Pappy Boyington, a University of Washington graduate and World War II hero, became friends with the Japanese pilot who claimed he shot him down.
WHENEVER HE ENTERTAINED visiting reporters or aviation enthusiasts, Masajiro “Mike” Kawato would hold court about his nemesis and friend, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Many years earlier, Kawato and Boyington had met informally high above the Pacific Ocean, and it was Kawato, a sweet-faced Japanese pilot, who shot down Boyington, the hard-living University of Washington grad and one of World War II’s most rambunctious heroes. Kawato could tell the tale in all its glory, in great and specific detail, from his apartment in Redmond.
“We compared the location and the situation,” Kawato told The Seattle Times in 1991. “Pappy remembered it as I did.”
This is the story I stumbled across one afternoon while lost in the paper’s archives. For a desperate reporter, it oozed possibility: Two enemies with Seattle ties — one the “Babe Ruth of Marine fighting pilots,” the other responsible for his 20-month hell in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp — had made peace after the war. Something about that message seemed perfect.
Like others before me, I fell into an obsession. I bought books about Kawato, Boyington and World War II fighter pilots. I combed newspaper archives and called experts. But the more I learned, the stranger the story got.
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What at first seemed a redemptive look at war and peace soon spawned something more complex — a web of lies and deception, yes, but also a story about what it means to lie and deceive, about the fragile nature of memory and the blinding desire for heroes.
By the end, I was questioning even my own memories.
IN THE BEGINNING, everything was simple. I searched newspaper archives for stories about Boyington and Kawato, and my first hit popped up immediately: a 1977 article from the Los Angeles Times. The story dramatically captured what the paper called the men’s first meeting.
In February 1977, Boyington walked into an airport hotel in Los Angeles, late and disheveled as usual. A voice announced his name over the loudspeaker. Heads turned.
At 64, with thinning hair but the same bulldog face, Boyington could still control a room. In old stories, he is painted as John Wayne in a cockpit: a rough pilot who drank and brawled and cussed, often all at once. He shot down more enemy planes than any other Marine and commanded the Black Sheep Squadron, a legendary band of fighter pilots.
Boyington swaggered through the hotel to growing applause. Then he stopped. In front of him was Mike Kawato, the man who shot him down in January 1944.
Boyington’s disappearance over the skies of Rabaul in the South Pacific had appeared in newspapers across the country. “Black Sheep Squadron Mourns Ace Leader,” declared one headline. Three months later, Boyington received the Medal of Honor.
His surprising return in 1945 only amplified his legend, as did the awful stories he told of baseball bats and starvation as a Japanese prisoner of war. “You’ve shown me that you’re glad to see me,” he told a packed crowd in downtown Seattle, “but I want to tell you that I’m 10 times as glad to see you.”
It’s easy to read these stories now and see them as the peak of Boyington’s popularity, maybe his life. Once home, he drifted between jobs in California, failing as a beer salesman and a pro wrestling referee. In the span of a week, he became engaged to one woman, married another and was entangled in a legal dispute over money — all reported by the press. Little more than a decade after the war, Boyington said he wished he’d never won the Medal of Honor, a reminder of what he’d been and what he now was.
Deep in the archives, I found an article from 1967 that declared Boyington “destitute, forgotten and broken,” and then one five years later saying pretty much the same thing.
The one thing he had going for him in 1977 in that Los Angeles hotel was the promise of a TV series based on his life.
With Kawato in front of him and a photographer nearby, Boyington paused, then opened his arms and hugged his former enemy. The room burst into a standing ovation. Boyington pulled away, slapped Kawato’s back and hugged him again.
The story from that day didn’t just run in the Los Angeles Times but also in places like Alexandria, Louisiana, and Stevens Point, Wisconsin, complete with a picture of Boyington and Kawato, side by side, laughing.
A moment of peace inspired by memories of war.
Exactly what I wanted.
AT FIRST I didn’t see the problems. Blinded by bias, I dived deeper, printing old articles to help fill in the details.
It was only after I’d organized the clippings by date that I noticed something was off.
The LA Times story from 1977 reported that the hug was the first meeting between Boyington and Kawato. Not only that, but I’d read the same claim in dozens of papers, including the 1991 story in The Seattle Times. But in my hands I held an article that described a different meeting, this time at an actual airport, in Los Angeles. The date of the story: Oct. 23, 1976.
At that meeting, Kawato wore a suit and waited on the wing of a Japanese Zero. When Boyington arrived, Kawato stuck out his hand and yanked Boyington onto the wing of the plane, the type Kawato had flown during the war.
Kawato fought in his first battle in 1943, when he was just 18. In pictures from that time, he looks like a boy who’s never seen a big city. He later said he was downed five times, the last of which left him adrift in the ocean, and rather than face capture, he lifted a pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger. The gun was empty. So he reloaded and pulled the trigger again. The blast knocked him unconscious, but it didn’t kill him. He washed up on an island, where he was captured in 1945 and shipped to an Australian prisoner-of-war camp.
After the war, he returned to Japan and learned his family had already held his funeral. Curious what his family had buried, he dug up his own grave and found a Buddhist bible in place of his body. Then he moved to the United States and started a new life.
On the wing of the old fighter in 1976, Kawato and Boyington engaged in small talk within earshot of a reporter.
“How do you do?” Kawato said.
“Fine, and you’re looking well,” Boyington said. “You seem so young.”
