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Senri Nagasue next to Tsuiki Kamikaze Ginga Squadron Sortie Site Monument where he placed flowers to remember those men who died in the attacks (October 2007)

 
Spiritual Foundation of Kamikaze Special Attack Corps Members
by Senri Nagasue

Senri Nagasue is a former pilot in the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps Yashima Unit. He authored several books on kamikaze pilots and created a large website called Aozora no hateni (To the blue sky's end) with many stories about the Kamikaze Corps.


Introduction

During the war we were welcomed with a sense of reverent awe, but after the war even the Special Attack Corps (tokkōtai) came to be viewed as nothing more than having died in vain. In addition, there are some people who regard them in the same light as terrorist suicide bombers. In the last part of war, I continued training as a Kamikaze Special Attack Corps pilot while on standby. Fortunately or unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to sortie on a mission and was able to be demobilized and sent home. I would like to share my experiences from those days.

I was born in February 1927 and am now 80 years old. I am filled with emotion when I look back a little more than 60 years ago. In 1943 at the age of 16, I joined the Kagoshima Naval Air Group as a student in the Kō Class of the Yokaren, the Navy's Preparatory Flight Training Program. In those days it was called "Yokaren" for short.

I received basic training in Kagoshima to be an aircraft crewmember. It included basic knowledge in subjects such as signaling, communications, and meteorology. However, the most important area was physical training to make one's body fit to serve as a crewmember. The morning was mainly classroom learning, and in the afternoon we participated in martial arts such as judo, kendo, and bayonet drills. Also, we had swimming and cutter rowing in the summer and 10,000-meter races and ball games such as rugby in the fall. In the winter, we had various types of training such as sumo.

During the middle of Yokaren training, we were classified as either pilots or navigators based on aptitude. I was selected to be a pilot. Also, information was crammed in related to several specialized fields. For pilots, plane maintenance and glider training were added. This basic training originally was 12 months, but our training was shortened to eight months due to the critical war situation.

In March 1944, I successfully graduated from the Yokaren. We who were designated as pilots for land-based aircraft transferred to Yatabe Air Group in Ibaraki Prefecture. There I flew a biplane trainer commonly known as Akatonbo (Red Dragonfly), and I was taught flying skills from the beginning. I graduated from there in July after finishing four months of training. Next we were separated into different plane types such as fighters, bombers, and torpedo bombers, and we were scheduled to receive training in a specific plane type.

I was appointed to carrier-based attack planes, so-called torpedo bombers, and it was decided that I would receive flight training at Hyakurihara Air Base. This training location for torpedo bombers during the Pacific War was off the coast of famous Ōarai, the birthplace of the renowned folk song "Isobushi."

At the end of December, I graduated from flight training, and at last I was put in an actual fighting unit. I was assigned to the 903rd Air Group, the core of the offshore defense force. There was a reason for this. When my training at Hyakurihara was nearing an end, I was named to be a group leader. At the time I was told that there was an official report that on the previous October 26th a transport ship was attacked on the way to the Philippines by an enemy submarine and that my oldest brother who had been aboard had died. Also, I was encouraged with the words, "Take revenge for your brother!" The group leader in charge of personnel kept this incident in mind and assigned me to the offshore defense force that attacked enemy submarines.

The 903rd Air Group was assigned duties of anti-submarine patrols and fleet escorts. While carrying out these tasks, in the last part of March we received transfer orders to go to Ōi Air Base. Ōi Air Group was a training air group for navigators. For that reason, we gladly transferred, thinking that we would be working as flight instructors.

Formation of Special Attack Squadrons

In February 1945, the Navy made organization changes in the air force to strengthen aircraft fighting strength at the bases. They reorganized the 5th Air Fleet, which deployed to Kyushu, in order to make preparations for the southwestern islands off Kyushu called Nansei Shotō (Okinawa). Also, the 10th Air Fleet was formed from the 11th, 12th, and 13th Combined Air Groups, which until then had been training air groups. It was decided to use the 10th Air Fleet in actual fighting as reserve strength for the 5th Air Fleet.

Having no idea about such things, in the last part of March, I transferred from the 903rd Air Group to Ōi Air Group, under the command of the newly-formed 10th Air Fleet, with the expectation of being an instructor. However, the men who received transfer orders were limited to all pilots. So from someone there was whispering that we might be needed for special attacks (tokkō).

