John Wilpers Dies at 93; Captured Tojo
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: March 4, 2013
John Wilpers, the last known surviving member of a team of Army intelligence officers who captured the Japanese prime minister, Hideki Tojo, after World War II, foiling his attempted suicide so he could be brought to trial for his role in the attack on Pearl Harbor and other war crimes, died on Thursday in Silver Spring, Md. He was 93.
Office of Congressman Chris Van Hollen, via Associated Press
His son Michael confirmed his death.
Though widely publicized at the time, Mr. Wilpers’s role in Tojo’s Sept. 11, 1945, arrest remained unknown to his wife, Marian, whom he married in 1949, and their five children, until many years afterward.
In 1976, Michael, then a junior in college, came upon an account of it in a history book. Even then, he recalled in an interview Monday, Mr. Wilpers deflected his inquiries. “Forget you ever saw it,” he told his son.
When Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered Tojo’s arrest, nine days after Japan’s surrender, Mr. Wilpers, a lieutenant in charge of one of the first intelligence units stationed in Tokyo, the 308th Counter Intelligence Corps detachment, knew exactly where to find him. American journalists were camped outside Tojo’s house in the suburbs.
“The best way of finding Tojo was to find our own U.S. newspaper people, because they were there well ahead of us,” Mr. Wilpers recalled in a 2010 interview with The Associated Press.
But whether by coincidence or because advance word had reached him, Tojo had prepared to commit suicide the day Lieutenant Wilpers and his team reached him. He had invited a doctor to attend him in his dying moments. After letting Tojo know through an interpreter that he was being taken into custody, the intelligence team heard a gunshot inside the house.
Forcing their way in, they found Tojo lying on a couch, his white shirt stained in blood from a bullet in his chest. The physician standing nearby, intending to help Tojo die, refused Lieutenant Wilpers’s order to give Tojo medical help. The officers quickly found another doctor and had Tojo removed to an Army hospital, where he recovered. Later tried for war crimes, Tojo was executed in 1948.
Mr. Wilpers worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for 33 years after leaving the Army.
John Wilpers III, another son, said Mr. Wilpers eventually talked to his family about some of his experiences, including the capture of Tojo. But partly from a habit of secrecy acquired at the C.I.A., and partly because “that generation didn’t come back and brag,” John Wilpers said, his father did not say much.
John Joseph Wilpers Jr. was born in Albany on Nov. 11, 1919, the son of John J. and Helen McCormick Wilpers. His father was in the ice supply business and later owned a succession of businesses in the Saratoga Springs area, including a speakeasy, a billiard hall and a diner, Michael Wilpers said.
Mr. Wilpers attended public school in Albany, a Roman Catholic high school in the Saratoga area and St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto before joining the Army Air Corps in 1942. He later transferred to an intelligence unit.
Besides his two sons, he is survived by three daughters, Helen Wilpers Read, Teresa Wilpers, and Mary Armory, and seven grandchildren. His wife, Marian, died in 2006.
At the C.I.A., Mr. Wilpers’s sons said, he specialized in gathering biographical information about Soviet and Chinese scientists, and in supervising translators for American information agencies in Eastern Europe. He retired in 1975.
Though reticent about the drama surrounding Tojo’s capture, Mr. Wilpers did become curious about one missing detail from that time, his sons said. As he recalled, a superior officer had recommended him for the Bronze Star; but he had never received it. Through inquiries to the Army, pursued with his family’s help, Mr. Wilpers learned that there had been some contradictory signals from top officials about awarding medals for heroic acts occurring after Sept. 2 — the official date Japan surrendered.
After an official review, Mr. Wilpers received his award in 2010. It was “very satisfying” to receive the award after so many years, he said in an interview with The Washington Post, but he had pursued it as a matter of principle, to set the record straight at the end of his life, rather than to attract attention.
“All of this was very sad,” he said of the war. “I didn’t want to do anything to describe it as wonderful. What happened happened. Like any war, it should be regretted.”