The message on Tojo’s teeth
Remembering a prank pulled on Japan’s most notorious war criminal
When a fresh-faced Navy dentist named Jack Mallory walked down the corridors of Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison one day in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, he knew he was about to have an experience he would remember for the rest of his life. After all, he was about to meet the very man who had started the war in the Pacific, in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians had died, by ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbor five years before.
Mallory’s assignment: to make a set of dentures for General Hideki Tojo, then being held in the prison awaiting trial for war crimes—the notorious Tojo, whose very name stood for everything that was evil about the imperialistic Japanese military machine that had wrought so much destruction.
What Mallory didn’t know then, couldn’t have known, was that 50 years after his encounter with Tojo, long after he’d retired from his Chico dental practice, the story of the false teeth he made would surface publicly, and that it would start a worldwide commotion and bring the 78-year-old veteran his proverbial 15 minutes of fame.
Today Mallory lives in pastoral comfort in rural Butte Valley with his wife, Thelma. She joins him today as he talks about his wartime experiences, as does his visiting sister Joy Halstead, who served as a nurse during World War II. The way Mallory describes his experiences in Tokyo, with details that are vivid and specific, it’s as if they happened yesterday.
He had graduated in 1945 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco and spent his first year in the service on a naval base before volunteering to go overseas in August 1946.
He didn’t want to go. He and Thelma had recently married, and like any newlywed he wanted to stay close to home. But he figured he didn’t have much of a choice. There was a shortage of dentists oversees, and, “If I hadn’t gone in I would have been drafted,” he says. Volunteering, rather than being drafted unexpectedly, made it easier for him to say goodbye.
Because the Navy had a surplus of dentists, it “lent” about 800 of them to the Army. Four naval officers, including Mallory, were assigned to the 361st Station Hospital in Tokyo. His job entailed making dentures and bridges for hospital staff and inmates in nearby Sugamo Prison.
Mallory was 22 years old at the time. He admits that, for “a young punk,” he was given tremendous responsibility.
One month after his arrival, Jack Mallory was given an assignment that had everyone at the prison talking.
At the time he had a roommate named George Foster, also a dentist. One night, Foster was called out to the prison to examine the decaying teeth of General Hideki Tojo.
Foster knew exactly who sat before him in the dentist chair. As the war was being fought, American newspapers and magazines often caricatured Tojo, portraying him wearing large, horn-rimmed glasses and having squinty eyes and buck teeth.
For Americans, Mallory says, Tojo “solidified who the enemy was.”
He had become prime minister of Japan in 1941 and, seeking to extend Japanese economic and military control throughout the Far East and thinking that America would not be able to fight a war on two fronts, he made the decision to attack the United States, ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Tojo remained prime minister through much of the war, leading the war effort until 1944, when he resigned his position.
After the war Tojo was arrested for war crimes, but not before trying to kill himself. “He meant to commit suicide when he shot himself, but he recovered [from his injuries],” Mallory says.
It was Mallory’s friend George Foster who first advised him on the condition of Tojo’s teeth. All of the upper teeth had been decayed and extracted, and only seven of the lower teeth remained, he said. Foster, however, needed Mallory’s help with making the dentures.
After years of thinking of Tojo as the Japanese equivalent of Adolph Hitler, Mallory was surprised by what he found. Tojo, he says, was a “grandfatherly looking older man,” not some horrible specter.
“I knew I was going to meet an evil man. It was a shock to see him,” Mallory continues. “He was very humble and just a meek, little guy.”
After consulting with Mallory about the need for full dentures, Tojo declined, Mallory says. As the Japanese interpreter accompanying him in the prison dentist’s office explained it, Tojo knew he would not need his teeth in six months. He fully expected to be executed for war crimes. As a result, it was agreed that Mallory would create only an upper denture.
That’s when things got really strange.
Once word got out that the young naval officer was in charge of the task, hospital staffers began urging him to pull a prank on the general.
The military procedure for dental appliances was to engrave the name, rank, and serial number of the individual on the dentures themselves, Mallory explains. His colleagues pressured him instead to put the phrase “Remember Pearl Harbor” on the dentures.
