HOG WILD-ONE B-29
by Dwight R. Rider
In the early morning hours on 16 August 1945 the day after Japan surrendered Eagle team, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Willis Bird climbed aboard a C-47 in Xian, China, on a one way trip for Keijo. Bird was a 36-year old graduate of the Wharton School of Finance. Prior to the war he had served as an executive for Sears, Roebuck in Pennsylvania and New York. His fellow OSS officers considered him a “con-man, an “operator” and “vain.”
Bird is reported to have carried a pair of pearl-handled revolvers. The Eagle team was too large to fit aboard a single B-24, and the C-47 could not carry enough fuel for a round trip.
The C-47 would have to land in Korea and refuel at the grace of the Japanese prior to returning to China. Bird, seeking to “liberate” Korea from Japanese oppression single-handedly and in violation of the previous orders of Colonel Heppner, had added to the Eagle team a United States OWI reporter Mr. Henry R. Lieberman (24 Nov 1916–15 Mar 1995). During the flight to Korea the mission received reports that Kamikaze aircraft were continuing to attack U.S. ships and that the ordered ceasefire issued by Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was being ignored. The team was ordered to turnabout and return to Xian. Two days later, on 18 August 1945 the team once again departed Xian, China for Keijo, Korea.
The Eagle Mission
Eagle was one of nine OSS missions ordered out of Xian on POW relief missions by Colonel Richard P. Heppner, Chief of the OSS, China. The missions were coded named Cardinal, Duck, Eagle, Flamingo, Magpie, Pigeon, Quail, Raven and Sparrow. The teams were to land at Hainan Island, Hanoi (French Indochina), Harbin, Keijo (Korea) Mukden, Peiping, Shanghai, Vientiane (Laos) and Weihsien (Shandong). The teams were ordered to make contact with Allied POWs in their assigned areas; take the prisoners under their protection, and render all humanitarian and medical assistance possible. Their follow-on orders were to locate and secure any nearby airfield for use in removing the POWs from that area. Lacking an airfield, the teams were to identify a drop zone to support the insertion of additional medical and relief personnel. The teams were also assigned an intelligence mission; to locate any downed airmen or escapees, and to develop an order-of-battle for the Japanese forces in their areas. It was suspected that some Japanese military commanders might decide to continue the war, and information on the size and disposition of Japanese forces remained essential. Time was also an issue.
The members of the OSS teams assigned had only days to prepare for their missions. Though the idea of a rescue had long existed, actual planning would take place over a period of days, not weeks or months. Magpie was planned over a period of about ten days. Major John “Jack” Singlaub, the commander of Pigeon, the OSS mission to Hainan, assembled his team in only two days.
In the early morning hours on 16 August 1945 the day after Japan surrendered Eagle team, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Willis Bird climbed aboard a C-47 in Xian, China, on a one way trip for Keijo. Bird was a 36-year old graduate of the Wharton School of Finance. Prior to the war he had served as an executive for Sears, Roebuck in Pennsylvania and New York. His fellow OSS officers considered him a “con-man, an “operator” and “vain.” Bird is reported to have carried a pair of pearl-handled revolvers. The Eagle team was too large to fit aboard a single B-24, and the C-47 could not carry enough fuel for a round trip. The C-47 would have to land in Korea and refuel at the grace of the Japanese prior to returning to China. Bird, seeking to “liberate” Korea from Japanese oppression single-handedly and in violation of the previous orders of Colonel Heppner, had added to the Eagle team a United States OWI reporter Mr. Henry R. Lieberman (24 Nov 1916–15 Mar 1995). During the flight to Korea the mission received reports that Kamikaze aircraft were continuing to attack U.S. ships and that the ordered ceasefire issued by Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was being ignored. The team was ordered to turnabout and return to Xian. Two days later, on 18 August 1945 the team once again departed Xian, China for Keijo, Korea.
Arriving at Keijo the team was met by members of the Japanese military, to include Lieutenant General Kotsuki Yoshio who informed the team that all POWs and foreign civilians in captivity in Korea were in safe hands and in good health.550 The Japanese would not however allow the team to meet with any of the POWs held at Keijo.
