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NEWS | Aug. 1, 2014

Japanese researchers comb records in New York State Military Museum for clues on missing U.S. Soldiers from World War II battle

By Eric Durr New York National Guard

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - A team of Japanese researchers hopes records sitting in the New York State Military Museum here will provide a clue to finding the remains of American Soldiers 7,600 miles away on the island of Saipan.

They are racing against time, explained Yukari Akatsuka, one of the Japanese researchers, because in September, a condominium developer is going to start pouring concrete over the area where they think missing American Soldiers may be buried. 

About 20 of the American Soldiers who fought on Saipan are still unaccounted for, according to the Hawaii-based U.S. Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command.

“The chance to find the remains during the construction is very small,” she said. “That is why we want to clean the site ahead of time.” 

The group has a deal with the condo developer to let them research the site, but is still waiting on local approval, she added.

The Soldiers who went missing during the battle for the island in July of 1944 were most likely members of the 105th Infantry Regiment, an upstate New York unit which was part of the National Guard’s 27th Division, which fought there. 

The missing 105th Infantry Soldiers were likely killed on July 7, 1944 when more than 3,000 Japanese Soldiers attacked their positions in the largest “banzai” attack of the war.

Three 105th Infantry Regiment Soldiers – Lt. Col. William J. O’Brien, Capt. Salomon L. Ben, and Sgt. Thomas Baker - were awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for their actions in that battle. 

Akatsuka, and her colleague Usan Kurata, run Kuentai-USA, the American branch of a Japanese nonprofit organization which works to retrieve the remains of Japanese soldiers who died in World War II and bring them home.

The two spent the week of July 28 through Aug. 1 working with New York State Military Museum librarian Jim Gandy to examine the records, photographs, diaries, and maps in the museum’s collection. The museum has hundreds of letters, photographs, diaries, and other materials dealing with the Battle of Saipan, including boxes of research material complied by author Francis O’Brien, a nephew of Lt. Col. O’Brien, who wrote a history of the battle.

Akatsuka and Kurata have already scanned 150,000 pages of documents from the National Archive in Washington related to Saipan and used that information to identify the location of mass graves containing the remains of almost 800 Japanese soldiers. 

All types of information are useful to the group’s work, Akatsuka explained.

Their search of the National Archives turned up hand-drawn maps made by American officers, which indicated where dead Japanese soldiers had been buried following the July 7 banzai attack. But one of the final clues used by crews on the ground in Saipan came from matching up a 1944 Life magazine shot of the ground with current day terrain to reveal the graves, she said.

While the Kuentai crew was evacuating those Japanese remains, they came across the remains of five American Soldiers who once belonged to the 105th Infantry Regiment. Those remains were turned over to the Department of Defense, which has identified two of the Soldiers and returned their remains to the families.

Their organization believes it is just as important to find and return home the remains of the Americans who fought on Saipan as it is to find those of Japanese soldiers, Kurata explained. So the group wants to explore the area where they think more American remains may be.

Because it is a relatively large area, and because time is limited before construction of the hotel/condo complex begins, the group is hoping some clue in the documents in the Military Museum will help pin down the best location to dig, Akatsuka said.

“We are thinking there may be something in a personal diary or pictures,” she said.

Helping researchers is nothing new for Gandy, a military-history buff and trained librarian, who has been the Military Museum’s librarian since 2002. He gets an average of 200 inquiries a month from people looking for information. For example, he responded to 240 requests for assistance in May and 182 in June.

The museum is run by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, which is also responsible for the New York Army and Air National Guard.

Most of the queries are from people researching an ancestor, Gandy said. The most popular period is the Civil War but lately, as the world marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, he’s been getting questions about World War I Soldiers, many from people in Belgium.

As part of the commemoration of the war local residents in Belgium “adopted” the grave of a World War I Soldier who died there. The New York National Guard’s 27th Division was one of two American divisions which fought in Belgium under British command, so American Soldiers are buried there, Gandy explained. 

People get the name of the fallen Soldier, go to Google to find out about him, find the list of New York National Guard Soldiers who fought in World War I on the Military Museum website, and call or email for more information, Gandy said.

They normally get a few in-person visits from researchers, but this is the first time the museum has worked with a group seeking to find missing-in-action Soldiers, he said.

“This is kind of extreme. I think they found a few things, but I’m not sure if it is actually going to help them,” he said.