THE TRAGIC STORY OF COL HARRY R. MELTON JR.

by Henry Sakaida

PART I

You know the old saying: “One thing leads to another…” Back in 1980, I met a very nice gentleman in Tokyo named Yohei Hinoki. A former Zero pilot whom I knew told me that there was an Army ace living nearby and asked if I was interested in meeting him. You bet!

Maj Yohei Hinoki served in the famous “Kato Squadron” of the 64th Sentai (air group). He flew as wingman to Col Tateo Kato, Japan’s most famous fighter ace leader and revered “war god.” Hinoki wrote his memoir after the war and one cannot write about the 64th Sentai or the Ki-43 fighter without mentioning Hinoki’s name.

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yohei hinoki col. melton

Lt Yohei Hinoki on the wing of his Ki-43. Officers carried their swords in their planes for good luck and Samurai spirit. Like the British officer’s swagger stick, the sword was their symbol of authority.

Hinoki was one of the first Japanese pilots to down a P-51. “I shot down a colonel named Melton,” he told me. I was astounded by this information!  I wondered how this could be possible. The early P-51A  was far superior to the Japanese “Oscar.”

japanese flying helmet ww2 yohei hinoki

Hinoki wore this flight helmet from 1940 until the end of the war. He received it from his instructor, Maj Iwori Sakai, who wore it during the China War. Sakai flew for 18 years, shot down/damaged 9 planes including a B-29, and survived the war.

Maj Hinoki presented me with his flight helmet in Tokyo, in 1980.

The  Ki-43-II Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon) was a pony compared to the Mustang. Initially, the pilots were appalled by it.  It sported one 12.7mm (.50 caliber)  and a 7.7mm machine-gun in the nose and had a maximum speed of 329mph at 13,000 feet.  It was seriously underarmed and underpowered. In contrast, the sleek P-51A had four .50s in the wings (two in each wing) and a top speed of 409mph at 10,000 feet. (Note: Type “Yohei Hinoki” on Youtube and view his scathing critique on the Ki-43. It has English subtitles).

Ki-43-II Hayabusa in 64th Sentai markings. Depiction by Shori Tanaka of Tokyo. It was given the Allied codename “Oscar” but it was common for the Americans to simply call it a Zero.

The Japanese were well aware of the P-51 from this 1943 enemy aircraft recognition guide. The information and photo came from Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, a British publication issued annually since 1909 and readily available to the public.

The first duel between the Mustang and the Hayabusa occurred on 25 November 1943. Col Harry Ripley Melton Jr. was leading his men on a B-25 escort mission to bomb Mingaladon Airfield, just outside of Rangoon (now known as Yangon). This was their second mission of the day.

“I was scrambled with three others, but my radio failed and  I went back to my airfield,” began Hinoki. “Just as I was about to land, I saw a formation of unknowns coming in. I retracted my landing gear and climbed to investigate.” From a long distance, I thought the aircraft were Ki-45 twin-engined fighters which had taken off earlier.”  (The Mustangs were carrying wing tanks).

“I had a bad feeling about them,” Hinoki continued. “As they approached, I rocked my wings in a friendly gesture, waiting for acknowledgement. The leader of the 7-plane formation fired at me! I sustained a few holes in my wing. As he flashed by, I saw the American star insignia on the enemy plane. I quickly made a tight turn and had him immediately in my gunsight.”


P-51A of the 311th Fighter-Bomber Group in the CBI in 1944. The two wing tanks on the fighter, seen from a long distance, fooled Hinoki into thinking they were twin-engined Japanese fighters.

Col Melton, commander of the 311th Fighter-Bomber Group, flipped his Mustang over in a “split-S” maneuver to escape, which was a grave mistake, exposing his vulnerable underside. Hinoki fired his twin nose-mounted guns into the belly of the P-51 and saw chunks of metal and smoke spew out. The encounter lasted just seconds, and Hinoki headed off to the main fight while Col Melton disengaged and fled. One of his wingmen escorted him as far as he could.

Yohei Hinoki in my home demonstrates  how he shot down Col Melton, 1980.

col harry melton

Col Harry R. Melton Jr. was a strict and hard charging commander during the war, and a loving family man at home.

About 150 miles from Rangoon, Melton’s plane lost speed and he was forced to parachute. He was captured almost immediately. Word was sent to the 64th Sentai  that they had captured an American colonel and asked if Hinoki wanted to meet him; he declined. Hinoki wanted to keep the war impersonal but always remembered his opponent’s name.

Official eyewitness account of Melton parachuting out of his fighter.

