“HANDSOME HARRY” SASAKI –  JAPANESE INTERROGATOR OF “PAPPY” BOYINGTON

By Henry Sakaida

After decades of interviewing former American POWs held in Japan, one name became very familiar to me: “Handsome Harry.” He was the memorable Japanese interrogator at Ofuna POW Camp. In 1999, I decided to see if I could find him, and succeeded in reaching his family. I am divulging his biography here for the first time, courtesy of his daughter Takako, and with the family’s blessings.  The man intrigued me because many former POWs spoke so highly of him!



Maj “Pappy” Boyington, our Marine Corp fighter ace, ex-POW, and Medal of Honor recipient wrote about this gentleman in his memoir Baa Baa Blacksheep: “…Jimmy, a Southern California graduate we called ‘Handsome Harry’ did a great deal to help prisoners, especially the Americans. Many of us ex-prisoners tried to help him by writing depositions through our own lawyers to be used in his trial, but they were disregarded completely in Jimmy’s case…”

handsome harry sasaki

Photo of James Sasaki from his 1927 USC yearbook

“Handsome Harry” was actually Kunichi James Sasaki. He received the moniker because he was a natty dresser and quite handsome. He wore fine suits and his shoes were always polished. He spoke perfect English, right down to the slangs and idioms. Polite and cultured. What was there not to like about the guy, except for being the enemy?

Jimmy Sasaki was born in Tottori Prefecture in 1898. After graduation from high school, he immigrated to America in December 1915. He attended Palo Alto Union High School and graduated in 1922. He next attended UC Berkeley for two years and received his junior certificate, then transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He studied at USC for two years, graduating in 1927  with a political science degree. His parents were not wealthy and the young student washed dishes in many restaurants for seven years to finance his education.

Upon graduation, Jimmy started working for the Japanese Association of Gardena Valley, as a secretary and clerk. He took care of matters pertaining to the local Japanese population, and worked to promote goodwill between the Japanese and Americans in his district. In 1939 when relations between Japan and the US worsened, the Office of Naval Attache in Washington DC wanted a clerk from amongst the Japanese living in America.  Jimmy applied for the job and was selected from a field of 42 candidates.

On 10 January 1940, Sasaki began work as a general affairs clerk and interpreter at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC. He worked under Cdr Yuzuru Sanematsu, the chief Naval Attache and intelligence specialist on the US military.  Sasaki collected information and monitored military wireless communications, made contact with other Japanese intelligence agents scattered around the country, and attended official parties and events.



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James Sasaki in Washington DC while attached to the Japanese Embassy,  October 1941.

Jimmy Sasaki was debonair and charming; he was fashionably dressed and danced very well. This gentleman made it a habit to attend embassy-hosted parties and galas, and dance with the wives of high ranking US military officers. Once, he danced with the wife of an Atlantic Fleet officer and heard her say that her husband asked her to send him a summer uniform in a hurry. What was the significance of this idle chatter? Sasaki correctly deduced that the elements of the Atlantic Fleet were moving to Pearl Harbor.

The Pacific War began on 7 December 1941 and Jimmy Sasaki heard the bad news on the radio, like everyone else. The exasperated clerk was fielding phone calls all night in his office. How could he possibly explain the dastardly sneak attack on Pearl Harbor to the press?

Arrangements were made by the US government to exchange the Japanese diplomatic staff with their American counterparts in Japan. Sasaki and his group were first taken to a resort hotel in the Alleghany Mountains in Virgina on 29 December. They were kept there under guard until they boarded the SS Asama Maru to Africa in June 1942.   The exchange took place in neutral Mozambique. This ship was sunk on 1 November 1944 by US submarine Atule in the South China Sea.



