several others who had battled him in a 1942 dogfight over Guadalcanal.

Sakai, now a business consultant, brought along his battered flight helmet and showed its bullet holes to Jones, who now runs a bed and breakfast.

"I thought you were gone," said Jones, whose own plane had 232 bullet holes in it when it landed. Sakai replied: "This is just like a dream."

Another dozen or so sets of former enemies now correspond by mail. Many are planning their own reunions. But they're in their 70s now, and some will never get the chance.

Wendell Twelves, a retired steel company administrator from Springville, Utah, died three months before former enemy Sadamu Komachi traveled to the United States in 1992 in hopes of seeing him. Twelves had blasted him from the skies over Guam in June, 1944.

"My husband was really looking forward to meeting him," said LaRhea Twelves. "Mr. Komachi bore no bitterness. He wanted to meet the pilot who shot him down and give him a big hug and congratulate both for surviving the war."

Sakaida does his research for free. Detailed U.S. combat records are available, but most Japanese records were destroyed after the war. So he draws from the memories of Japanese pilots and statistics kept by various veterans groups.

He often discovers that the man he is looking for died in the war. But one of his searches cleared up a 49-year mystery over an American flier listed as missing in action in the South Pacific.

Japanese pilot Ryoji Ohara told Sakaida he remembered a 22-year-old pilot from Michigan who had been captured after parachuting out of his P-38 fighter. The American had been friendly and had given his flight helmet to his captors as a gift.

Sakaida identified the American in 1992 as Wellman Huey. When a Detroit newspaper reported his discovery, Sakaida was quickly contacted by Huey's brother.

"When you have somebody close just disappear and you don't know what happened, it's difficult," said Don Huey of Rochester Hills, Mich. "I'd like to find out more."

William H. Hopper, a 72-year-old retired Oakland educator and ex-Marine Corps pilot, wrote to the zero pilot he fought over New Britain in February, 1944, after Sakaida supplied the man's name.

Neither flier had been hurt in the skirmish: "We were both fortunate," Hopper said.

Hopper's adversary, Yasushi Kanai, became president of a fabric company. "We both have strong luck," Kanai wrote him back. "Our lives are not much longer, so let's live life to the fullest."

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