The invasion of Okinawa by the American Army began, and Japan's Ten No. 1 Operation was put into operation on March 26. During that time we who were newly assigned were carrying out flight training on Shiragiku trainers in accordance with a change in plane types.

One day there was a message, "All flight squadron crewmembers, assemble immediately at the projection auditorium!" What could it be? Thinking that a special film probably would be shown to only crewmembers, I hurried to the projection auditorium.

The commanding officer, division officers, and other officers assembled with tense faces. It was somehow a gloomy atmosphere. At this place where all flight squadron crewmembers were gathered, Captain Nara, Ōi Air Group Commanding Officer, together with the base Commanders who wore their gold aiguillettes (ornamental cords worn on shoulders) signifying their rank, went up to the platform. They told us about staff officers of the 10th Air Fleet that had recently been formed. Following this, we were told emphatically, "The speech that you will hear now is an important military secret. Therefore, you must never reveal it. Also, even between squadron members it must not be a subject of conversation!" Tension filled the faces of listening crewmembers as we waited breathlessly.

The following summarizes the staff officer's speech that had been dispatched from Air Fleet Headquarters:

I think you may be somewhat aware that currently there remains not one aircraft carrier that can participate in battle. At the Battle of Midway, Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, and Hiryū were sunk. At the Battle of the Marianas, Taihō, Shōkaku, and Hiyō were sunk, and over 300 aircraft and a large number of airmen were lost there.

Next, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, all of Japan's remaining carriers and aircraft gathered there, and the 3rd Fleet, which attacked at full strength, completely destroyed both our carriers and aircraft. Also, the battleship Musashi and nearly all of the cruisers and other ships sank.

Furthermore, the war situation in the Philippines already is reaching a terminal condition. Next the American forces might attack Taiwan or land directly on the Japanese mainland. Regarding the means remaining at the time of this difficult situation, there is no way other than body-crashing (taiatari) attacks in which you will sink one ship with one plane. Accordingly, the 10th Air Fleet will form Kamikaze Special Attack Squadrons with all of its planes and carry out "body-crashing attacks."

Based on fragmentary rumors, we realized a little about our losses in sea and land battles on the southern battlefront. Also, the actions and battle results of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps in the Philippines were announced extensively. However, these were special actions by a small group of volunteers, so we only considered these to be somebody else's affairs. For that reason I did not dream that I would be put in the position where I personally would carry out these "body-crashing attacks."

However, according to explanations from Air Fleet Staff, all planes would be included in special attack squadrons. This was not asking for volunteers but rather converting existing flight squadrons into special attack squadrons that would carry out "body-crashing attacks." If this were so, then we were at the brink from which we could no longer flee or hide.

Air Fleet Staff said, "There is no way other than body-crashing attacks in which you will sink one ship with one plane." I felt, "All right, I will do it." But on the other hand, there was an opposing thought, "I do not want to die yet. Isn't there some other way?" There was nothing I could do with these types of mental vacillations.

Usually flight crews placed in extreme danger did not think very deeply about their own deaths. Even when they made sorties, they just intentionally sidestepped the issue of life and death by believing that they personally would return safely alive. However, even when regular bombers or torpedo bombers made sorties, nobody could guarantee that they would be able to safely return alive.

Unrelated to speculations of us crewmen, the formation of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps was proceeding deliberately. Ōi Air Group originally was a training air group with responsibility for providing specialized training for navigators. However, training flights for students already had been cancelled at this time, and the training air group was reborn as an operational unit through a reorganization.

The training air groups that provided training for pilots of carrier-based attack aircraft, carrier-based bombers, fighters, and land-based attack planes were reorganized into the 11th and 12th Combined Air Groups. The training air groups that provided training for navigators were reorganized into the 13th Combined Air Group. In addition, these three Combined Air Groups were combined into the 10th Air Fleet, which formed Kamikaze Special Attack Squadrons from all of its planes.

In those days, special attack squadrons were not formed based on volunteers. Squadrons that up to that time had been in charge of flight training were converted to special attack squadrons. I had no choice but to think for the first time until then about death as something personal. For a normal sortie, no matter how much the danger, some possibility remained of returning back alive. As a result, a person could overcome anxieties by believing "I can come back alive" and "bullets will not hit me."