With no instructions from the Japanese government directing the military in Korea to negotiate the surrender of its forces in Korea to the OSS, and with the OSS having no authority to accept a surrender of the Japanese forces in Korea, the Japanese ordered the OSS team to return to Xian until a later date.551 Requests by Bird that the team be interned with the POWs allowing the OSS team to perform its relief mission were politely refused. With more than 50 Japanese planes parked on the field, to include 20 Zeros and soldiers marching in formation, Bird was quickly made to understand that the Japanese in Keijo were not to be trifled with.
As the C-47 required a different octane level fuel than the Japanese aircraft stationed at the base the Japanese were forced to hold the crew and the aircraft overnight while the correct grade of aviation fuel was trucked to the field. The Japanese colonel left in-charge of the group hosted a dinner for the crew complete with Kirin Beer and sake. Despite the dinner and shared drink the night before, the next morning the Japanese brought up tanks and mortar teams placing these near the C-47 to reinforce their request that the Americans leave. A message from Japanese Imperial G.H.Q was later forwarded to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers requesting that such air drops end until the situation could be clarified.
After refueling with Japanese aviation gasoline, the team departed Keijo on the evening of 19 August for Shandong, China where it made contact with Team Duck. The next day Eagle Team was ordered to Keijo once again by OSS headquarters and told to remain there even at the risk of internment by the Japanese. Colonel Bird informed OSS headquarters that the team had been ordered out at gun point by the Japanese who refused to accept their mission.
On the 22nd Bird flew to OSS headquarters at Chungking where he informed the OSS leadership that in his opinion the situation in Korea was far too dangerous for the team to return and that if they did, it would probably result in the execution of the 22-man team and the crew of the C-47. Unfortunately, while Colonel Bird was explaining his views of the team’s chance of success to no less than General Albert Wedemeyer, commander of U.S. forces in China, and the Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Lieberman was completing a recording of his report of the first encounter of Japanese and U.S. forces in Korea to be broadcast to his audience in China the next day. Lieberman’s version of the historic first meeting between U.S. and Japanese forces in Korea was slightly different from the story that Colonel Bird had told General Wedemeyer, and upon hearing the broadcast. General Wedemeyer was not happy.
What Colonel Bird had not told General Wedemeyer was that after the flight had landed in Korea and, while the Americans waited for the Japanese to bring the type of aviation fuel required for the C-47 to depart the base at Keijo, another air base in Korea, the Japanese entertained the OSS team with beer and sake. Staying at the base overnight the party continued on into the evening with the Japanese and Americans singing the national anthems of the two nations and various other military songs. Learning about the party through an OWI radio broadcast the morning after his meeting with Colonel Bird, General Wedemeyer was furious.
In Wedemeyer’s opinion Colonel Bird was guilty of fraternizing with the enemy and had disgraced U.S. forces in China. Worse still while the colonel had thoughtfully taken along a reporter from the OWI he had failed to take any food, medicines or other supplies to the starving POWs held in Korea. The contrasting differences between Bird’s report concerning the hostility of the Japanese in Korea, and Lieberman’s story of a Japanese-American military drinking party in Keijo in the opinion of General Wedemeyer, reflected poorly on the OSS. In the end Willis Bird and his pearl-handled revolvers never made it to Konan. Bird did not free the POWs held in Korea and he did not get to accept the surrender of the Japanese in Korea.
An irritated General Wedemeyer demanded the end of all OSS POW rescue efforts on the peninsula and that Colonel Bird face charges for his actions in Korea. Bird was never disciplined and is reported to have remained in Asia after WWII. In 1962 he was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department under Robert Kennedy. Bird never returned to the U.S. and the OSS would never put any more teams into Korea.
