UNKNOWN AMERICAN PILOT NOW IDENTIFIED

Posted on February 7th, 2018 by:

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UNKNOWN AMERICAN PILOT NOW IDENTIFIED

By Henry Sakaida

On 1 August 1945, the war with Japan was in its final days. Riyogi Honda was walking along the beach of Saeki Bay on the east coast of Kyushu when he spotted a body washed ashore. It was that of an adult Caucasian male, approximately 5’6” in height with red hair.

“The face was partly missing and the upper part of the body was torn from being washed upon the rocky beach,” Honda stated. The corpse was bloated and burned badly on both the back and chest; he was naked except for one tan sock.”

The police were notified but there wasn’t much they could investigate. They surmised that he was an American pilot; there were no reports of plane crashes nearby. The following day, villagers cremated the body and buried the ashes in a public cemetery. On 15 August, the war finally came to an end.

During World War II, our GIs who were killed in battle and could not be identified, were given X-numbers for administrative purposes. The US Army’s Mortuary Affairs Dept. compiled a dossier on each soldier who was killed or missing in action. The file is called an Individual Deceased Personal File (IDPF). It is still done today. WWII IDPFs can now be accessed through the National Archives.

So who was the man who washed ashore at Saeki Bay and how did he get there? It wasn’t a murder case, but it had all the elements of a “forensic cold case file.” With enough information, this “whodunit” mystery could be solved! I had been working on this frustrating case for years and couldn’t walk away; I became obsessed with trying to identify him. I knew that the unknown was somehow connected to the Japanese 343 Air Group, who were the guardians of the sky over Kyushu and Shikoku in 1945.

The 343 Air Group was the brainchild of Capt Minoru Genda, the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor attack. He formed the unit in December 1944 by pulling veteran pilots away from squadrons scattered all over the Pacific and Japan. This brought complaints from unit commanders who were reluctant to lose skilled pilots, but Genda had the backing of Naval GHQ.

On 26 June 1945, there was excitement at Omura Airfield on Kyushu with the arrival of a senior pilot from Yokosuka. Genda’s newest addition was Ensign Kaneyoshi Muto. He entered combat in 1937 during the China War and finished that conflict claiming 5 victories. Everyone knew his name. In February 1945, he made headlines all over Japan when radio and newspapers proclaimed him a national hero. In the press accounts, Muto single-handedly attacked a group of 12 Grumman Hellcats and shot down 4 over Yokosuka!

301 Squadron of Air Group 343 japanese navy pilot

301 Squadron of Air Group 343 at Matsuyama Air Base in December 1944. The air group had the highest concentration of veteran pilots. Capt Genda is seated in the middle of the front row. Eight pilots from this squadron sortied on 24 July 1945; two pilots aborted the mission due to mechanical problems and three failed to return.

 

Kawanishi N1K2-J Shiden-Kai was far superior to the lightweight Zero fighter in terms of speed and armament. It was equal to or better that the Grumman F6F Hellcat and could outturn a Corsair. The 343rd Air Group flew this fighter exclusively. It was given the Allied codename “George.” Depiction by Shori Tanaka shows a pair of Georges in 343 Air Group markings. It closely resembled a Grumman Hellcat from a distance.

On 24 July 1945, in one of the last carrier air strikes against Japan, US Navy pilots slugged it out with the elite 343 “Squadron of Experts” on their home turf. Capt Genda did not believe in fighting defensively. He ordered his pilots to attack the Americans on their return flight. He reasoned that the enemy would be low on fuel and ammunition, tired and careless. The plan was for his men to concentrate on the carrier bombers while the others played interference with their escort fighters. The Japanese pilots were fully armed and fueled and itching for a fight. To ensure success, Genda was sending in Ens Kaneyoshi Muto to wreak havoc against the enemy fighters.

One of the American survivors of the dogfight was Lt(jg) Robert M. Applegate. After dropping his bomb on a Japanese ship in Kure Harbor, he couldn’t get out of there fast enough; the anti-aircraft fire was horrifying! Cruising leisurely back through the Bungo Channel, his Corsair flight spotted the Mizunoko Island lighthouse. Constructed in 1904, the beacon on top sits 184 feet above sea level. Returning pilots simply couldn’t resist vandalizing the majestic structure. Their boyish instincts took over and who could blame them? They had plenty of ammo left. Applegate gave it a good, long blast from his six .50 caliber machine-guns and so did his two wingmen. Seeing flying chunks of stone and dust was exhilarating! This was better than throwing a brick through a storefront window! He would later come to regret it.