After thinking it over, Mallory decided to go through with the prank, but to do it in a way that was less obvious and thereby safer—by using Morse code to write the message. He carefully drilled the dots and dashes into the dentures, engraving them with an unforgettable slogan forever ingrained in the American people’s minds. Only his roommate, Foster, knew what he had done, however.
“You could see it clearly when it was dried, but 99 percent of the time you couldn’t tell,” Mallory said.
Tojo was given the dentures and wore them, unaware of the inscription he was being forced to chew on each day he spent in prison.
In February 1947, Mallory divulged his secret to two new dental recruits when he led them out to the prison and asked Tojo if he could examine the dentures. The recruits were amazed at Mallory’s handiwork. After the examination, one mentioned the story in a letter to his parents in Texas, and the tale leaked to a local radio station.
From there it snowballed when it was picked up by the news services and printed in newspapers worldwide.
It was not long before the story got back to Mallory’s superior, Major William Hill, in Tokyo. “I knew I was in trouble,” Mallory says.
Mallory attempted to redeem himself by rushing upstairs to Hill’s office and confessing about Tojo’s dentures. Hill was lighthearted about the joke but knew the prank was going to have consequences.
As Mallory remembers it, Hill said, “That’s funny as hell, but we could get our asses kicked for doing it.”
Before they could fix the situation, however, the Armed Forces’ Tokyo radio station, WVTR, got hold of the juicy tale and included it in a broadcast. When Hill heard that, he called Mallory and asked if the inscription possibly could be ground out of Tojo’s dentures—as soon as possible.
It was a snowy Feb. 14 night, Mallory says, when he and Foster drove in a Jeep out to the prison, leaving a cheerful Valentine’s Day party early to follow through on Hill’s orders.
“George knew the guard from the prison whose shift started at 11 p.m.,” Mallory says. The two dentists had the guard wake Tojo to get his denture and then quickly went to work behind closed curtains to grind away any trace of the Morse code message. They then gave back the denture. Tojo no doubt wondered why they’d needed it, but as far as Mallory knows he never found out what the original denture had said.
Mallory and Foster thought they had covered their tracks thoroughly—until the next day, when the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, published the story and the colonel in charge of Sugamo Prison read about the prank.
Mallory says he denied it to the colonel and claimed there was no truth to the “Remember Pearl Harbor” report.
The story died down after that. In the final week of Mallory’s stay in Japan he attended the war crime trials and watched Tojo as he sat, just 30 feet away, in the center of a lineup of defeated Japanese generals. As Tojo’s eyes wandered around the courtroom, Mallory noted the moment they fell on him sitting in the reporters’ box.
“He looked at me with a quizzical look, as if to say, ‘That man doesn’t appear here every day,'” Mallory says.
Tojo’s wrinkled face broke into a smile as he pointed to his teeth and bowed toward him in thanks.
Tojo was convicted of committing war crimes in 1948 and hanged on Dec. 22. He’d been right about not needing his false teeth for long.
In June 1947 Mallory returned to the United States, and he and Thelma settled down in Paradise, where he practiced dentistry for several years before relocating to Chico in 1955. He retired in the late 1980s to their home in Butte Valley. By then, his World War II prank seemed like ancient history.
His story was rekindled in 1995, however, when his youngest son, Paul, urged him to write a memoir recounting his days in Tokyo. The younger Mallory typed up his father’s tale and sent it to the Enterprise-Record newspaper, thinking it might get published because of the 50th anniversary commemorating the end of World War II.
To the Mallorys’ surprise, the memoir not only got the attention of the local paper, but also received coverage from the Associated Press, Time and Life magazines.
Mallory couldn’t believe all the attention he was getting for his denture story. He says for a week newscasters were showing up at his front door asking for interviews.
Seven years later, his mementos from his days spent working in Sugamo Prison consist of molds of Tojo’s teeth and black-and-white photographs of him and Foster together and Tojo on trial.
Mallory says his only regret was not getting a picture taken with the Japanese general. His best photos were on display at the Philadelphia Art Alliance at an exhibit entitled, “Encounters: Daily Life at Sugamo Prison, Tokyo, 1945-1952,” from May 2002 to mid-August.
As Mallory finishes telling his story, he’s reminded of a war song popular at the time, entitled, "Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor." He begins singing the song softly, in unison with his wife and sister. All three remember every word.