Liberating Allied POW Camps – The OSS
Immediately after the Japanese surrender General Albert Wedemeyer, Chief of Staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek ordered the agencies under his control to locate and evacuate all POWs in China, Manchuria, and Korea. At the time there were real fears that the Japanese would execute all POWs much as they had at Palawan. As discovered decades later in U.S. National Archives holdings concerning the Japanese operated POW camps on Formosa by the late Roger Mansell, such orders had indeed been issued.
The POWs at numerous camps across Asia; those in the Philippines, Thailand, Burma and other locations had been made aware of Japanese War Ministry intentions usually by friendly Formosan, Japanese or Korean guards. The POWs at Konan were no different. The Japanese camp commandant Captain Otaki at the Konan POW Camp had reportedly issued a similar such order to execute prisoners if Japan should be forced to capitulate.
In response to a warning from a Korean guard the POWs had made plans to resist any Japanese attempt to execute them, arming themselves with clubs and bricks. The camp doctor, Captain Morris had gone so far as to prepare an emergency medical kit for the treatment of any casualties that might occur in resisting Japanese attempts to execute all POWs.
In accomplishing Wedemeyer’s directions the OSS assembled a number of six-man rescue teams, to include combat medical personnel, communication specialists and interpreters. Wedemeyer was the only commander fighting the Japanese to develop such teams. A total of nine rescue teams were assembled: Cardinal (Mukden), Duck (Weihsien), Eagle (Korea), Flamingo (Harbin), Magpie (heading to Peiping), Quail (Hanoi), Pigeon (Hainan Island), Raven (Vientiane, Laos), and Sparrow (Shanghai).
As they would amongst the deepest insertions into Japanese held territory undertaken during the war, facing an enemy that had for the most part never been defeated, Cardinal (Mukden), Duck (Weihsien), Eagle (Korea), Flamingo (Harbin), and Magpie (Peiping) were considered the four most challenging and critical missions in saving the lives of Allied POWs. These insertions would place the OSS teams far to the rear of enemy lines and well beyond the ability of the Allies to salvage the operations if the missions went astray. As the only other locations overran by Soviet troops advancing against the Japanese were situated in Manchuria, those camps serve to compare and contrast the treatment of POWs held under Soviet control against the treatment of POWs held at Konan.
In Manchuria the Japanese held Allied POWs in two large camps, one at Mukden the other at Harbin with several sub-camps located throughout the area. Camp rosters as of 30 June 1945 indicate that there were 1220 POWs interned at Camp Hoten main camp; 150 at Hoten Sub-camp No. 1; 180 at Hoten Sub-camp No. 2; 125 at Hoten Sub-camp No. 3, with an additional 34 mostly high-ranking POWs held at Hoten Branch Camp No. 2 in Hsian. Altogether the camps held about 1,300 American and 250 British POWs.1280 Lieutenant Generals Jonathan Wainwright and A.E. Percival, the American commanders of the Philippines and the British commander of Singapore in 1942 respectively, were held at Hoten Branch Camp No. 2. Sir Shenton Thomas the former British governor of the Straits Settlements was also held at the Hoten Branch Camp No.2.
On 16 August 1945, the day after the Japanese surrender a six-man OSS team parachuted from a B-24 into the area of the Mukden Camp. Once on the ground the team was surrounded, taken prisoner, but only mildly abused and interrogated. Once confirmation of the Japanese surrender took place the team was taken to the camp commandant, Colonel Matsuda and immediately began efforts to coordinate the evacuation of the main camp at Hoten. The team also sought to make contact with Generals Wainwright and Percival held at the Hoten Branch Camp No. 2 in Hsian. Two members of the team would eventually depart Mukden by train on the 18th of August bound for Hsian, returning on the 26th with General Wainwright and his party. Unlike the U.S. and British experience in Europe, the OSS was waiting cap-in-hand with the POWs in tow as the Red Army, Transbaikal Front, entered the city. While the U.S. and Britain had negotiated the presence of liaison officers at German POW camps in Eastern Europe, a lack of negotiation on the part of the Western Allies was the rule in Asia. Wedemeyer’s move to action apparently made a large impact on Soviet forces as they invaded Manchuria.