On the deck of the SS Asama Maru with naval officers and clerks, June 1942.  Front row, left to right: Cdr Yuzuru Sanematsu (Asst. Naval Attache),  Capt Yokoyama, and LCdr Terai. 2nd front, left to right:  Clerks Ogimoto, Kanamori, Tsusumi, and Jimmy Sasaki. Later Capt Sanematsu  became chief interrogator at Ofuna POW Camp. He was a US intelligence specialist, convicted of war crimes after the war, served briefly in prison and released. Postwar, he became a war historian and published many books and articles;  he passed away in 1996,

On the deck of the SS Asama Maru with naval officers and clerks, June 1942.  Front row, left to right: Cdr Yuzuru Sanematsu (chief Naval Attache),  Capt Yokoyama, and LCdr Terai. 2nd front, left to right:  Clerks Ogimoto, Kanamori, Tsusumi, and Jimmy Sasaki. Later Capt Sanematsu  became chief interrogator at Ofuna POW Camp. He was a US intelligence specialist, convicted of war crimes after the war, served briefly in prison and released. Postwar, he became a war historian and published many books and articles; he passed away in 1996.

When Sasaki returned to Japan, he became a civilian employee attached to the Navy and worked as a POW interrogator. He listened to US military wireless communications daily and made reports at the Naval GHQ. In September 1944, he was appointed as a Navy official by the Cabinet. His old boss at the embassy, now Capt Sanematsu, was the chief interrogator at Ofuna POW Camp. One of Jimmy’s most memorable prisoners was Maj Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.

Takako Sasaki, daughter of Jimmy Sasaki, penned this letter in July 1999: “Only once I heard a little about Maj Boyington from my father when he told me about his job in the wartime.”

Pappy Boyington liked and respected Jimmy Sasaki while a prisoner. 

Pappy Boyington liked and respected Jimmy Sasaki while a prisoner.

“From what my father heard, Maj Boyington almost kept silent against the Japanese interrogations while he was detained in the POW camp at Rabaul. My father got special orders to interrogate him when he was sent over to Japan.  He was impressed with Maj Boyington’s very dignified manner and attitude as a warrior. When his first interrogation was over and Maj Boyington was going out of the room, my father noticed a bit unstable way of his walking and asked him. The pilot was wounded (in his foot?) when he fell. As he had never told anyone about his injury and left as it was, the wound had gathered pus. My father was amazed at his endurance and bought medicine and necessities at a pharmacy, giving him first-aid treatment.”

Greg Boyington was very laudatory towards his interrogator and wrote in his memoir: “’Handsome Harry,’ as Jimmy was called by those who didn’t know his real name, and I had many a delightful conversation during those brief intervals when we were certain we were alone. In fact, Jimmy told me right off the bat, at an intermission in my first interrogation at Ofuna: ‘I know you are lying like hell, Boyington, but stick to it, as it sounds like a good story. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t tell anyone I told you so.’”

Louie Zamperini, the young miler from USC who ran in the ’36 Berlin Olympics found himself at Ofuna POW Camp.  His B-24 made a crash landing due to mechanical problems and he spent 47 days at sea until captured. He got the shock of his life when he walked into a room at the camp office, and there was fellow Trojan Jimmy Sasaki greeting him! “Hello, Louis,” said Sasaki. “It’s been a long time since USC…”

It was a very awkward meeting. Despite their 19 year age difference, they were both acquainted with each other… Typical Trojans, they both revered their alma mater.

“Sasaki had told me he not only held a civilian rank equivalent to admiral but he was the head interrogator for the Japanese prison-camp system,” recalled Zamp. “He traveled the country, visiting  one or two camps a day.”



handsome harry sasaki

Louie Zamperini’s incredible saga included meeting a fellow USC Trojan,  Jimmy Sasaki when he first arrived at Ofuna POW Camp.

Zamperini, who penned his memoir Devil at My Heels, remembered that Sasaki never interrogated him about military matters. Rather, he would talk about the old days. “Oh, how I used to love having breakfast at the student union,” Sasaki reminisced. “Ham and eggs, bacon, sausage, and coffee. I enjoyed American food.” While his statements were sincere, the prisoner was a walking skeleton, and Jimmy’s remarks were not appreciated.