Mizunokoshima lighthouse was an inviting target for American pilots returning from the Kure raid.

Scattered formations of exhausted pilots were throttled back and relaxed, making their way slowly through the channel and out to the open sea, just as Capt Genda predicted. Ens Kaneyoshi Muto led his flight over the top of the enemy aircraft below and blended in. This was his first mission with the 343rd and he looked forward to the action.

Bob Applegate remembered: “We hadn’t seen any aerial opposition and I think we let our guards down. I put my plane on maximum lean so that I could conserve fuel. We weren’t in a hurry to get to the carriers anyway because you never landed immediately…they’d make you circle around and around. I had a three-plane flight and I sent the odd man forward, leaving me with Ensign Speckmann. I saw four planes high overhead, crossing the air group. I thought at first they were F6Fs. They just didn’t look ‘right.’ I kept an eye on them.”

Radio silence was broken with loud chatter and frenzied calls of “bogeys!” This is aviation slang for unidentified aircraft. Applegate and his wingman turned their planes around to investigate. Suddenly, four Japanese fighters came screaming down from their perch with all guns blazing.

“They crossed and bracketed us, we couldn’t turn left or right, we were forced to fly straight at them!” Applegate remarked. “They were using good tactics, the same we’d use if we were them. We began weaving. I don’t know if Speckmann got my signal but he continued weaving as I had turned around, and that’s when they got him.”

bob applegate us navy pilot hellcat corsair

Bob Applegate describes the harrowing combat of 24 July 1945 at his home in El Cajon, CA in 1987. I told him about his encounter with Ensign Kaneyoshi Muto and he was shocked! This combat experience changed his life.

Ens Robert Joseph Speckmann, the 20 year old pilot from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, was hit. Applegate saw him going down in a ball of fire. Hellcat pilots Lt Malcolm W. Cagle and his wingman, Lt(jg) Kenneth Neyer of VF-88, saw an explosion. They had seen planes milling around in the distance and didn’t realize that it was a dogfight until then. The pair rushed in to give assistance.

Warrant Officer Mitsuo Hori ijn

Warrant Officer Mitsuo Hori, a senior veteran pilot, led his wingman Imai, in a diving attack against Applegate and Speckmann. He claimed 11 victories at the end of the war and went on to become an airline pilot.

 

Petty Officer 1/c Susumu Imai japanese navy pilot

Petty Officer 1/c Susumu Imai was shot down by Lt(jg) Robert Applegate, after the team of Hori and Imai downed Speckmann.

The two carrier Yorktown Grummans were targeted by Ensign Minoru Honda and his wingman. They dove swiftly on the unsuspecting Americans. Cagle and Neyer immediately began to weave for mutual protection. Honda saw a figure sitting in the cockpit as he closed rapidly. The tremendous blast from four 20mm cannons knocked the right wing off the Hellcat. Neyer spun all the way down into the sea. This was the first time Honda had seen his aerial opponent. In postwar interviews, he stated that he regretted what he had to do. Ken Neyer was a native of Leoti, Wichita County, Kansas.

us navy pilots

Lt(jg) Ken Neyer on the left and Lt Malcolm Cagle on the right in 1945.

 

Ensign Minoru Honda

Ensign Minoru Honda entered combat in 1942 and survived the war. He claimed over 17 victories. You can see his Youtube interviews titled “Japanese Ace Interviews: Honda Minoru.”

Applegate was caught in the midst of a giant slugfest. He made a 180 degree turn and opened up on the second plane of the enemy section. He saw his tracers hitting the engine and fuselage around the cockpit. The stricken fighter started smoking, rolled on its back, and dove straight down with Petty Officer 1/c Susumu Imai dead behind the controls. Within seconds, Chief Petty Officer Nobuya Komeda slipped onto Applegate’s tail, only one plane length behind, and commenced firing. Applegate instinctively yanked his plane around but Komeda was glued to his tail and wouldn’t let go. The pair of fighters were turning their planes so tight, their wings were vertical. Komeda was firing, but he couldn’t lead his fire into his opponent. Red hot projectiles were missing Applegate’s tail by feet!

