After 31 years, military historian and researcher Henry Sakaida has finally closed his most perplexing wartime investigation.
Sakaida is a retired Temple City nursery owner whose hobby is studying World War II air combat incidents and then tracking down dogfight participants in hope of turning old enemies into friends.
He’s back home after taking three sisters, including one from North Hollywood, to a remote South Pacific island jungle where their uncle disappeared in late 1944 after bailing out of his Marine Corps Corsair fighter.
The fate of Los Angeles pilot Lt. Moszek Murray Zanger had been unknown to nieces Marcy Hanigan, Andrea Talbutt and Susan Nishihira until Sakaida stepped in.
It was 1981 when Sakaida first learned from Australian military records that several Japanese prisoners of war had seen a downed American pilot in captivity in March 1945. In the reports, the Japanese airmen remembered his name as “Zanga.”
Sakaida researched Marine fighter squadron records from the National Archives and discovered the captured pilot’s actual name was Zanger. The documents indicated he had collided with his wingman’s plane while patrolling over Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.
Zanger parachuted out of his Corsair as it spiraled 4,000 feet down and slammed into the jungle. His wingman managed to limp back to base in his damaged plane.
The Japanese reported that Zanger had been shot and killed shortly after his capture when he grabbed a sword and attacked two guards while trying to escape.
But Sakaida learned that a forensic study of Zanger’s remains when they were recovered by the U.S. showed he had been beaten, not shot.
Further research showed that the downed pilot had tried to flee the island in an inflatable dinghy and was captured by a Japanese Navy patrol boat. He was kept chained inside a hut, malnourished, for about six months before being killed and buried near an airstrip, according to Sakaida.
Hoping to include the Zanger incident in his book “Siege of Rabaul,” Sakaida in 1997 discovered through a Freedom of Information Act request that the flier was later reinterred somewhere in Los Angeles.
Sakaida began calling local cemeteries. One memorial park operator said the name Zanger might be Jewish and suggested that Sakaida call the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles. Zanger’s grave was there.
Soon visiting the cemetery, Sakaida left a Post-It note on Zanger’s grave marker in hope of contacting surviving family members. He heard nothing, however.
It turned out that Zanger’s mother had remarried, changed her name and died in 1976. His father had died in 1982, but the death certificate mistakenly listed his last name as “Sanger.”
So the circumstances of their uncle’s disappearance had been a mystery to his three nieces. Their mother had spared them the sad details of her brother’s death and eventual burial in Los Angeles. When she died in 2009 at age 92, her daughters decided to piece together their family’s Polish-immigrant history on their own.
The trio was flabbergasted when Talbutt typed the name of the man they knew as “Uncle Mike” into an Internet search engine. They discovered on https://www.pacificwrecks.com that Sakaida had researched Zanger’s disappearance.
They contacted him through the nursery, where as a boy Sakaida honed his interest in aerial dogfights by building model warplanes and then crashing and burning them in the back of the family-run business.
“Instead of me tracking them down, they tracked me down,” said Sakaida, now 60. “I turned over a thick folder I’d collected about him and told them that we all should someday go to Rabaul.”
Last month, they did.
Pacificwrecks’ Justin Taylan found the coordinates of the Corsair’s crash site and helped plan the expedition. Familiar with Pacific Islanders and the local etiquette in Papua New Guinea, he suggested the group arrive with items to give to villagers.
“We brought a whole bunch of Frisbees, little toys and candies for the kids,” said Sakaida. “And we asked permission to enter peoples’ property to search. An earlier governmental group hadn’t, and people didn’t like that.”
Taylan, Sakaida and Ray Nishihira, husband of Susan, scouted out the crash site first as the women stayed behind. Engulfed by the steamy jungle, part of the plane was visible in a crater filled with rainwater. As swarms of mosquitoes dive-bombed the trio, they decided to retreat until things dried out a bit.
Three days later, they returned to the site with the three sisters. The group was stunned by what they saw.
“Villagers from the settlement of Vudal had cleared a lot of space to work, they had opened up the whole area and put flowers around,” Sakaida said. “There were 20 or 30 adults and 40 schoolkids there to help us. Everybody was pitching in.”
The locals scrubbed mud off pieces of metal pulled out of the crater and looked for serial numbers or the symbol of the manufacturer of Zanger’s Corsair.
“We were looking for a Goodyear mark. Goodyear built Uncle Mike’s plane,” said Talbutt. “I drew the little symbol on my backpack to show people. It was a capital G with a small capital A within it.”
The sisters were surprised by the villagers’ enthusiasm. “They’d built a shelter out of banana leaves and a place for us to sit to get out of the rain or sun. They’d bailed as much water out of the crater as they could. It was as if they were looking for one of their own. I’ve never met people like this before in my life,” said Talbutt, 69, a retired teacher from Elmsford, N.Y.
Soon, villager Veline Wesley shouted out that she had found a piece of metal — a 4-foot section of wing strut — with the Goodyear symbol stamped on it. A cheer went up and the search was over.
“It was unbelievable. Everything couldn’t have happened more perfectly,” said Susan Nishihira, a 66-year-old retired art coordinator from Kirkland, Wash. “My husband had come back from the recon three days earlier and said, ‘Don’t get your hopes up — the wreckage is really embedded.’”
Nishihira said a village elder “asked the spirits to release the pieces. And that’s what happened.”
Hanigan, a 61-year-old retail worker from North Hollywood, said she and her sisters were at first skeptical when Sakaida suggested a trek to Papua New Guinea. “We said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’” she remembers.
“But this was a life-changing, transformational thing for all of us,” she said.