Two days later, Lt Robert F. Mulhollem from Melton’s unit ambushed Hinoki in a dogfight. A .50 caliber slug ripped through his right leg, leaving it hanging to his gushing stump by a few tendons. He used his scarf as a tourniquet to stop the blood loss. Crazed with pain, Hinoki wanted to crash his plane to end his suffering.  Luckily, he found a river which he used as a landmark to reach his airfield. He managed to land and then passed out.

lt. robert mullhollem 311th fighter group p51 mustang

Lt Robert F. Mulhollem of the 311th. He ended the war as an ace and became an airline pilot. When I told him how he nearly killed Hinoki, who had shot down his CO, Bob was shocked! He passed away in 1982.

Lt Hinoki recovering from having his leg amputated.

Shipped home, Hinoki was later fitted with a wooden leg. His experiences were simply too valuable to discharge him out of the service. He was reassigned to the Akeno Fighter School, Japan’s “Top Gun” school for pilots. He worked as an instructor and also flew against the B-29s. On 16 July 1945, Maj Hinoki scored his last victory when he ambushed and shot down a Mustang. Two weeks later, the war came to an end.

Now 36 years later, Hinoki asked me for a favor: “When you return back home, please check and let me know if Col Melton made it safely home from the war…”

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PART II

I knew nothing about the man I was looking for. My curiosity took over and I began to sleuth. Harry Ripley Melton Jr. was born in 1911 and came from a distinguished Kentucky family; his father was Col Harry Ripley Melton Sr. (1881-1964), a medical doctor in the US Army. Harry Jr. graduated from the University of Alabama, then entered West Point (Class of 1936). They were both native sons from the tiny town of  Wickliffe, Ballard County, Kentucky. (The population was 688 in 2014).

Harry R. Melton Jr., West Point Class of 1936 graduation photo.

The mystery started to gnaw at me: Melton was captured, but did he survive? Whatever happened to him? I hate mysteries because I cannot find peace until I solve it. I had to find out and this was during the days when I didn’t have Internet. It was pure detective work, using only letters and a telephone. My first big break came when I tracked down Maj/Gen Charles G. Chandler Jr. who lived in Santa Cruz, CA. He took over the 311th when Melton didn’t return. In a letter dated 3 October 1980, he wrote:

“As I told you over the phone, Col. Melton did not survive the war. After he was captured and held as a War Criminal in Rangoon, he was moved to Singapore. From Singapore, he, with many other Allied prisoners, was in the process of being moved to Japan by transport. They were torpedoed by an American submarine. However, the transport sank slowly enough to enable all personnel aboard to evacuate to life boats. Prisoners were loaded in the life boats separately from the transport’s crew, with one exception – a British officer who for some reason was loaded with the crew. Japanese destroyers then sank all the of the prisoner lifeboats. The sole prisoner survivor was the British officer, and he was the person who, after the war, confirmed Col. Melton’s death to the War Department. This same officer also wrote Col. Melton’s wife giving her all of the details. He also enclosed a love letter that Col. Melton had written to his wife while in Singapore. The British officer carried this letter between the insole and sole of his shoe until the war’s end. Believe it or not, this letter was still legible except where folded. I remember reading it shortly after Mrs. Melton received it.” (Note: Chandler didn’t believe in using paragraphs!)

Harry Sr. retired from the Army in 1944; he and his wife provided a loving home for Little Anne.

Col Melton was put aboard the Japanese transport ship Rakuyo Maru, which was carrying Australian and British prisoners of war. It was attacked by the submarine USS Sealion (SS-315) at 0525 on 12 September 1944. The submarine was a part of a wolf pack consisting of the Growler and Pampanito. The Japanese convoy in the South China Sea was heading towards Formosa. The Sealion put two torpedoes into the Rakuyo Maru and it began to burn. The number of prisoners on this ship is unknown, but was recorded that 1,159 prisoners died in this event. The Japanese also lost the transport Kachidoki Maru and the tanker Zuiho Maru. Some of the prisoners were recaptured from the water and arrived in Formosa; others were rescued by our submarines or fired on by Japanese destroyers.  Google ‘Rakuyu Maru’ for more details. (Note: You can visit the Pampanito at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.)

I sent Gen Chandler’s letter and translation  to Maj Hinoki in Tokyo. He was truly saddened to hear how Col Melton died. He asked me if I knew his widow, and of course, I didn’t. He composed a letter in Japanese and asked me to give it to her if I found her.  Easier said than done!

In May 1986, the Veterans Administration sent me a letter in response, stating that they had an address for the former Mrs. Melton. The VA wrote: “We will put the address currently of record on the letter and forward the correspondence. If the former Mrs. Melton wishes to communicate with either yourself or your friend, she may then take that initiative.” I sent the original handwritten letter from Hinoki  to the VA and never received a reply and often wondered if it was delivered to her. I had doubts. Mr. Hinoki  passed away in January 1991 at age 72. I still had a promise to keep and I kept plugging away, still without a personal computer. I had to track down Col Melton’s wife and the next-of-kin.