However, that way of thinking regarding certain death in a "body-crashing attack" was not accepted. I was driven by necessity to deal with "death" as a reality, which I had been doing my utmost up to that time not to think about, since I had been afraid in the corner of my heart to do so.

Ways That Special Attack Corps Members Thought About Death

When ordered to be a special attack squadron member, most men took two or three days to prepare themselves, make up their minds, and sort out their feelings toward death. Some men continued suffering for about a week. If they were still undecided even after a week passed, there was no choice but to drop out.

In what way did special attack squadron members sort out their own feelings toward death and prepare themselves for it? First, religion generally is thought to be an important factor in dealing with death. My family members were believers in Shinshū Buddhism. As a child, I had some interest in reciting various Buddhist scriptures by sitting behind my mother when she faced the household altar.

At Buddhist memorial services, I often was deeply impressed listening to the sermon of the priest as I recognized the impermanence of life in The Letters of Rennyo Shōnin, which begin, "This is to deeply contemplate the phase of transient human life . . ." However, no matter how much I believed in paradise, it would still be "killing" even though the enemy. Consequently, rather than heaven, wouldn't I go down to hell? As I began to think about such things, I was more and more confused.

"That's it! My target is an enemy ship and not enemy soldiers!" I personally found peace in my heart by making up my mind that way.

From my age and human experiences at that time, I was familiar with faith to a degree. In comparison to that, the issue that needed to be dealt with was much too large. Therefore, my faith fell short of a state of mind in which I could affirm death by means of religion.

Next, there was the State Shintō teaching that states, "I live for an eternal cause." Spiritual education in those days was summed up in this one point. However, in the same manner as the aforementioned religion, I could not truly grasp this and understand my own death by means of this.

My everyday conversations with other men included the following type of talk.

  • "If we die in battle, we can become war heroes [literally "gods" or "spirits" in Japanese] and be enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine."
  • "Yes, those who went before and will go after us will be at Yasukuni Shrine. I'll go before and wait for you. Those who come late will serve the tables."
  • "Don't act dumb. Will war heroes be doing such things as serving tables? Everyday we'll all drink as much sacred sake as we want with no need to do anything!"
  • "Yes, we'll be war heroes. So from now on I'd sure like you to offer me sacred sake."
  • "What are you saying? What you want offered to you is your mother's breast."

Even though we jested with each other like this in our talk, I think that probably not even one person really tried to deal with the issue of death by seriously considering the idea of becoming a war hero and getting enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine.

Humans die once. That being the case, in a greater or less degree there is the attraction of wanting to leave behind a worthy reputation to future generations. War heroes and Yasukuni Shrine were the only images after one's death that could be imagined while alive. Heaven and hell were not mere fantasy worlds.

It was a fact that it was promised that we would be enshrined as war heroes at Yasukuni Shrine if we admirably fought and died in battle. However, thinking of that as the objective from the beginning would be blasphemy against the gods. We understood State Shintō in the abstract, but it was as a means for imagining our form after death in battle. We had no choice but to seek something else with which to deal with death.

There was a way by resigning oneself to one's fate. Certainly there are aspects of people's destiny that cannot be predicted. We fully realized the thin line between life and death with examples of past battles and aircraft accidents. Therefore, it was not strange that we felt this current situation had something to do with fate.

However, since it can be described as a result, dealing with death through fate is simply the theory of resignation. I was troubled since I could not completely resign myself to death. Consequently, this was not a means of dealing with death. The main point was not addressed with reason, and I was seeking something that I could understand emotionally.

Being conscious of death, what I thought of foremost were the persons closest to me, such as my parents and sisters. As a last resort, I dealt with the issue of death using the idea that with my sacrifice the nation could survive and my parents and sisters could live safely.

I think that the way of thinking for persons other than me was probably essentially the same with only minor differences. To understand this subject, I believe that there was deep love toward family. Depending on a person's age, the object of his affection may have been his wife, children, or a woman he loved and with whom he had exchanged promises.

Love of these family members made possible the important resolution to sacrifice our lives. Changing places, when looking at this from the parent's side, they also must have been overcome by complex feelings.

Parental love exceeds one's love for his parents
How will they take the tidings of today?