The first Soviet Red Army troops parachuted into Mukden by C-47 on the 19th of August taking over the local airfield. By 21 August the 6th Guards Tank Army of the Trans Baikal Front arrived overland in the city. By the 24th of August Soviets forces were in possession of Mukden, Dairen and Port Arthur. Once the area was secure the Soviets disarmed the camp’s Japanese guards and left the prisoners in charge. It was noted that for the most part Soviet soldiers greeted the Americans with great enthusiasm, perhaps more than most of the former POWs expected – with large amounts of alcohol being the rule and not the exception. A small number of incidents took place between Americans and Soviet soldiers, most involving harassment and theft. For the most part these incidents occurred in the early days of the Soviet arrival and were attributed to a small number of Soviet soldiers not identifying the Americans they encountered as fellow soldiers, or former POWs.
None of the noted clashes between the two groups interfered with the evacuation of the POWs from Manchuria. To the contrary, unlike Europe where Soviet aid to the POWs had been virtually nonexistent, Soviet assistance in Manchuria was instrumental in evacuating the prisoners out of the area. The relief team at Mukden considered the Soviets to be extremely helpful in procuring the transportation used in the evacuation and in providing general manpower support. Given the large number of prisoners located in the area vice the small number of Americans in the contact team, Soviet participation was crucial to the success of the evacuation. In the aftermath of the evacuation a number of Russian officers, including the Soviet commander Major General Aleksandr Dorofeevich Pritula were recommended for American military decorations in appreciation of their assistance.
The evacuation of American POWs from Mukden began shortly after the OSS team arrived. On 20 August a B-24 carrying relief supplies landed at Mukden and brought with it an additional three relief workers to aid the OSS team. By mid-September the evacuation was largely complete.
The first group of POWs 18 in all, mostly needing medical assistance departed Mukden by air transport on 21 August 1945. Another thirty men were medically evacuated by air on the 24th of August. On the 27th of August, only after all remaining medical cases had departed General Wainwright and the remaining high-ranking dignitaries flew out of Manchuria to Japan. Most remaining POWs were sent by train from Mukden to the port of Darien where they boarded the hospital ship USS Relief and the transport USS Colbert, for evacuation to Okinawa.
The insertion of OSS teams into the area of the largest POW camps confronted the Soviets in Asia with what they had avoided in Europe, the presence of liaison officers at the camps who would organize and assist in the evacuation of U.S. and British POWs to areas under control of the Western Allies. Had the OSS not parachuted in the relief teams it is likely that the situation in Asia would have largely resembled that of Europe, with individual and groups of POWs wandering the countryside in an inhospitable environment dependent upon the good will of poverty-stricken Asians to assist them in their repatriation. The insertion of OSS teams into these areas eliminated any Soviet attempt to hold the POWs as bargaining chips in their ongoing struggle for power in Eastern Europe. It also removed Stalin’s ability to use the POWs in his ongoing negotiations with Nationalist China regarding land borders and Soviet access to warm water ports such as Darien. Without the pro-active policies of General Wedemeyer in facing down the Soviet early in the game it is unlikely that many of the POWs who had survived years of imprisonment by Japan, would have survived the journey out of Japanese occupied territory to any Soviet established collection points.
The presence of U.S. and British officers at the major POW camps throughout Asia was the one major difference between what the Red Army had experienced in Europe and what it would later experience in China, Korea, and Manchuria. It presented the Soviet Union with an obstacle, after-the-fact that their military and political systems were not immediately prepared to deal with. The presence of outside observers with communications gear in-hand allowing immediate contact with major U.S. commands operating in and around South and Northeast Asia; with additional POW repatriations teams reinforcing the initial OSS insertions without prior Soviet approval, presented the Red Army with a situation unlike what they had experienced in Europe. Any desire on the part of the Red Army to ignore the plight of the POWs, to construct stumbling blocks to their repatriation and purposefully stall their return was largely out of the question. Soviet commanders in the area had little alternative other than to cooperate and assist in the repatriation of the POWs and did.