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PART III

Fast forward to February 2013. Where did the time go? I’ve gone through 6 personal computers by then. I went to www.find-a-grave.com and typed in Harry R. Melton Jr.’s name and BINGO! A woman named Cathy Fletcher up in Alaska had created a memorial page dedicated to her distant relative. Cathy is Melton’s 2nd cousin, once removed. Finally, a Melton relative! She put me in touch with Bob Crawford in California, a much closer relative of the colonel.  Cathy and Bob did not know the whereabouts of Melton’s 2nd wife, so it was back to the sleuthing again. Over the years, I studied genealogy to find people.

Lavonia Lee Smith, 1933 Breckenridge High School, San Antonio graduation photo. This is the only known photo of her.

I found out that Harry Melton married twice, his first wife being Lavonia Lee Smith of San Antonio! He met her in 1936 while training at Randolph Airfield there. The 1933 graduate of Brackenridge High School  was born in 1915 to James and Effie Smith. Her dad worked for an oil company. She had a younger brother and a younger sister. Lavonia  may have been descended, through her mother, from Greenleaf Fisk, a participant in the Battle of San Jacinto. Fisk was a great historical figure in Texas history. Known as the “Father of Brownwood, Texas,” he was a military veteran of the Texas Revolution, which resulted in Texas gaining independence from Mexico.

Lavonia was popular and active in high school, serving on the newspaper staff and also in the pep squad; she was a high society gal. She traveled to New York to do some modeling work for Vogue. Due to the family’s wealth, she had a car and a fur coat when she was only 16. She married Jerome Milton Lubel right after graduation in 1933. Lubel was Jewish, the son of a rabbi. Their first child, a girl named Sharon, was born on 7 December 1935 in San Antonio. Lavonia filed for divorce in late September 1936. She immediately turned around and married Harry Melton Jr. Two years later, in 1938, Lavonia Anne was born in Virginia. (Anne was Harry’s mother). She was born retarded, due to her  mother contracting Rubella  during her first trimester.

Anne Melton in 1940. She was never expected to live beyond her teenage years, but she made it to 61.

I was now on the hunt for Lavonia Melton. But many years later, I discovered that Lavonia was not married to Harry when he was shot down in November 1943! Harry and Lavonia were divorced in 1940. Harry took custody of his daughter which was fine with his ex. He quickly dropped “Lavonia” from her daughter’s name, and the little girl was simply known as Anne from then on. Lavonia packed up her bags and with her six year old daughter Sharon, headed to California after marrying Robert Sewall Jr., a B-29 crewman; he was later killed in action in the Pacific.

Harry Melton transferred to McDill Airfield in Tampa, FL. briefly, which was located on a peninsula between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Harry crossed paths with beautiful Natalie Jeanne Wilson at a social event and instantly fell in love. She grew up in St. Petersburg in a wealthy  family and graduated from junior college there. She was now working as a commercial model, commuting between home and New York City. Harry was tall and handsome, intelligent, charming, and dynamic. The chemistry clicked.

Miss Natalie Jeanne Wilson was a beauty queen and  model. She was perfect for Harry Jr.

Then tragedy struck. On the night of her wedding shower, Natalie Jeanne was involved in a horrific car accident. Back in those days, seat belts were unheard of. The young gal willed herself to recovery because nothing was going to change her wedding plans!

The local newspaper of the car accident. Natalie Jeanne spent a week in the hospital and then went home to recover.

Capt Harry Melton and the lovely Natalie Jeanne on their wedding day, 23 June 1941. They were married at her parents’ home in Grand Rapids, MI.

Melton wedding party. Father and son are attired in white military suits.

Wedding goblet commemorating the wedding. It is inscribed: “Because I Love You. June 23, 1942.”

Maj. & Mrs. Harry Melton in 1942.

The Meltons were a loving couple. Little Anne was the joy in their lives.

Now, my focus shifted to Natalie Jeanne Wilson Melton. It seemed as though I was chasing a ghost. But I couldn’t quit and kept hunting.


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PART IV

A few months after finding the Melton relatives, I was finally rewarded. I found online that Natalie Jeanne Melton had married a man named Wilks Hiatt. The clue led me directly to their daughter! Natalie Jeanne Melton remarried after the war, on 23 September 1946 to Capt Wilks O. Hiatt Jr. at Ft Sam Houston, Texas. Wilks graduated with a BA degree from Duke University in 1940. He graduated from Duke Medical School in 1943. It was a successful marriage; they raised two boys and a girl.  Natalie Jean Melton Hiatt died on 1 January 1987 in Raleigh, North Carolina due to lung cancer. Her husband died in 2008 at age 89, in Apex, Wake County, North Carolina.

