By Henry Sakaida

Extreme curiosity, a challenge, and a quest for answers. This is an affliction I contracted as a kid and there is no cure. It has led me on some pretty exciting (and costly) adventures. I have this uncanny knack for making inanimate objects give up its story. Here’s one of them.

In 1979, I wrote to a military dealer back in Maryland, hoping to buy an old Japanese Navy fighter pilot’s life jacket from WWII. It was needed for a Japanese Navy pilot mannequin I was setting up. Finding it was a long shot since such an item was very scarce. Imagine my surprise when he wrote back, saying that he had just acquired one! The price was only $250.00. Yikes! That was beaucoup bucks back then. There went my secret stash!life jacket

A week later, I received a large parcel from UPS. My wife asked what it was. I told her that it was just a used life jacket which I needed for a boating trip with friends. That is all she needed to know.

I opened the box with great anticipation. I simply could not believe what I was seeing! The life jacket was in perfect condition, and in addition, it had the owner’s name and unit information on the back!! I kept my cool in front of my wife. “It smells really musty!” she complained. “Yeah, it’s old, so that’s why it was so cheap,” I casually replied. Then she turned and walked away. Whew!

From that day on, I became obsessed with making it “talk.” The name on the tag read: Tsurumaki Hicho (Petty Officer Tsurumaki) and Rai Ku Sen (Thunder Corps). Tsurumaki – what an unusual surname! There was a small Japanese flag painted on the front and back. This gave me the time period. This indicated that the flag was added around February/March 1945.life jacket

In February 1945, the Imperial Navy issued an edict stating that pilots were required to attach the national flag on their flight gear for the purpose of identification. In the same month, a Japanese pilot, critically burned, parachuted down during a dogfight. He could not talk and was mistaken for an American. There was nothing to identify him as Japanese; civilians beat him to death.

In late 1985, after years of fruitless searches, I received a positive response from a Japanese aviation historian. He confirmed that there was a Tsurumaki who belonged to the 256 Kokutai (air group). I knew of this unit! It had been stationed in Shanghai at Lunghwa Airfield since February 1944. Its main duties were air defense and anti-submarine patrols. The 256th was manned by mostly inexperienced pilots and they accomplished very little.

For you war movie fans, the 256 Kokutai was the unidentified unit depicted in the epic 1987 war film Empire of the Sun. It was directed by Steven Spielberg, and staring Christian Bale and John Malkovich. Great movie.

With the new clues, I searched in my roster of the Japan Zero Fighter Pilots Association (now defunct) and located a member from this unit, Banshichi Iino. I asked another friend in Tokyo to make contact with him. Was Tsurumaki still alive?

In this response dated August 19, 1985, the late Jiro Yoshida wrote: “Mr. Iino made an immediate response to me and ASAP he will give us all kinds of information on the late Tsurumaki. He was one of his favorite subordinates and was liked by everyone. Mr. Iino asked me and wanted you to pray for the late Tsurumaki.”

When Mr. Yoshida mentioned “the late Tsurumaki,” I was crushed! He was dead. I felt like someone knocked the wind out of me. Now what?

Then the great news arrived in another letter from Mr. Yoshida. He wrote: “Surprised to say, Tsurumaki is alive and I met him at Tokyo station with his squadron commander, Lt Iino and another comrade, Mr. A. Ohno!” When Mr. Tsurumaki heard that his life jacket had been found, he had to rush to Tokyo and meet my friend.

According to Mr. Yoshida: “Tsurumaki was forced to make an emergency landing near Shanghai due to shortage of fuel, around the early parts of February 1945. After he got out of the airplane, he threw away all heavy material including his life jacket. He hid himself for 3 days until some Japanese patrolman in plain clothes happened to find him, and took him to the nearest Army base. He came back to Japan as one of demobilized soldier in February 1946 at Sasebo.”

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Petty Officer Shigeki Tsurumaki, 1945 in Shanghai, China. He belonged to the 256 Air Group.

I wrote to the dealer to find out when and where he got the life jacket. He wrote back: “It was purchased from Rear Admiral Marc Wood who flew with General Chennault in the China-India-Burma Campaign (Flying Tigers) and escaped from Japanese prison camp twice – really love these guys…Admiral Wood won the Medal of Honor under secret conditions, was awarded the Navy Cross on the spot from Admiral Halsey after Wood chopped the tail off a Japanese Zero which attempted to crash into Halsey’s flag ship. Wood’s guns were jammed so he used his propeller. All he knows about the relic is that it came back in his gear from WWII.”

The above explanation smelled like steer manure. My search of Medal of Honor recipients reveals no one named Marc Wood. Additionally, there were no aerial victories of American fighter pilots named Marc Wood recorded in the Pacific. When I phoned the dealer with questions, he replied that Mr. Wood is a private person who wanted to be left alone.

My theory on the life jacket: It was picked up by a peasant who sold it to an American GI after the hostilities. The guy brought it home and kept it until 1979, when he decided to clean out his garage or attic.

When Mr. Banshichi Iino, Tsurumaki’s commanding officer, visited Los Angeles with his wife and family on vacation, I drove out to the hotel and gave him the life jacket to take back to Japan.

On May 16, 1987, Mr. Shigeki Tsurumaki was finally reunited with the life jacket he had thrown away more than 42 years ago. He was so happy and overcome, he cried.


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Mr. Shigeki Tsurumaki relaxing at home.


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Reunion of the 256 Air Group Association, May 1987. Lt Banshichi Iino, 1st row, 6th from left. Shigeki Tsurumaki, front row, 3rd from right with his life jacket in his lap.


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Shigeki Tsurumaki wearing flight uniform and his life jacket. On his right is his former CO, Banshichi Iino.


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Mr. Tsurumaki provided his biography and I am posting it to save his history for posterity. I asked him if he ever fought the F6F, and he responded: “I have never fought with a Grumman F6F.”

For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

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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