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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 29, 2002

Historic meeting on Wake Island revisited

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

The Oct. 14, 1950, rendezvous on Wake Island between President Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War was their first meeting, and it would become part of the lore of their infamous ego battles to come.

Air Force Maj. Clarence Vogelgesang

Gen. Douglas MacArthur
Author Merle Miller wrote in his book, "Plain Speaking, an Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman," that MacArthur and Truman arrived over the island about the same time that morning on different airplanes — MacArthur from Japan and Truman via Honolulu.

Both refused to land first; neither MacArthur nor Truman wanted to be on the ground to meet the other, the account went.

"I still hear people repeat that story," said James Zobel, archivist with the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Va. The 1976 movie "Collision Course" with Henry Fonda further popularized the notion, he said.

But it just wasn't so, Zobel says, because MacArthur had landed the evening before. And Air Force Maj. Clarence Vogelgesang's old radio logs seem to bear that out.

The Hawai'i man was MacArthur's radioman and part of a select flight crew from 1946 to 1951 on board first a C-54 and then a Constellation during the period that included MacArthur's stunning success at Inchon in Korea and later his firing by Truman.

Under his handwritten notation "MacArthur Meets Truman," Vogelgesang recorded all radio transmissions from the moment MacArthur's Constellation became airborne in Haneda, Japan, to the time it touched down on Wake — 6:03 p.m.

The 1950-51 logs are part of a treasure trove of history that Susie Saunders has kept in a military foot locker at her Kailua home since her father died in 1986.

There is MacArthur's five-star license plate swiped when "the boys got drunk one night and it was, 'I dare you,'" Saunders said.

An inscribed silver cigarette case, given to then-Master Sgt. Vogelgesang by MacArthur, commemorates the "historic flight" of the Constellation "Bataan" from Tokyo to Washington in April of 1951 — when MacArthur was recalled by Truman.

There are mementos of visits made by MacArthur with heads of state, including a silver tea cup and saucer presented to Vogelgesang in 1948 by Syngman Rhee, president of the then-newly founded South Korean republic, who later lived in Honolulu in voluntary exile.

Fred Vogelgesang and sister Susie Saunders hold some of their father's memorabilia of MacArthur, including a five-star vehicle plate.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

"(My father) always said one day he would get these things up to the MacArthur Memorial," Saunders said.

Next fall, Saunders plans to make good on that. She said she'll make the trip to Norfolk with the memorabilia with an eye to loaning the items to the museum.

Vogelgesang, whose uncle was chief of staff for the Navy's Asiatic Fleet in 1917 and had a destroyer named after him, had a distinguished military career before he met up with MacArthur.

After joining the Army in 1940, the Baltimore native flew 50 missions as a radioman and gunner on a B-17 over North Africa, Italy and Germany during World War II.

"He wanted to fly," said Fred Vogelgesang, one of Susie's four brothers.

The 5-foot-5 Vogelgesang, whose nickname was "Pee Wee," wanted to stay in the service after the war, family members said. Because of his background, he was able to land a spot on MacArthur's personal aircraft in 1946 when MacArthur was supreme commander of Allied powers in Japan.

Vogelgesang met his wife, Atsuko, in Japan, after the war, and was an Air Force intelligence analyst at Hickam Air Force Base before retiring in 1967 and taking a teaching job at Campbell High School. He died of a heart attack in 1986 at the age of 63.

"My dad had a lot of respect for MacArthur," Saunders said. "He said he never belittled his men — never talked down to them."

The airman respected his boss so much, he named one of his sons "Douglas Arthur." Three of those brothers live in Hawai'i, including Douglas Arthur Vogelgesang, a Kailua contractor.

"I just remember him saying how powerful he was," said Saunders, a real estate broker. "My dad would walk with him into embassies when he would go into foreign countries, and he always felt like the sea was parting."

In an old newspaper story, Vogelgesang recalled circling for more than an hour at 3,000 feet during a paratroop and supply drop over Suchon during the Korean War.

"I made a special point to look back at the general, and during the whole time he was just his usual calm self," Vogelgesang was quoted as saying. "We were under steady fire and it didn't faze him. In fact, we didn't leave the area until the last group of troops had parachuted."

By the spring of 1951, with MacArthur supporting an expansion of the war in Korea — and communicating directly with like-minded Republicans in Congress — Truman had had it with the corncob pipe-smoking general whom he derided as "Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur."

On April 10, 1951, Truman fired MacArthur as United Nations and U.S. commander of the Far East.

Among the radio transmissions in Saunders' possession is a tip-of-the-hat from John Foster Dulles, later the secretary of state, who in 1951 was working on a Japanese peace treaty.

"I salute you," Dulles messaged on April 16 as MacArthur headed to Honolulu. "I carry on with my mission after inner debate and consultation with and concurrence of Republican leaders who concluded we should seek to preserve the values for which you have worked and prayed."