They came to experience in reality the above poem that Yoshida Shōin wrote at his death. Even if you say it is on behalf of the country, there are no parents who do not wish security for their children. It is truly callous if their mutual love and trust ever became the motivating force for the aberrant behavior called "special attacks."

Feelings of Special Attack Corps Members

Training for our deaths continued in an atmosphere of "today you, tomorrow me" in which we did not know when orders to make a sortie would come. Even though at one time I had made up my mind to die, there were times in the middle of the night I would suddenly wake up and let my thoughts race to my hometown. As I wondered if there wasn't a way somehow to survive, often I was troubled about my attachment to living and my not wanting to die yet.

In the beginning when special attack squadrons were formed, everyone in the same way became silent and hid their resolve inside. However, as the days passed, they soon became more cheerful than ever. I wonder if they had accepted his own deaths, or perhaps this cheerfulness on the outside was a way to hide the anguish in their hearts.

Even among classmates who confided in each other, they did not speak together directly concerning this subject. That was because it was an issue that must be resolved by oneself without allowing intervention by others. Even saying this, it was heartless to let young men of 18 years of age with little human experience come up with such answers.

However, in contrast with my usual inner conflict, only when piloting a plane did my distractions not surface due to the tension of flying. Even when doing ultra-low flying while training to die, I felt exhilaration rather than fear.

Even though training continued and my skills improved, my anxiety and fear of death, far from disappearing, increased more and more. I felt that most likely I could not sever my attachments to this life until the time of receiving orders to sortie and making my last takeoff.

Perhaps it is possible that anyone choosing death will have extreme emotions for a while. However, for us ordinary individuals, such a terrible situation of accepting rationally one's own death and continuing this mental state for a fixed time period is impossible to even imagine for people who have never experienced it. I can judge this also from instances in which, on the occasion of formation of "special attack squadrons," men who were usually bigmouths hid by even going as far as feigning illness.

Changing viewpoints, perhaps that was the person's true nature. In the midst of the gloomy atmosphere of "all planes special attack" like in those days, I think even a person who made efforts to hide from death needed considerable courage.

Others' hearts cannot be fathomed. Nevertheless, other men watched your own appearance when you deliberately joined in everyone's conversations, amused yourself in silly little topics, and forced yourself to behave cheerfully. They also probably had the same kind of mental state as my own. When we were all having a friendly chat together in a circle, there were many times someone shuddered with uneasiness when something suddenly crossed his mind.

During the day, one could be distracted talking with the other men. However, night was each person's own time. Not being able to sleep, again and again I was flooded with hometown memories and imagined the unknown world after death. Fretful days continued on as we wished for a brief moment of repose in this transient life by putting out of our minds the distractions that popped into our heads one after another without end.

Hopes of Bereaved Families

After the war there have been many opportunities to talk with members of bereaved families at memorial services for the war dead and at classmate reunions. Nearly all these families desire "proof of death in battle." They understand that the remains of their sons or brothers will not come back since they were airmen. However, instead of remains families ask for some evidence such as mementos or writings to be able to acknowledge their deaths.

There are also some individuals who say that perhaps their sons or brothers are still living somewhere since they cannot believe they died in battle. While bereaved families may acknowledge death in battle on the outside, inside they may strongly hope that they are still living.

In those days even if we petty officers wrote final letters, we did not have a way to pass them to our parents or other family members. Families that received mementos or letters were limited to a small number. There was no opportunity for them to attend a traditional "Navy funeral" and receive the items according to formal procedures. Nearly all families had to wait for a favorable opportunity to find out some details.

As 1945 began, hardly any "Navy funerals" took place on the bases due to disorder in public transportation caused by air raids. Therefore, only brief notices of "died in battle at such and such location" were delivered to most families. There were also many cases where even though there was a notice it was delayed because of confusion in personnel administration, so it did not get delivered until after the end of the war.

It is probably human nature that a bereaved family wants to know the final circumstances of a son's death. What type of plane did he fly in? When and from what base did he depart? Where was the attack? And how did he die in battle? Fortunately, through cooperation of the National Institute for Defense Studies and surviving classmates, the final circumstances of most airmen who died in battle have been ascertained for the most part. As classmates it is our natural duty.

One father who attended a memorial service said with grief and tears in his eyes, "If someone could have taken his place, I would have died instead of him. I wanted my son to live a long life." A mother told how she visited the sortie base during heavy air raids to say farewell while he was alive. It was surely in the minds of many mothers that they must say a final goodbye to the sons who they had lovingly raised, but they had no way to do so.