Looking over his left shoulder, Applegate could see the enemy pilot hunched behind the controls, staring directly at him and concentrating on his demise! He was rapidly losing the turning contest against the Grim Reaper and had seconds to live; he had no options left.

Applegate suddenly saw his attacker being shredded and then saw his savior – a big beautiful Hellcat! If this had been a Hollywood war movie, the “in the nick of time” rescue would have been so cliche. “Thank you!!!” yelled the grateful pilot over the radio. “Start weaving!” came Cagle’s terse reply.

wwii us navy japan

Japanese TV docudrama from 2014  about the 24 July 1945 dogfight depicts Lt Malcom Cagle saving the life of Applegate by shooting CPO Komeda off his tail. A single hit from Komeda’s 20mm cannons would have brought Applegate’s FG-1 Corsair down. The dogfight sequences were taken from the book Genda’s Blade by Koji Takaki and this author, and was very accurate.

 

Fixated at shooting down Lt Applegate, CPO Nobuya Komeda was hit by Lt Cagle and killed.

Applegate and Cagle had both lost their wingmen, so they joined together for mutual protection and began to weave. Muto crossed over the top of the Hellcat and Corsair and made a beam run straight at Lt(jg) Applegate. Each pilot started firing from a thousand feet out. It was a deadly game of chicken. Applegate could feel his engine taking a couple of jarring sledgehammer blows. At the same time, he could see his tracers impacting his opponent’s engine. At 500 feet, both pilots stopped shooting. Applegate’s six .50 caliber guns were now empty! Had he not wasted his ammunition on the lighthouse, this encounter might have turned in his favor.

Diagram shows the head-on encounter between Muto and Applegate. Muto was at a distinct disadvantage. When his aircraft was salvaged, between 500 – 515 rounds of 20mm ammo were found in the 3 guns, but the left outside cannon was empty. Each gun carried 200 rounds. Thus, it is likely that Muto ran out of ammo at the same time Applegate did.

 

Docudrama depiction shows Muto (foreground) in a head-on attack against Applegate. Muto was determined to bring down his opponent even if he had to ram.



Muto never veered. His aircraft missed the Corsair by about ten feet. Applegate thought his opponent was trying to ram him; they were so close, he could see the pilot slumped over the controls! The Corsair pilot bailed out and landed in the water; he was rescued by the submarine Dragonet the following morning. Muto ditched his plane skillfully but drowned; his body was never recovered.  Lt Cagle managed to return to the carrier. In 1946, both men ran into each other and Applegate thanked Cagle again for saving his life.

The loss of six Japanese pilots on this day was a severe blow to the 343 Air Group and it took 22 years of research to reveal how each of them died. The US Navy pilots who shot them down were identified and the bereaved families of the victims were notified.

Ensigns Robert Applegate (right) and Arlen C. Davis cut their “welcome back” cake aboard the carrier Bennington.

In 1979, Muto’s Shiden-Kai fighter was recovered under 120 feet of water in Hisayoshi Bay. An examination revealed that only one of his four 20mm cannons was working. This renowned master of aerial marksmanship was fighting with only one functioning gun from the beginning! Having lost 2 of his men in his division (aircraft x 4), he could not return without scoring a kill. He was determined to take out Applegate at all costs and paid with his life. His recovered fighter now sits in a museum overlooking the bay where it was discovered. Muto’s daughter visited the museum in 2014 for the first time and was brought to tears.

Overlooking Hisayoshi Bay where Muto’s Shiden-Kai was found in 1978. A marine boating club looking for a lost anchor found the wreckage in the area used for fish farming.

 

The salvaged “George” was cleaned up and repainted, but not repaired. It sits in a museum on top of the hill overlooking the cover where it was found. Photos of the 6 pilots lost that day when this plane went down is shown below the engine. This memorial is dedicated to those 6 and not to the individual pilot Muto. This is in keeping with Japanese tradition of honoring the group and not the individual.

 

In 1987, Bob Applegate and his wife visited Japan. He needed closure and sailing down the Bungo Channel and seeing the old lighthouse did just that.  It was 42 years earlier that he fought for his life there. Bob Applegate passed away in 1998 and Vice Admiral Malcolm W. Cage, Ret., died in July 2003.

Ensign Kaneyoshi Muto fought in the China War (1937) and almost survived WWII. He was one of Japan’s most respected fighter pilots.

