By Henry Sakaida
Fifty-five years after the end of World War II in the Pacific, some ex-POWs still have nightmares about their prison camp experiences. Living day-to-day, never knowing if they would ever survive to see loved ones again, was a frightening ordeal whom no one but an ex-POW would ever understand.
Robert H. Williams of Auburndale, Florida, was a TBM radioman from the carrier Hornet (VT-17). Raymond F. "Hap" Halloran was a B-29 navigator from the 73rd Bomb Wing. They never knew each other, but their lives would cross paths in the New Year 2001.
Ray "Hap" Halloran, presently Senior Vice-President, Emeritus of Consolidated Freightways (a large national trucking firm), was shot down over Tokyo on 27 January 1945. He became a prisoner at Omori. For many years after liberation, he suffered from nightmares. The deaths of his crewmen haunted him; the brutal beatings at the hands of the Kempei Tai filled him with bitterness. He did not attain partial closure until he returned to Japan in March 1984 to visit the old Omori prison camp site.
In October 2000, Halloran returned to Japan once again, but this time, to visit the actual sight where his plane, Rover Boys Express, crashed. He said a prayer for his buddies who died and expressed his gratitude that he had survived.
While touring Hiroshima,
Halloran was presented with a copy of an old black and white photograph.
It depicted two US Navy flyers in the custody of two Kempei Tai. According
to Japanese records, the men were aviators from the Hornet who had been
shot down on March 19, 1945 while Task Force 58 was attacking Kure Harbor.
They were mistakenly identified as a Lt Harold Viladswest and Lt(jg) Charles
When Mr. Halloran returned home to California, he sent this author the photograph and asked if I could locate the two individuals. I immediately contacted William "Country" Landreth, an ex-POW and fighter pilot from the Hornet. On March 18th, he was strafing a three-acre island near Uwajima in Shikokua when he unexpectedly hit an ammunition dump, which literally destroyed the island and nearly killed him. The explosion broke his back and he was forced to ditch, and was subsequently captured. I asked him if he knew Charles Weiss. The answer was affirmative and I found myself talking to Mr. Weiss on the phone. I sent him the photo and asked him to confirm that he was the person on the right. I had compared his POW photo to the one in a VBF-17 scrapbook and the similarity was striking. Even my wife believed that they were one and the same. Imagine my surprise when Weiss insisted that it was not him!
I finally received a page from the Hornet war diary for March 19, listing the crewmen of a TBM lost that day: Lt(jg) Talmadge Westmoreland (pilot), ARM3/c Robert H. Williams, and AOM3/c Harold W. West. Harold W. West sure looked a lot like Harold Viladswest! Then my wife said: "I bet his middle name was Willard." Of course! Harold Willard West. The Japanese captors thought that Willardwest (Viladswest) was his last name!
With this information in hand, I contacted the American Ex-Prisoners Of War National Headquarters. On December 13, I received a postcard reply with the address of Robert H. Williams. As I was comtemplating my next move, I received a telephone call from the same guy! I had also written to the VFW and they had forwarded my letter to Mr. Williams. I couldn't believe it! And he confirmed that he had indeed been shot down on March 19, 1945 at Kure, and taken prisoner!
I had to make sure that this gentleman was not bluffing me. I held the POW picture in my hands but did not tell Mr. Williams of this. I asked him if he was captured with another flyer. He answered, "Yes, my pilot Westmoreland." In the photo, Westmoreland had a white cloth wrapped around his head. "Do you know if he was injured?" I asked. Back came the reply: "Yeah, he hurt his head and I remember he had a T-shirt wrapped around his head." Bingo! I had the right guy!
I sent the POW photo that Mr. Halloran had brought back from Japan to Mr. Williams. When he received it, to say that he was flabbergasted was an understatement! He called me to say: "When I received this photo, any animosity I had towards the Japanese melted!"
The photo was taken by an employee of Torao Masui, a professional photographer who had a studio near where the photo was taken. He had heard that two POWs would be passing by his house, so he took the opportunity of having his employee snap their photo. Mr. Williams remembered this incident as though it was only yesterday.
The two photos depicted in this story shows the photo taken on March 19, 1945 and a photo with Hap Halloran and Torao Masui standing at the very spot where Williams and Westmoreland had their photo taken 55 years earlier.
NOTE: Mr. Williams is now 78 and works in operations at Sea World in Orlando. Mr. Westmoreland resides in California and that the whereabouts of Harold West is unknown at this time.
It's heartening to know that a fellow ex-POW has brought joy and closure to another, and I'm proud to have been a part of it!