by Henry Sakaida

As a young aviation historian, I was lucky to have become acquainted with a number of American WWII aces when they were alive and well. Sadly, they are all gone today. I became friends with LtCol Ken Walsh, Medal of Honor recipient, in 1978 via Capt David McCampbell, our top US Navy ace. Our friendship got me involved in several interesting projects.

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LtCol Kenneth Walsh was the 4th ranking Marine ace in WWII with 21 victories. He scored his last victory on 22 June 1945 at Okinawa.

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Ken Walsh is congratulated by President Roosevelt after receiving the Medal of Honor, on 8 February 1944. He was modest about his own accomplishments, and loved to talk about the heroics of his comrades and opponents. His great joy was meeting former Japanese Zero pilot veterans and talking “shop.”

ken walsh usmc henry sakaida

Henry Sakaida, LtCol Kenneth Walsh, and esteemed Japanese aviation historian Dr. Yasuho Izawa at Ken’s home in Santa Ana, CA, 1981.

Ken was on Okinawa in 1945 when he ran into two GIs hawking battlefield souvenirs. They were going up the flight line, haggling with souvenir-hungry pilots who wanted to take something back before the war ended. Weapons such as a sword or pistol would always come with an elaborate story which justified the high price. It was a seller’s market and there was beaucoup bucks to be made.

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Japanese pilot’s knee message board was homemade, of scrap aluminum, with a plexiglass cover, and a pencil tied to a string. It is stained with the pilot’s blood. Ken Walsh bought it, along with the fanciful story, for a jug of whiskey.

“Looky here, this is a genuine Jap pilot’s pistol! He was strafing us when he got hit and crash-landed his fighter down yonder,” said the huckster to Ken. “Me and my buddy rushed to capture him, but he took out this pistol and started shooting. We yelled for him to surrender, but he absolutely refused. He kept firing until we took him out! I grabbed this gun and the message board which was tied to his leg…Yessir, the guy was a fanatic! If he had been on our side, he would have gotten the Medal of Honor!” (The two guys had no idea that they were talking to a Medal of Honor recipient!)

The price was $100 or a jug of whiskey for each item. Ken didn’t have the cash, but he did have whiskey, so he traded the booze for the knee message board. It had belonged to a real enemy hero, so he was told!  Over the years, he tried to make it “talk” but got nowhere. Ken loaned the item to the Marine Corps Aviation Museum in Quantico, VA in 1980.

“Henry, mighty glad you dropped by!” said Ken. “I gotta job for you!” Gulp. Then Ken told me the story of the knee message board. I already knew what was coming up. “Oh please, don’t say he wants to return it to the family!” I prayed, “please noooooooo…”

“I want to return this to the family!” barked Ken. “If anyone can help me do it, then it’s you!” Ken just volunteered me to undertake this humongous task, and I had no voice in it. Must be the old Marine Corps way! But I was glad to help him out. He had given me some really interesting stories in the past and I owed him.

So I examined the materials…there was a pilot’s name etched onto the clear plexiglass cover. “Captain Sonoda.” There was a blood-stained note with writings and doodles. Clues in the notes pointed to a unit: 65th Light Bomber Group. Never heard of that one. Must have been a minor or obscure unit. It was now time to call in a real expert. Through Dr. Yasuho Izawa of Tokyo, a very distinguished aviation historian and mentor, we made contact with Capt Sonoda’s family, as well as his former commanding officer, Maj Atsushi Yoshida. It was as though Capt Sonoda had returned from the dead!

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Capt Yoichiro Sonoda of the 65th Light Bomber Group. Ken Walsh likened him to our WWI air hero Frank Luke.

Jutaro Sonoda, Yoichiro’s older brother, provided this biography: “Yoichiro Sonoda was born in 1919 in Miyazaki Prefecture. He graduated from flight training in 1940 and served briefly in Manchuria. He was a light bomber pilot from the start and was in the same class as Maj Teruhiko Kobayashi who became famous for his 244th Sentai career as a B-29 killer.  He became the first son in the family to die in combat.”

Capt Sonoda was posted to the 2nd Squadron of the 65th Bomber Air Group on 31 December 1944. According to a surviving squadronmate, Yoshihiko Hoshino, “Capt Sonoda was a very gentle man, and he liked children very much and gave them his special food and sweets.”

Former Maj Atsushi Yoshida: “The 65th Sentai was beginning reorganization when Capt Sonoda and I arrived, for the unit lost strength in the Philippine Campaign, with only a few pilots and maintenance men returning to Japan in December 1944. We planned to use the unit as night ship raiders for the main targets of forthcoming campaign would be ships, and I had no illusion as to obtain air superiority. We converted from Ki-51 (Sonia) to Ki-43-III; it was the first time to use this aircraft. We advanced to Chiran Army Airfield in Southern Kyushu in March 1945.”

“As you see in the sheet of Capt Sonora’s knee board, he, Sgt/Maj Iwao Murakami and  Corp Sadao Gondo took off from Chiran with a 400-liter drop tank and a 100kg bomb, at 1735 hours on 20 April 1945. By monitoring US radio communications I acknowledged 15 – 16 plane attack was reported on the night.  Just before the mission, I advised Sonoda to return with only one pass, but from the above report, I suspected Sonoda and his wingman strafed many times.

A Ki-43 Oscar, similar to Capt Sonoda’s, sports a drop fuel tank on the left wing and a bomb on the right. This was how his plane was equipped on his last mission.

This is not Capt Sonora’s original notes, but a copy for research purposes. He scribbled notes, but these were only understandable to him.

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Shortly before I  sent back Capt Sonoda’s knee message board. It was rather small but well made. Ken Walsh respected Sonoda as a great war hero and was delighted to make contact with his family.

Iwao Kaizaki (then Iwao Murakami), the sole survivor of this mission, reported: “Just after passing Tokunoshima, Capt Sonoda and Corp Gondo began their descent from the height of 3000 meters and parted forever.” Murakami reached Okinawa and proceeded to bomb a Sperry light and strafed the airfield five or six times without any return fire.

Ken Walsh believed the story he was told by the two GIs, but most likely, it was just made up. “Capt Sonoda was like our WWI hero, Frank Luke!” chimed Ken. Luke was shot down while attacking German observation balloons and crash-landed in enemy territory. Surrounded by the enemy, he refused to give up and shot it out with the Germans until he was killed. Luke received the Medal of Honor.

On 20 April 1995, exactly 50 years after Capt Sonoda was killed, his knee message board was returned to the Sonoda Family by American historian Dan King, who was living in Nagoya at the time and working for Toyota Motor Car Co. It was sent to him so that it could be returned in a dignified fashion. Later on, Ken treated the both of us to a great dinner for the mission accomplished.

On 4 June, Ken received the following message from Maj Yoshida: “When I took Capt Sonoda’s blood-stained board in my hands and saw the words ‘comradeship’ that he wrote 50 years ago, and ‘We were born separately but will die together,’ I felt as if I was brought face-to-face with him once again. My heart was filled with joy. I am at this moment looking at a photo of you, Mr. Walsh. I feel lucky not to have met you in the air 50 years ago in the skies over Okinawa. I would feel even more lucky if I were able to meet you someday.”

Ken Walsh passed away in July 1998 and is interned at Arlington National Cemetery.

For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941–45

Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45

I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft Carrying Strike Submarine, Objective Panama Canal

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai

Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945

B-29 Hunters of the JAAF

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