As I read the story of that encounter, a few things struck me as strange. First, the meeting was clearly a publicity stunt. Boyington was in the middle of filming the NBC series based on his life, and invited Kawato to the studio. Second and more alarming, Boyington had heard about Kawato not because Kawato claimed to have shot him down, but because he had read about the trans-Pacific solo flight Kawato had recently completed. Most dubious of all, Boyington joked, “Hell, he might have been the guy who shot me down,” as if it were a ridiculous suggestion.
Not once in the story did Kawato claim to have shot down Pappy Boyington.
THE BOOK ARRIVED in the mail one day, $15 including shipping. Published in 1993, it was available on Amazon, and although the title was dry — “Pacific Air Combat: Voices from the Past” — the headline on page 74 was not: “The Man Who Did Not Shoot Down Pappy Boyington.”
The chapter laid out the facts with cold precision. The author, a California man named Henry Sakaida, found Kawato’s 1956 memoir in Japanese, but he noticed the parts about Boyington were added in the English version published in 1978 — two years after he met Boyington.
Boyington told Sakaida that Kawato called after a few episodes of his TV show had aired and only then claimed responsibility for shooting him down. Most damning, the former president of the Japan National Defense Agency said Kawato’s claim about downing Boyington was “groundless and without a basis in fact.”
My heart sank. How could someone carry on a lie for so long?
Sakaida poked holes in many of Kawato’s claims — his kill count, his attempted suicide, the nature of his injuries — but he finished gently: “Masajiro Kawato had a distinguished career as a Zero fighter pilot … His true combat exploits were far more interesting than the myths found in his memoir.”
I called Sakaida, an amateur historian and retired nursery owner, intrigued as ever. What sent him down this path in the first place?
Sakaida explained that he met Kawato after reading about his trans-Pacific flight in a newspaper. At first, he enjoyed Kawato’s eccentric and charming stories, but over time he grew skeptical about the claims made in Kawato’s 1978 book, “Bye Bye Black Sheep,” a play off Boyington’s 1958 autobiography, “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”
For a decade, Sakaida tracked down former Japanese pilots and military personnel and dug up Kawato’s POW report.
“Little by little,” Sakaida told me, “his book just started to unravel.”
I HAD NO IDEA what to do. So I did nothing. Fearing that my story was sunk, I left my research in a pile and moved on. But on a whim one day several months later, I opened a biography of Boyington.
I bought the book at the beginning of my search, but my attention always drifted elsewhere. Now, as I flipped through it, a strange truth emerged.
Time and again, the book’s author, Bruce Gamble, pointed out oddities and outright discrepancies in Boyington’s stories. Boyington’s kill count, for example, has always been reported as 28, besting the previous record by two. But Gamble wrote that in his initial interviews after the war, Boyington talked about his bailout, capture and time as a prisoner but never mentioned additional kills. After he returned, however, Boyington’s kill count jumped from 26 to 28, Gamble wrote, “with the stroke of his own pen.”
Gamble also noted that “elements” of Boyington’s story about being shot down changed over time.
“Considering his lifelong need to be accepted,” Gamble wrote, “there was nothing sinister about his decision.”
I dug into the archives again and uncovered a story from an Arizona paper in 1981. Boyington and Kawato sold their books and autographs to aviation enthusiasts and hero-worshippers at air shows, often no more than 75 feet apart. Kawato sometimes wore a hat; Boyington wore sunglasses and smoked cigarettes. By then they no longer spoke to each other.
Their relationship had crumbled over loosely defined disagreements involving money and ego, but Boyington’s issue was never that Kawato lied.
Ever the performer, Boyington told a reporter he “would have gone along with the gag.”
FOLLOWING THE rabbit holes of others, I found myself tunneling through my own. The story was no longer about two enemies turned friends, nor was it about their fallout. It was about more universal themes: the ways we lie and the stories we tell ourselves.
I emailed Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral sciences at Duke. He’s given a bunch of TED talks and written a book about lying. He had never heard about Pappy Boyington or Mike Kawato, but after I sent him a summary of the story, he messaged back.
“What we find in general,” he said, “is that people have the capacity to tell stories and then start believing them.”
Ariely mentioned something he called source monitoring, a simple enough idea: People store facts separately from where they originate.
“Imagine that you start telling me today about this thing that happened to you when you were 6,” he said, “and some of the facts are there, and some of the facts are a bit exaggerated. By telling us this story, you’re basically taking the memory out from storage, adding to it, shaping it and then packing it up and sending it back to memory — including images of things you created but were not really there.”
What begins as a fabrication, an exaggerated detail, can be repackaged enough that it sticks, indistinguishable from the truth, even for the lie’s creator. It’s a terrifying thought, especially for a journalist who relies so often on other people’s memories, but it’s also frightening on a personal level. There are stories I’ve told so many times I would swear by them, and yet it’s possible I’ve tacked on whole icebergs of detail over the years.
How would I ever know?
And what about those complex lies that settle deep in our memory, lies we tell so often they take on a distorted truth, lies we ourselves believe?
Boyington and Kawato cashed in on different parts of the American conscience. Boyington was a hero, sure, but more than that, he understood what America wanted in a hero. So what if he exaggerated a few stories along the way?
“They’re expecting to see this swaggering Pappy Boyington,” Boyington told Henry Sakaida shortly before his death in 1988. “Well, I give it to them.”
Kawato discovered America’s thirst for reconciliation and redemption and capitalized on it until he died in Seattle in 2001; the first sentence of his obituary by The Associated Press declared he shot down Boyington and the two later became good friends. Kawato saw Boyington’s celebrity and carved his own space within the legend.
I thought about something Sakaida had said during our phone call. He was talking about his quest through Kawato’s past when he paused and chuckled, almost to himself.
“He was a bullshitter,” he said, “just like Pappy Boyington.”