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How the Army and the media broke up Japanese war criminal Tojo's suicide attempt

Retired Col. John Wilpers speaks to the audience after being awarded a Bronze Star Feb. 23, 2010, for his efforts during World War II. His daughter, Terry Wilpers, holds a photo taken after the elder Wilpers captured Japanese Gen. Hideki Tojo.

U.S. ARMY

By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: September 10, 2020

At the sound of the gunshot from inside the house of the notorious Japanese general, Hideki Tojo, Maj. Paul Kraus and Lt. John 'Jack' Wilpers rushed the front door, followed by the media.

Wilpers, armed with a pistol, kicked open the door to Tojo's study, which was barricaded with a piece of furniture. He and Kraus shoved their way in, and Kraus yelled to Tojo, who was also holding a gun: "Don't shoot!"

Right behind them were George Burns, of Yank Magazine, Clark Lee, of the International News Service, Cornelius Ryan, the future D-Day historian, then with London's Daily Telegraph, and reporters and photographers with the Associated Press, United Press, the New York Times and others.

The general stood before them with a smoking pistol and a wound where he had just shot himself in the chest.

"I am Tojo!" he had told the reporters outside minutes earlier.

Here was the former Japanese Prime Minister and powerful hard-liner who had pushed his country to war, the man considered Japan's version of Adolf Hitler, and Italy's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

"American and British sea power has been crushed," Tojo had boasted six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. "Britain has reached a point of collapse . . . America [has suffered] repeated defeats."

"Imperial Japan has firm confidence in the attainment of the ultimate victory in this sacred war," he had said.

Now, it was Sept. 11, 1945, and what ensued was one of the more bizarre incidents of the American occupation after Japan's surrender in World War II.

It was a huge scoop for the reporters who were witnesses, and an incident that Wilpers, who after the war would move to Maryland and work for the CIA, did not talk about for decades.

Tojo, who had once overseen the brutal military forces of the vast Japanese empire, stood, wobbling, in his study.

Wilpers, then 25, covered him with his pistol. And the photographers and reporters burst in with their notebooks and huge cameras.

"The whole thing was a cross between a Marx brothers movie . . . and an Irish wake," Ryan, author of the book, "The Longest Day," wrote later.

George E. Jones, of the New York Times, reported: "This was . . . the cornering of a desperate man . . . For the correspondents who witnessed the scene it was highly reminiscent of their days on the police beat."

"I found Tojo still standing," he wrote. He "looked at us, then the gun dropped from his hand and clattered to the floor. His knees buckled and he dropped into an easy chair behind him. Welling streams of blood spread over his white shirt front."

"A dozen Americans quickly crowded into the room, but Tojo seemed oblivious," he wrote. "His eyes were closed and his breathing became a cadenza of wracking sighs and moans."

Wilpers, pointing his pistol at Tojo, carefully picked up Tojo's gun with a white cloth, just as Yank's George Burns snapped a picture that would become famous.

"There was a helluva lot of confusion as correspondents, [Army intelligence officers], police guards and household help piled through the battered door," Burns wrote. "Sunlight, filtering weakly through the frosted glass window, highlighted the blue hue of the [gun smoke] and the acrid smell of powder was still in the air."

It had been nine days since Japan had formally surrendered on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Since then the Americans had cautiously begun the occupation of Japan, with Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur appointed by President Harry Truman as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers.

American officers had started arriving in Japan shortly after Emperor Hirohito announced on Aug. 15 — Aug. 14 in the United States — that Japan would surrender.

MacArthur arrived on Aug. 30 and checked into the New Grand Hotel, in otherwise bombed out Yokohama, according to historian William Manchester.

Reporters soon followed.

One of the early tasks for American officials was to round up those believed responsible for the criminal conduct of Japanese forces during the war. There had been murder, rape, torture, medical experiments, starvation, brutality, atrocities and millions of deaths.

Of all the Japanese, Tojo was held to be the most infamous and had been caricatured during the war as the epitome of Japanese evil.

"Never before had a modern Japanese leader gathered to himself so much power," wrote historian John Toland.

But as the war turned bad for Japan, Tojo's power waned.

Japanese defeat at the battle of Guadalcanal, and its disaster at the battle of Midway, damaged him. And the fall to the Americans of the Japanese bastion on the Pacific island of Saipan doomed him politically.

Tojo's wife began getting anonymous phone calls asking if he had killed himself yet, according to Toland. There were plans to have him assassinated.

He was forced to resign as prime minister in 1944 and went into retirement. But in the United States people would remember his name.