The war ended on 8 August 1945. As Jimmy Sasaki pondered his future in the smoking ruins of the new postwar Japan,  he was arrested  by the CIC (US Army Counter Intelligence Corp) on 14 September as a war criminal suspect.  He was accused of ordering the beating of an Allied prisoner during interrogation which he vigorously denied; violence was simply not his style. While in custody at Sugamo Prison, his distraught grandfather committed suicide.

During the trial, Greg Boyington sent an affidavit for the defense of Sasaki, and so did a few others. They all stated that Sasaki treated them humanely and tried to help them when he could. The support by ex-Pows fell on deaf ears. Sasaki  was found guilty on 30 April 1948 and sentenced to 18 years at hard labor by the US Military Court in Yokohama. He appealed the sentence and it was reduced to 8 years.

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Sugamo Prison photograph of Kunichi James Sasaki circa 1948.

On 24 September 1951, Jimmy Sasaki walked out of Sugamo Prison a free man after serving only three years. Most likely the start of the Korean War in June 1950, and Japan’s strategic importance to the US had something to do with this. He went to work for Uraga Dock of Sumitomo Heavy Machinery Industry, which did contract work for the US Navy, repairing and maintaining their ships, serving from 1953 until 1978.  He fit right in, negotiating business deals and widening his friendship with the Americans.

At the age of 80, Jimmy Sasaki retired from the company. At his retirement ceremony, he was presented with a commendation from the US Navy Vessel Repair Bureau in Yokosuka, for his contributions to friendly US-Japan relations. He was an avid newspaper reader and kept himself well informed on world affairs and trade matters. He was perturbed by the troubles in the Middle East and the trade friction between the US and Japan.

Kunichi James Sasaki passed away at age 85, on 26 December 1983 at his home, from acute pneumonia. The headline in the local newspaper read: “A Walking Dictionary of the Pacific War Dies.” Sasaki always believed that the war between Japan and the US started because both sides were unreasonable and stubborn in settling their disputes.

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R/Adm A.E. Jarrell, Commander US Fleet activities,  signs a big contract in Yokosuka, 1957. Sasaki is standing in the middle. Capt Jarrell commanded a destroyer screen during the Invasion of Leyte (17-25 Otober 1944). He retired as a Vice Admiral.

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Jimmy Sasaki, center, attending the launch of a US ship in 1974 in Japan. He was a favorite with the US Navy personnel in Japan due to his charm and great sense of humor.

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Jimmy Sasaki, date unknown, with a US 7th Fleet commander, receiving a gift.

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Immigration card for Kunichi Sasaki. He came to the US aboard the Chiyo Maru in December 1915 at the port of San Francisco.

handsome harry sasaki



handsome harry sasaki

The 3rd Divison, 5th Section handled US Intelligence matters. The five men listed were the top leaders. Boyington was also interrogated by Capt. Yuzuru Sanematsu, who treated him politely, and told the captive that he had once attended Princeton University.

handsome harry sasaki

For more on “Handsome Harry” Sasaki Check Out:

Devil at my Heels


Baa Baa Black Sheep: The True Story of the “Bad Boy” Hero of the Pacific Theatre and His Famous Black Sheep Squadron




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3 thoughts on ““HANDSOME HARRY” SASAKI – JAPANESE INTERROGATOR OF “PAPPY” BOYINGTON

  • Bill Getz says:

    Handsome Harry had a German Luftwaffe counterpart by the name of Hanns Scharff. Author, Raymond Toliver wrote a well-received book about him titled, “The Interrogator” (1978).

    1. admin says:

      Thanks for sharing the information on Hanns Scharff!

  • Henry Sakaida says:

    Much of what you have read online about Jimmy Sasaki is wrong! I got my information from the source: His daughter and his own deposition at the war crimes trial describing his biography. Sasaki and Zamperini were not classmates; they were fellow Trojans. When Harry was working, Zamperini was a student at USC. Sasaki was never a US citizen, and yes, he did work for the Japanese as a spy. He never mistreated POWs and his conviction as a war criminal was a sham.

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