World War II souvenir to be repatriated
Historian vowed to S.D. fighter pilot that he would return wallet of Japanese soldier
When John Mollison answered a phone call in 2011, a familiar voice was on the other end.
Mollison, a Sioux Falls historian and artist who has specialized in drawing the warplanes of combat veterans, had met Claude Hone three years earlier. He’d drawn the Corsair fighter Hone flew as a Marine combat pilot during World War II.
Normally, Hone exhibited a “bigger than life personality,” but this phone call was different. Hone asked Mollison to see him.
“I’ve got something serious to tell you,” Hone told him.
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When the two men met, Hone handed Mollison a paper bag. It had been opened and closed so many times over the decades that it had the texture of tissue paper. Inside was a leather wallet. Hone told the story of how that leather wallet, which had belonged to a Japanese soldier, came into his possession.
Decades later, Hone was clearly tormented by the wallet. He asked Mollison to take it back. To find the relatives of the Japanese soldier, who Hone had seen die.
“He knew it’s time had come, and it was time to take it back,” Mollison told The Dakota Scout. “He was too old to travel.”
More than a decade later, Mollison is making good on that pledge to his old friend, who died in 2019 at the age of 99. Mollison is departing on a trip that will take him to various World War II battle sites in the Pacific, including Guam, where Hone got the wallet as war booty. He leaves March 17 on a trip that will span two weeks and more than 15,000 miles.
“Here’s the deal, I’ve got to return this thing for Claude,” Mollison said. The unknown Japanese soldier deserves honor and respect, he added.
“What I really want to do is bring it there, because I think it would honor the soldier and Claude,” he said.
Soldier tries to blow up fighter plane
On the morning of Aug. 17, 1944, Hone was among a group of pilots on standby in their Corsairs on an airstrip in Guam. He was among four or five planes from Squadron VMF-216 that were ready to take off. Something had not felt right to Hone. The hair on the back of his neck was tingling.
Suddenly, Hone saw what looked like a cloud of dust emerge from the cockpit of one of the Corsairs. The pilot jumped out.
Unbeknownst to the pilots and their flight crews, a Japanese soldier armed with hand grenades had snuck into the airfield the night before. He had climbed into the Corsair, hiding in the fuselage under the plane’s seat. The soldier detonated a grenade.
The American pilot was unharmed — protected by his armored seat. The Japanese soldier detonated a second grenade killing himself, according to an account of the incident by Lt. Walter Straughn, one of the squadron’s pilots.
Guam had been occupied by Japanese armed forces after they attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. But by Aug. 17, 1944, American forces had taken the island, and what was left of the Japanese defenders melted into the jungles. They would emerge at night to harass the American forces, but they could not muster enough resistance to challenge American hegemony over the island.
“The Japanese had a different way of fighting,” Mollison said. “They really didn’t surrender.”
In a letter to his parents the next day, Straughn wrote: “I never believed too much of the stuff about their suicidal tendencies, until I saw all this happen. It still scares me to think that we were within 2 feet of him when the second grenade went off.”
The Marines tied a rope to the corpse of the Japanese soldier and dragged it out of the damaged Corsair. Hone rummaged through the soldier’s clothing, finding the wallet. It would return home with him as a war souvenir.
South Dakota State Historian Ben Jones, a retired Air Force officer who served on Guam in 1992, said it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers, sailors and Marines who had lived through the day-to-day deprivations of combat, often under harsh weather extremes, to take souvenirs of their experiences.
“In that moment of anger, or shock or revenge, you take something,” Jones said.
Some veterans, like Hone, might feel remorse. Others not. Jones recalled interviewing a World War II veteran who “liberated” the camera of a dead Japanese soldier he killed in a firefight in China. The American used the camera to take pictures. When he got the film developed, the first picture was of the Japanese soldier graduating from training. To the American veteran, that camera was his war souvenir.
“He felt no sense of regret,” Jones said.
Wallet weighs heavily
As the years passed, the presence of the wallet, and the savage fighting that Hone had participated in, weighed on him. So he called Mollison with the story of how it had come into his possession.
The wallet included photos: One of a young man dressed in a Japanese naval uniform. Another of a young man dressed as a Japanese soldier, and a third of a man wearing western clothing. There was a paper beer label that had been peeled from a bottle, and there were two cards with Japanese printing on them.
Mollison enlisted help to get the cards interpreted, looking for some clue as to the soldier’s identity or where he might have originated. There were some addresses associated with the cards, but people in Japan who volunteered to inquire about those addresses came up empty handed.
“They knocked on doors,” Mollison said. “Nobody knew anything.”
The march of time had obscured the soldier’s identity.
For Hone, life took a different path. He returned from the war and helped establish the South Dakota Air National Guard, flying with legendary World War II ace Joe Foss. He became the first licensed real estate agent in South Dakota, built a business and started a family. He was a recognized leader in the city’s business community who loved the YMCA and playing golf.
“Claude had one of those personalities that was just bigger than life,” Mollison said. “You couldn’t know Claude without having a Claude story.”
Battlefield tour gets delayed
When Hone first asked Mollison for help, Mollison said he viewed it as another one of life’s adventures. He’s toured the world visiting battlefields and other historical sites to fill his desire for knowledge.
But the longer the wallet has hung around, the greater the burden has become. Not a month goes by without him thinking about the wallet and the pledge he made to Hone.
In 2020, Mollison had the chance to join a tour of Iwo Jima, as well as other Pacific battlefields, including Guam, on the 75th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima. This was the chance he’d been waiting for. Then, the trip got canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The trip is back on this month. Ideally, Mollison said he hopes to bury the wallet at the airfield where Hone acquired it. If that doesn’t work, he might donate it to the National Park Service museum on the island, which has been a U.S. territory since 1898.
One thing is certain: The wallet isn’t coming back to Sioux Falls. Mollison said he probably could have sold it, but that wouldn’t have been honoring his pledge to Hone or honoring his respect for the Japanese soldier.
“I respect this guy, and I don’t even know him,” he said of the soldier. “I respect Claude, obviously. He knew I would return it, and that’s the truth. When somebody looks at you and trusts you to do something, you can’t turn them down.”
Congrats to John "Wiley" Mollison for sending the wallet home. Now wonder if he ever finished the drawing of WWII veteran "Hod" Nielsen's P38...