A year later when American forces, and reporters, began to arrive after Japan's surrender, he was living in a modest house in suburban Tokyo, according to the news accounts.

The first to track him down were two reporters for the AP — Russell Brines, who had been interned by the Japanese in the Philippines for two years, and veteran war correspondent Murlin Spencer.

They found Tojo's house and went to interview him on Sept. 10, 1945.

It was a new house in a semirural setting, and Tojo wore white shorts held up with suspenders and smoked cigarettes with a glass cigarette holder.

Tojo, whom the reporters described as "the shaven-headed, one-time terror of Asia," was not happy they were there. He said they were the first Americans to see him.

He refused to discuss details of the war. They asked him who was responsible for starting the war.

"You are the victors and you are able to name him now," he responded. "But historians 500 or 1,000 years from now may judge differently."

Lee, of the International News Service, another seasoned war correspondent, also tracked him down that day.

Their stories were front page news across the United States.

"I've got to think there was probably a lot of Americans at that time who had lost loved ones in the Pacific war, thinking, 'Wait a minute. This Tojo guy's still walking around?' " said Chris Carola, a former AP reporter who is working on a book about the incident. "'He's still alive? Why haven't we arrested him?' "

The night of Sept. 10, MacArthur ordered Tojo to be picked up, Carola said.

The next day, Burns, of Yank Magazine, was eating lunch in a Tokyo hotel when Lee approached him and said: "Do you want to eat that or see Tojo get arrested?"

They raced out to the house and found two reporters already there. Four more soon showed up, Burns wrote. And soon there was a crowd of journalists staking the place out. Tojo peered out the window, but now would not let anyone in.

Burns shot a picture, and Tojo ducked back inside.

Meanwhile, the Army had appealed to Spencer, of the AP, to help find Tojo. "I was there yesterday," Carola said Spencer replied. "I can show you."

At about 4 p.m., Wilpers and Kraus, who were with Army's 308th Counter Intelligence detachment, pulled up to the house, Carola said.

The reporters asked: "Is this it?"

"Yep," Kraus replied, according to Burns's account. "We're taking him to GHQ in Yokohama."

Some negotiating took place between the Army officers and Tojo's household.

Tojo looked out the window again and motioned the Americans toward the front door.

"Just as we reached the front door, there was a shot," Burns wrote.

Wilpers dashed through the front door, and he and Kraus forced their way into Tojo's study.

The reporters piled in after them. Tojo was fatally wounded, everyone thought.

He was moved to a couch as Burns and Charles P. Gorry of the AP, shot pictures of Tojo, Wilpers and others.

The room was chaos. Tojo passed out, came to and started to mumble.

"He's making a last statement!" someone yelled.

An interpreter was handed paper and pencil and pushed to Tojo's head. Whatever was said made no sense, Burns wrote. So the reporters went back to scribbling notes.

"The rest just stood and stared at the blood gushing from the wound in his chest . . . waiting for Tojo to die," Burns wrote.

Wilpers found out Tojo's doctor lived nearby and ordered him to be fetched, Carola said. On arrival the doctor did not do much, saying the general wanted to die and was going to die.

Wilpers, still armed with his pistol, ordered him to save Tojo.

Amid the confusion in the room, an AP reporter found a phone down the hall and reached his office in Tokyo. "Tojo just shot himself!" he said.

Other reporters rushed to the phone and called in. "The people on the other end would ask . . .'Is he dead yet?'" Carola said.

"The guys on the phone would have to yell down the hall, 'Hey, is he dead yet?'" Carola said.

Tojo did not die that day. U.S. doctors showed up, took him to an army hospital and saved him. He was imprisoned, found guilty of war crimes and hanged three years later.

The reporters wrote front page stories about what they had seen and went on with careers, some of them illustrious.

Wilpers, originally from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., moved to Garrett Park, Md., after the war and raised five children there.

Unlike the reporters he had been with, "he never really wanted to talk about" his encounter with Tojo, his son, John, said. "He never talked about the war."

It was only when the elder Wilpers, in his old age, began investigating why he had never received the Bronze Star medal for which he had been recommended that the full story emerged.

"I have always tried to avoid the insatiable appetite of the media and would prefer to continue to do so," he wrote the army in asking about the medal.

His son said he knew the medal had been recommended for the capture of Tojo, but he did not know the details.

In 2010, after some bureaucratic obstacles were cleared away, the elder Wilpers finally received his bronze star and had to face up to some acclaim.

The medal was given in a packed auditorium in a Defense Department office building.

And the local newspaper wrote a story about him.

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