October 25, 1944, off the coast of Saman Island in the Philippine Sea, the American escort carrier, St. Lo had a flight deck full of just landed planes, with more being loaded out for flight. For a few minutes captain and crew were confident they had remained invisible to Japanese planes. Their optimism was premature. Five hundred yards out, coming in low as if for a landing, kamikaze pilot Yukio Seki released a bomb that smashed into the St. Lo’s flight deck a few seconds before his plane made a slow roll and plowed into the ship. Forty minutes later what remained of the St. Lo disappeared beneath the water, reverberating still with underwater explosions. That October morning was merely a prelude to the horror the US Navy would face from Japanese kamikaze pilots over the next ten months.
During the last year of the war in the Pacific, Japan struggled in a last ditch effort to halt the American advance, an ever tightening noose around the islands of Japan. The concept of a special suicide attack force was the brainchild of navy vice-admiral, Takijirô Ônishi. First presented to officer graduates of the military academies, not a single officer volunteered, all of them knowing well that such tactics would be meaningless, ending in death. The necessary manpower was therefore sought among student soldiers drafted from higher secondary schools and universities. The candidates were all well-educated young men, the intellectual elite of modern Japan, men more comfortable with poetry and philosophy than bombs and self-sacrifice. All were extremely well-read, with an idealism that included a determination to combat the egotism growing out of capitalism and modernity. Asking them to volunteer to crash a plane into enemy ships was calculated to appeal to their moral principles and their sense of comradeship.
Americans were puzzled over what kind of society, education and culture produced not only the tactics of kamikaze attacks, but produced fighting men to carry out these suicide missions. Some of the answers to this question have been found in the diaries of kamikaze pilots.
Life for the tokkôtai (special attack unit) in the final ten months of World War II was a time of living life at its most intense, and during these last weeks of life, the young pilots filled their diaries with anguished confessions of fear and profound ambivalence toward the war and their nation’s imperialism. None of these diaries reflect the caricatures that paint them as reckless people, fanatical patriots and untrustworthy suicide bombers, but rather provide great insight into the minds of young men under the extreme conditions of warfare. The diaries reveal young soldiers who could not resist volunteering because they could not bear to embrace their own lives while watching friends and comrades offering theirs. Quoting lines from a famous poem about falling cherry blossoms, 23 year-old navy ensign, Yasuo Ichijima believed that like other pilots who had fallen, so would he—the falling cherry blossoms symbolic of life’s transience.
Ichizô Hayashi 1922-1945, was a graduate of the Imperial University of Kyoto, drafted as a student soldier in November 1943, assigned to be a tokkôtai pilot in February 1945. He died in April of that year off the coast of Okinawa, with the rank of navy ensign. He was 23 years old. His diary was titled, A Sun and Shield: Diary and Letters to Mother, Writings Left by Hayashi Ichizô. The Sun and Shield part of this title was taken from Psalm 84:11, ‘For the Lord God is a sun and shield.’
From his diary…
‘It is easy to talk about death in the abstract, as the ancient philosophers discussed. But it is real death I fear, and I don’t know if I can overcome the fear.
Even for a short life there are many memories. For someone who had a good life, it is very difficult to part with it. But I reached a point of no return. I must plunge into an enemy vessel.
To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor.’
Photo: kamikaze pilot, Kazuyo Umezawa, April 1945
MORE FROM THE DIARIES TOMORROW…