 

 




In this dogfight, 4 American pilots went into the sea: Lt(jg) Robert M. Applegate, Ensign Robert Speckmann, Lt Rodney Tabler, and Lt Kenneth Neyer. A photo recon pilot, Lt Robert O. Zimmerman was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Kure Harbor and was forced to make a water landing near our rescue submarine about 15 miles from the southern tip of Shikoku Island, but he was never recovered.

Shortly after the war, an investigative team of the US Army arrived to question the villagers at Saeki. Without any identification, the remains were designated Unknown X-264 and reburied at the US Armed Forces Cemetery in Yokosuka.

The Japanese police believed that the body of the unknown American had been in the water for about ten days. The combat took place on 24 July and the body was found on 1 August, a period of 9 days. The body drifted from the area past the lighthouse directly southwest for a distance of about 15 miles.

Comparing the estimated height of the corpse (5’6″), we find the following height data from each man’s service record:

Lt Rodney C. Tabler was 6’ (72” – 182.88cm), SerNo. 130623, Reedley, CA

Lt(jg) Kenneth Neyer was 5’11” (71” – 180.34cm), SerNo. 347668, Leoti, KS

Lt Robert O. Zimmerman was 5’9” (69 ½” – 176.53cm),  SerNo. 121761, Chicago, IL

Ens Robert J. Speckmann was 5’8” (68” – 172.72cm), SerNo. 378596, White Bear Lake, MN

Lt Zimmerman is eliminated because he made a controlled water landing in his Grumman F6F-5P Hellcat about 15 miles from the southern tip of Shikoku Island on the open sea. There was no fire aboard his plane which sank before the rescue submarine could reach him, and he was never recovered. Cartographer Don Roberts of Oklahoma took details from Zimmerman’s IDPF and pinpointed precisely where he ditched.

Lt Ken Neyer is eliminated because of his height. In addition, he was seen spinning into the sea and there was no fire on his aircraft.

Lt Rodney Tabler is eliminated because of his height. VBF-1 mission report states “Believed shot in flames, possibly parachuted, MIA.”

Ensign Rober J. Speckmann was the shortest of the 4 pilots above; in addition, Applegate recalled that he saw his wingman going down in a ball of fire.

Robert Joseph Speckmann had 3 brothers. The oldest was Wesley (1922 – 1996 San Diego, CA). Robert was the 2nd son, Paul was the 3rd son (1931 – 2015 Modesto, CA), and John was the youngest (1943 – ).

Everything points to Speckmann as Unknown X-264, but he had brown hair, not red. In fact, they all had brown hair. My investigation languished for about 15 years due to this dilemma. Finally, I turned to Google and typed: “Does brown hair turn red after death?” The answer I found is YES! The two distinct pigments in human hair are eumelanin and pheomelanin. Pheomelanin gives our hair its redness and doesn’t break down as eumelanin does. Under wet oxidizing conditions, eumelanin is lost, leaving behind the red pigment, pheomelanin. Even blonde hair will turn red after death.

Why was the body completely nude except for one tan sock? I was simply curious. I put the question to my historian colleague Barrett Tillman. He indicated that tidal currents can actually strip clothing and shoes off a body. The flight suit, burned on the front and back, contributed to this. Think of your washing machine. I’m always amazed that coins and small objects deep down in my pockets, are always found outside after the wash! Some bodies in airline crashes at sea have been recovered totally nude.

A soldier’s death in combat brings a painful finality and closure to their families. But parents and children of those missing in action never have closure. It is a cruel, open wound which never heals. It isn’t until the 3rd generation that the MIA is safely “buried” in the past.

Unknown X-264 is Ensign Robert Joseph Speckmann, I believe. If his remains had not been cremated, it would have been easy to identify him through DNA analysis. When a body is cremated, high heat destroys DNA. Maybe someday, science will find a way around this… it always does. I located his younger brother Paul last year, but found that he had died in 2015. There was youngest brother John whom I could not locate.

Update: On 22 February 2018,  John J. Speckmann was found by San Jose Mercury News reporter Julia Sulek! I had contacted her with my story because I had heard that there was a Speckmann next-of-kin residing in the San Francisco Bay area. I was hoping that she would publish my quest. She decided to dig further. She located a distant relative which led to John. I spoke to both of them in a conference call today and John was simply flabbergasted to have read this story! We plan to work together to present our findings to the Department of Defense and retrieve Robert Speckmann’s remains. A job well done, Julia!

 

 



For Related Articles See:


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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