Wilks and Natalie Jeanne Hiatt  in the early 1980s.

Little Anne went to live with Harry’s parents when stepmother Natalie remarried. Her grandparents wanted to care for her as their only granddaughter and Natalie relented. Anne had a loving home until her grandparents became too old and ill to take care of her. Harry Sr. passed away in San Antonio, TX in 1964 and grandma Anne died two years later. Little Anne then went to live with a Melton cousin, Mary Mona Arterburn (1911 – 2002) and died in Wickliffe at age 61, on 20 December 1999.  She is buried there with her grandparents.

So what happened  to Harry’s first wife? Just a minor loose end which I needed to tie up. After her third husband was killed, Lavonia married husband #4, John Mongan. He was a Navy man serving as military attache at the American Embassy in Paris. They eventually divorced. Her fifth and last husband was a Dutchman named Hermann VanKempen. Lavonia eventually returned to the US with Hermann, but he could not adapt to life here, so he went back. Lavonia and Hermann did not divorce. When she began to have health problems, her ex-husband, John Mongan, moved in to take care of her and did a great job.

Lavonia Smith Lubel Melton Sewell Mongan VanKempen died on 10 April 1985. She is interned at the Memorial Oaks Cemetery in Houston. She had been married 5 times in her life. Her daughter Sharon now runs a travel agency there.

On Saturday, 23 June 2015, I delivered a photo copy of Hinoki’s letter of sympathy to the daughter of Natalie Jeanne Hiatt. Her home is only 2 miles from the Japanese restaurant in Irvine  (Orange County), CA where the son of Maj Hinoki, ran a sushi restaurant! I’m still shaking my head about that! The master sushi chef had no interest in talking about his father’s involvement in the war, typical of children of the old Japanese veterans. Both now know of each other, but I do not know if they have ever met.

The son of Maj Hinoki ran this very popular sushi restaurant in Irvine, CA.

The huge line outside the restaurant proves how good it is!

Handing Maj Hinoki’s letter of sorrow to Kip, the daughter of Natalie Jeanne. I had now fulfilled Hinoki’s request.

“My mother was a wonderful and caring woman,” said Kip. “She would have been happy to have met Mr. Hinoki. We never learned if the Veterans Administration even delivered Mr. Hinoki’s letter to her; we know nothing about it.”

Closure? Almost. Now, I have to go to Wickliffe, Kentucky to lay flowers on Little Anne Melton’s grave. I believe Maj Hinoki would approve.

Translation of Major Hinoki’s personal letter to Natalie Jeanne Hiatt, dated 9 June 1986, and his actual letter in Japanese below.


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A STORY WITHIN A STORY: MELTON’S WEST POINT JACKET

by Don Boothe

Three years ago I wanted to buy my son in law a special gift. He was a West Point graduate. My neighbor, happens to be on Antiques Roadshow, as the Civil War appraiser. I asked him about a gift. He told me that he had an old West Point Cadet Jacket. The jacket had been issued to a student named MELTON, he was later a Army Air Corp pilot and had been shot down over Burma and captured. My son in law had lived in Burma as a Army dependent as a child. I thought this would be the perfect gift!! I bought it! He loved it and placed the jacket in a shadow box. End of the story.

Last Sunday while traveling I read Henry’s last post about Col Melton and thought it was interesting. I gave my phone to my wife ( who enjoys Henry’s postings as much as I do) and she read it. As we discussed this post, and what a small world it is with both children living in Irvine, I decided to share the post with my son in law. We then boarded an airplane and we got home about 0100 Monday morning. I checked my phone prior to going to sleep and found a text from my son in law. He was AMAZED! The post was talking about the SAME MAN AS THE ORIGINAL OWNER OF THE JACKET I had given him!!! I couldn’t believe it, but then I started to remember some of the original story of the jacket. Henry’s post and the info I had matched! I couldn’t wait, so I texted Henry right then and asked him to call me the next day, as I had more info about his post. He called me with in 30 minutes and I told him my story. Incredible! What are the chances of two RHS alums having the same (although Henry’s was much more informative) information about a WW2 Army aviator? My son in law is looking forward to his next trip to SOCAL, he is going to visit the Sushi restaurant!

Melton’s West Point jacket was purchased from an antique dealer by my high school classmate, Don Boothe (’68). He did not know the significance of this jacket nor my 30 year old quest to solve the Melton mystery until he read my story!

Melton’s jacket appeared in a Hollywood movie! There is a lot of history behind this jacket.


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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

For Related Articles See:

One thought on “THE TRAGIC STORY OF COL HARRY R. MELTON JR.

  • Bill Getz says:

    A most interesting human relations story of war. Many of the victims of war were never in the military; they were families. War causes upheavals and departure from the norm. This story is a classic example.

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