Other mothers have said they prayed that their sons would return safely and vowed to abstain from tea or salt. In those days there were parents who would have exchanged or shortened their own lives for their children's to try to save them. Parents prayed earnestly for their children's safety.

There is a proverb that says, "A pheasant in a burnt field, a night crane." It is said that a pheasant caught in a grass fire will not fly away, but rather will protect its chicks and die together with them. It is not necessary to consider the wild birds. One is truly touched by how deep and unstoppable is the love of these parents for their children.

Children willingly sacrifice themselves wishing to protect their parents, and parents willing to offer themselves pray for their children's safety. Considering this mutual love between family members, the origination of those desperate "body-crashing attacks" was truly heartless. At the moment a pilot crashed his plane, he must have had etched in his mind an image of his parents full of affection for him.

Course of Special Attack Operations

In April 1945, special attack squadrons were formed at the same time as the start of the Kikusui attacks. While doing "takeoff," "enemy contact," and "attack (body crash)" flight training, spiritually I overcame my struggle with attachment to life and fear of death. Perhaps anyone choosing death can have intense emotions for a time. However, I think that such a grave situation of accepting rationally one's own death and continuing this mental state for a set time is impossible to even imagine for people who have never experienced it. My classmates, who were 17 and 18 years of age, broke their attachments to this world, took off on attacks from which they would not return, and died in battle one after another.

The 13th Combined Air Group, made up of Air Groups at Suzuka, Ōi, Tokushima, and Kōchi, formed special attack squadrons from Shiragiku training planes. From Kikusui No. 7 Operation on May 24, these squadrons finally became part of the 5th Air Fleet, proceeded to Kanoya Air Base and Kushira Air Base, and carried out "body-crashing attacks" one after another. Through Kikusui No. 10 Operation on June 26, 118 planes did not return, and over 230 men gave their lives in the skies.

Training for our deaths continued in an environment of "today you, tomorrow me." One day when flight training ended, as I returned to the barracks (at that time scattered in woods outside the base), I peacefully recalled the fields of my hometown with flowers of Chinese milk vetch at the roadside. In the middle of the night, I suddenly awakened and become concerned about the future of my father and mother (my oldest brother had died in battle, and my next oldest brother was at the front). Even though at one time I had made up my mind, I often worried whether this was right.

The war situation was undergoing change during this time also, and special attack operations against Okinawa were stopped after the Kikusui No. 10 Operation in late June. Along with this, I was relieved from standing by for assignment to a special attack mission, and I was dispatched to the Tanaka Unit at Suzuka Air Base. I was in charge of drilling and training navigators at Suzuka Air Base. It was a complex mixed feeling of dissatisfaction toward such an ordinary assignment of being a pilot working aboard training planes and a sense of relief at being released from standing by for a special attack.

However, an invasion by American forces of the Japanese mainland was expected, so for that purpose special attack squadrons were formed again on August 5, and they were put on standby for special attacks. Also, in contrast to training during the Battle of Okinawa, this time training occurred where day and night were switched with the object being only nighttime attacks. In other words, this irregular living led to flight training that was carried out only at night, and we slept during the day in tunnels serving as air-raid shelters. We did not hold to the easy notion of preferring simply to die, but rather we intensified our efforts day and night on how to die with effectiveness.

In post-war assessments of special attack forces, writings appeared that covered only battle results. However, if one truly evaluates this matter, I think one must assess the mental state, or special attack spirit, that reached the point where young men of less than 20 years old carried out their duty with their lives for whatever their reasons.

As stated above, I believe that "love" toward family is the way to simply describe the spiritual foundation of special attack squadron members. Love of one's country or people is not an abstract theory, and true love is a subjective, unilateral, and self-sacrificing act. It should be realized that it is something that cannot be reasoned. In time of emergency, a relationship of mutual trust formed with deep love becomes the motivating force to realize undreamed-of deeds.


Translated by Bill Gordon
July 2007

The original Japanese version of this essay can be found on Senri Nagasue's web site at:
http://senri.warbirds.jp/09seisin/4-5.html
The English translation of the sections on "I Do Not Yet Want to Die!" and "Last Letters and Writings" are not included on this web page.