John J. Wilpers, second from left, poses with, from right, his daughter… (Courtesy Of Office Of Rep.…)
More than six decades after the end of World War II, a retired U.S. Army colonel this week received the Bronze Star Medal for his part in the arrest in 1945 of Japan's principal wartime prime minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo.
The medal, one of the highest honors conferred by the military for combat actions, was awarded to John J. Wilpers, now 90 and living in Garrett Park.
In September 1945, Wilpers was stationed in Japan as a first lieutenant and member of the 308th Counter Intelligence Corps detachment. According to his commendation, dated Feb. 4, 2010, the Army succeeded in arresting Tojo because of Wilpers's "initiative, ingenuity, and courage."
"Captain Wilpers prevented [Tojo] from taking his own life thereby assuring that he would live and stand trial for his ignominious war crimes," the citation reads. "Had Captain Wilpers not acted with courage and initiative, Hideki Tojo would have succeeded in avoiding trial and possible execution for his acts."
In January 1947, Wilpers's commanding officer at the time of the arrest recommended Wilpers for the Bronze Star Medal for his actions Sept. 10-11, 1945. The paperwork describes how Wilpers located Tojo's Tokyo residence and broke in after hearing a gunshot.
Once inside, Wilpers found that Tojo -- who knew his arrest was imminent -- had shot himself in the chest. Wilpers reportedly secured Tojo's weapons and found a Japanese physician who, "faced with Captain Wilpers' .38 caliber revolver," administered first aid until U.S. medical officers could arrive.
What happened to the original recommendation is unknown; it apparently did not make it through the chain of command, or might have gotten lost, said Lt. Col. Mike Moose, a public affairs officer with the Army's Human Resources Command.
Wilpers chose not to follow up on his commander's recommendation until decades later. After the war, he said, he began a career at the CIA and with his wife raised five children, which left him little time to think about the war. (Wilpers's CIA career could not immediately be confirmed.)
"I was too busy working with my own family or work," he said. "I never told anybody in my family about Tojo. I didn't tell my wife. I didn't tell my children."
Wilpers's family did not learn about his involvement in the arrest of Tojo, who was eventually tried and executed for war crimes, until his son Michael stumbled upon his name while studying at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Wilpers did not pursue the forgotten award until 2002, when he contacted the Awards Branch of the military. In a typewritten letter he wrote: "Dear sir, In the process of putting my military records in order (old geezers tend to do this when they suspect that they may be nearing the long slow slide to Forest Lawn), I came across the attached 1947 recommendation . . . for an award . . . If the recommendation was not approved, just a phone message would do. If it was approved, I would prefer the simplest notification possible. . . . I have always tried to avoid the insatiable appetite of the media and would prefer to continue to do so."
The request was processed by six members of the Awards Branch, who worked on the case for about six months, Moose said. The effort was also supported by the office of Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
"It's an extraordinary piece of history," Van Hollen said, "and he was at the center of that history serving our country. . . . His service had not received the extraordinary recognition it deserved."
Wilpers said that it was "very satisfying" to receive the award after so many years, but he does not speak of the war or his actions in glorious terms.
"All of this was very sad," he said. "I didn't want to do anything to describe it as wonderful. What happened happened. Like any war, it should be regretted."
Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.