My Takodah-adjacent story begins in the early 1990s, when I discovered a box of onion-skin typewriter paper in a cabinet behind my mother’s desk. It was full of typewritten letters, carefully transposed from the original script. They were all the letters my uncle Frederick Allen Stearns had written home after joining the U.S. Army Air Force in September 1943 until his capture by the Japanese in 1945. Reading them offered a fascinating glimpse into the life of my mother’s older brother, a man who I’d never met and never knew.
I remember asking my mother what had happened to Allen, which is what she called him, and she said the family knew he’d been killed during the war but did not know where or when. Reading the letters confirmed this, as the box also included responses from the War Department to the family in 1946 and 1947. Allen’s plane had been shot down in July 1945, painfully close to the end of the war less than a month later, and he’d been declared missing-in-action. It wasn’t until well over a year later that he was declared killed-in-action, a claim based on evidence uncovered by Army investigators in preparation for the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, a vast effort by the U.S. government to punish Japanese political and military leaders guilty of crimes against the laws of war. But the letters ended in May 1947, leaving me asking what happened after? What unfolded at the war crimes trials? And most importantly, what was the evidence? What had happened to Allen?
Well, the National Security Act of June 1947 is what happened. That legislation, matched only by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 in sweep and scale, completely reorganized the military and civilian agencies responsible for national defense, including creating the Air Force out of the Army Air Forces, which had previously been part of the Army. In the bustle of reorganization and change that followed, the fate of a corporal from New Hampshire was lost in the shuffle and that’s why the letters stopped coming.
But lack of closure is like waving a red flag to a historian. I remember thinking “this cannot stand, I must find out for my mom’s sake.”
And in the ensuing years I took the time to thank those who built upon the works of Ranke and those other 19th-century historians and archivists who understood the importance of saving records, and who saved the literally tens of thousands of linear feet of typed and hand-written documents that make up the National Archives World War II collection. There will probably never be another war so well organized, and so well documented, and I thanked those 1940-50s archivists many times. For over many months I uncovered Allen’s story in the records of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, where I learned of his capture, his cell at Fukuoka Western Army Headquarters that he shared with other American prisoners, of the debates among the Japanese officers about what to do with the airmen and finally, in the very last days of the war, their unjustified, illegal executions. It was an emotional experience.
I then told my mother and my sister of what I’d discovered, which was also quite emotional, as you can imagine. Afterwards, in 1997, I wrote and published an article “To Dispose of the Prisoners”: The Japanese Executions of American Aircrew at Fukuoka, Japan, during 1945,” which was the article Graeme found over 20 years later.
My role in the Lost Takodians project began in January 2019, when my sister-in-law sent me a copy of a letter she’d received from Graeme. He’d written a straight-forward letter asking for help telling the stories of the 12 men who’d died in the war. He also wanted to know if I was the historian who’d written the article describing the execution of Frederick Allen Stearns by the Japanese. The letter was so earnest, and he was so eager to tell the stories of the men, and of Camp Takodah, that I called him that night. I can’t remember how long we talked but we hit it off right away and I promised to help Graeme tell the story of my uncle Allen. At some point I thought to myself, “you know, this would be a great project to work on,” so I tentatively asked if he’d like help editing or something, me being a historian and all. I also figured I’d be good at writing the overseas deployment parts since I’d deployed twice to Iraq as a Navy reservist.
Oh my, did that start something.
Within minutes Graeme brought me in as his research and writing partner. We decided to split tasks – Graeme would focus on each boy’s early years, their time at Camp Takodah and their education, family life, work and, of course, girlfriends (who sometimes became their wives). Pretty much everything up until the men enlisted in the Army or the Navy. At that point, I would take over the story and tell the military side of the story, filling out what personal records or letters we had with unit reports, campaign histories and the vast secondary source literature. Graeme and I would then send the file back and forth, answering each other’s questions, researching leads, discovering new angles and generally discovering each boys story together.
It was a very busy spring, with each story taking weeks to write and edit. But we managed to get them finished and approved by the families just in time. And then driving up to see Camp Takodah, meet Graeme and everyone else, was the culmination of all our work so far. All the stories told by Graeme, and revealed in the stories, and then to see and feel the old traditions was a marvelous experience.
And now the work goes on, as Graeme and I work to find more records, more details and more background material so we can make this into something much bigger. We’re hoping a book, but who knows?
In the meantime, I would like to thank:
My wife: Terre, many thanks for your support all these years as I go blind reading documents and regaling you with complicated stories. And laughing at my jokes with punchlines like “Germany in 1939!” Your support keeps me going every day. I could not have done this without you.
To Graeme: thank you for your energy, ability to talk to anyone (and I mean anyone!) and your tenacious drive to uncover every document, picture and detail. Very remarkable! I too am so glad to have you as a friend and partner. Forward!
To the WWII families: thank you for welcoming us into the story of your ancestors and your lives. And I was very pleased to meet you at the Camp plaque rededication ceremony. As Graeme said, it has been an honor to get to know you and to discover your incredible veteran ancestors.
To the Naval History & Heritage Command: thank you Chris Havern and Glenn Hem for helping us track command histories, unit reports and the odd tidbit during those busy months last summer. Your help was crucial to nailing down hard to find details!
To the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines: I want to thank the New Hampshire Army National Guard Honor Guard and Chaplain that joined us for the ceremony. Your eagerness and dedication are inspiring. Specific thanks to SGT Bradley Johnson, SPC Eric Chase, SPC Nicolette Fortin, SGT Matthew Bruneau, SPC Brendan McGuirk, and LTC Steven Veinotte. I also was to thank Master Chief Smart and Lt. Commander Abe at Naval Information Force Reserve HQ in Washington, DC. They have enthusiastically supported my efforts as a Navy Reserve Senior Chief Intelligence Specialist to brief, mentor and train junior officers and sailors on the importance of our country’s history, heritage and tradition of citizen military service.
To the boys: Billy. Gale. Thomas. Phillip. Beanie. Larry. Raymie. Bob. Robert. Spike. George. As I said at the ceremony, service members today stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. It is our duty to honor the service of our elders, and those who showed us the way in times past. The U.S. military is only as strong as the people who serve in it and your lessons of courage, dedication and determination are as a light in the darkness for those who serve today. Like Graeme, I see our task as preserving your stories for future generations so should the flickering candle ever go out, there will be someone there to light it again. Rest assured, you are not forgotten though your great task is done.
And finally, Allen: My uncle. That smiling young man in the photographs, slight of build but strong, with flashing eyes that caught the eye of many young beauties (if my mother’s letters to you are anything to go by). I imagine you playing catch in camp on Tinian in the Pacific, the roar of bomber engines rippling across the coral runways. The briefings about targets in Japan, the test runs to nearby islands to practice over-water navigation and you dutifully writing home to your parents whenever you could. And then that last mission in late July, the long flight over the Pacific, the dark Japanese Home Islands below. Then the ill-luck over Omuta when your bomber was struck by air-to-air rockets, the flames, the fear and you falling, falling into the safety of the parachute canopy. But then captured, not knowing what would happen but knowing the stories. And finally, that last day, that caused so much grief to you, your parents and sisters and yes, me. The bright sun on that hot August day. What were your thoughts when they led you and your comrades to the execution ground? The Japanese later said you all died well, though that is hollow comfort.
A letter from the War Department asked my family to remember “through your tears” that the sacrifice Allen made helped make a better world.
Rest in peace, Allen. Your example helps us continue that unending task.