Saratoga Springs soldier captured the world's most-hated living man

Mark Mulholland
Updated: September 14, 2020 08:00 PM
Created: September 14, 2020 06:16 PM

SARATOGA SPRINGS - He was born in Albany, the only son of a father who ran speakeasies during Prohibition.

The family of John "Jack" Wilpers Jr. moved to Wilton and then Saratoga Springs.


In the Spa City, Wilpers worked for his dad, a racetrack bookie, as he was attending what was then known as St. Peter's Academy and is now Saratoga Central Catholic.

Jack Wilpers was smart and gained a reputation for being "street smart," through his regular encounters with his dad's customers. 

"He was a classic American young man of the 1930s and 40s. He had a self-made nature to him," said John Wilpers III, Jack's son.

As Wilpers was growing up in Saratoga Springs, about 7,000 miles away, in Japan, Hideki Tojo was moving up the ranks of the Japanese military and quickly becoming known as the ruthless leader who ordered attacks on thousands of civilians and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

No one could predict the two would one day have a dramatic encounter.

After graduating from college, Wilpers went off to fight in the war as part of the Army's Counter Intelligence Corps.

When it became clear Japan couldn't win the war, Tojo resigned as prime minister.

It was just a few days after Japan's official surrender that General Douglas MacArthur ordered Wilpers and a few others to round up 40 Japanese military leaders so they could be tried for war crimes.

"Number one on the list was Hideki Tojo," said Chris Carola, a reporter for the Associated Press for more than three decades.

Lt. Jack Wilpers arrived at Tojo's house on September 11, 1945 and finds reporters are already there.

According to Carola, who is one of just two or three journalists to ever talk to Wilpers about the details of that day, Wilpers' commanding officer yelled to Tojo through an open window and ordered the former prime minister to come out.

"Minutes later, they hear a muffled gunshot from inside the house. The major and Jack Wilpers run to the front door which is locked, they bust that open. Now they are in a hallway and to the left is another locked door. Jack Wilpers kicks in one of the door panels," said Carola.

"There in the middle of the room is Hideki Tojo. He had just shot himself in the chest. The major yells 'don't shoot.' Tojo places the gun on the table and collapses into a chair and he's bleeding from his chest."

A photographer from the military's Yank Magazine, a man from Albany named George Burns, who happened to work at the Times Union before the war, rushes in and takes what would soon become an iconic photo.

Burns captured Lt. Jack Wilpers pointing his gun at Tojo and using a white cloth to pick up Tojo's gun. 

As Carola describes it, Wilpers knew the world wanted to see Tojo brought to justice, so he summoned Tojo's personal doctor to the scene and ordered him to keep him alive.

"The doctor showed up and said I'm not going to treat that man because he wants to die and he's going to die soon enough from that wound. And Jack Wilpers had his side arm out and basically said you treat him now, you do what you can do right now."

According to written accounts of that day, Tojo was kept alive until an American doctor could stabilize him and get him to a hospital.

He recovered, was able to stand trial, was convicted of war crimes including atrocities against innocent civilians, and executed in 1948.

Carola said, "Tojo was the only one still alive and somebody had to be held accountable."

If not for the actions of the kid from Saratoga Springs, whose family owned businesses where Druthers now stands, things might have been drastically different.

"So he enabled the world to bring a war criminal, one of the three biggest war criminals of the 20th century to accounts," said Wilpers' son.

The famous photo is prominently displayed in the entrance to his son's house in Massachusetts and according to Wilpers, inspires conversation from visitors. 

That people are talking about it 75 years later is ironic because while Jack Wilpers was alive (he died in 2013), he almost never spoke of the events of that day, even turning down offers from Hollywood to tell the story. 

"He was not glory seeking," said his son.

He was only convinced by a persistent Associated Press reporter who kept calling him.

Even then, it was only after Wilpers was awarded the Bronze Star in 2010, and then a chance meeting on a beach in Massachusetts between that persistent reporter and Jack Wilpers' oldest son, strangers who struck up conversation because they were both wearing Saratoga Race Course giveaway hats.

"I said 'What's your family's name,' and he said, 'Wilpers,' and I looked at him and said, 'Tell your old man that I'm ticked off because he won't tell me about capturing Tojo."

That worked. A few days later, Carola called and Jack Wilpers opened up about his role in an event that allowed America and the world to feel justice had been served.

"The upshot, which is what the world appreciates, is that Tojo had to stand trial. That he didn't escape by taking his own life or being killed like Mussolini and Hitler did," said John. "And I think my father's action enabled the world to end that chapter in a more satisfying way than just accepting the suicide and letting it go."

Wilpers says his father probably wouldn't love the idea, but plans are in the works to hang a plaque in the courtyard at Druthers so customers can learn about the role a Saratogian played in bringing one of the world's most hated men to justice.

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