Kamikaze
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Timewatch: Kamikaze
Written and produced by Jonathan Stamp
Narrated by Susannah York
Television program, BBC, 48 min., October 22, 1995

Fascinating interviews with several Japanese and American veterans make Timewatch: Kamikaze one of the best documentaries ever produced about kamikaze pilots. The interviews include three leaders of the Thunder Gods Corps, whose pilots trained to fly the ohka (meaning "cherry blossom" in Japanese), a rocket-powered glider bomb. The film also features Commander Tadashi Nakajima, who was flight operations officer for the 201st Air Group, which organized the first kamikaze special attack unit in the Philippines in October 1944. Jonathan Stamp, writer and producer of this film, wrote and directed more than twenty documentaries while working at the BBC for over ten years until 2002. He now works as a historical consultant on film and television projects. This documentary was originally shown on Timewatch, a BBC series since 1982 that investigates historical events. This 1995 program on kamikaze provides an exceptional portrayal of the emotions and feelings of Japanese kamikaze pilots and the Americans who faced them in battle.

This film easily could have been titled Ohka or Thunder Gods Corps (Jinrai Butai in Japanese) rather than Kamikaze. The four former kamikaze pilots interviewed in this film all were part of the Jinrai Butai, and the history presented in the documentary focuses on the ohka. The pilots of the Jinrai Butai, popular name for the 721st Naval Flying Corps, trained originally to fly ohka glider bombs. In late March 1945, the Jinrai Butai reorganized, and some pilots flew Zeros with bombs on suicide missions. About 470 pilots and crewmen of the Jinrai Butai died, including those who flew ohkas, Betty bombers that served as mother planes for the ohkas, and Zeros used as kamikaze planes and escort fighters [1].

The Navy began development of the ohka suicide weapon in August 1944. Rockets could propel the glider with a 1,200-kg (2,645-lb) warhead up to 400 miles an hour. The first sortie of eighteen Betty bombers carrying ohka weapons took place on March 21, 1945, from Kanoya Air Base near the southern tip of mainland Japan. American fighters shot down all eighteen bombers, and all men aboard lost their lives. The film shows a clip of a Betty bomber with an ohka underneath taken by an American fighter's gun camera. Despite high hopes of Japanese Navy leaders, the ohka sank only one ship during the entire war. By May 1945, nearly all of the original volunteers for the Jinrai Butai had died in battle.

Naval Warrant Officer Shoichi Ota, who came up with the idea for the ohka, ties together this film from beginning to end. Ota presented his plans for the suicide weapon in early August 1944 to Technician Lt. Commander Tadanao Miki at the Naval Aeronautical Research Laboratory. Miki says, "As an engineer, I was against it. I felt a person's life could not be regarded so lightly" [2]. Despite Miki's contrary opinion, his superiors decided to start development work immediately. Ota volunteered to go on a suicide mission with an ohka, but he never sortied since he turned out not to be a good enough pilot. The last segment in the film discusses what happened to Ota. Three days after the end of the war, he took a plane and flew out into the Pacific on an apparent suicide mission. However, a former comrade bumped into him after the end of the war, but he disappeared after that. During the making of this film, it was discovered that Ota changed his name to Michio Yokoyama after the war. In 1994, just three months before his death, he revealed to his family the secrets of his prior involvement with the ohka weapon. He cried as he told his family that it was his fault that so many young men had died, but his son born in 1952 ends the film by saying that he told his father that no one person can be blamed for the many terrible things that happen in war.

The interview excerpts with former Thunder Gods Corps pilots provide glimpses into their emotions as they faced death. Lt. Morimasa Yunokawa describes his feelings [3]:

We all brooded constantly on our death. In the ohka missile, death was certain and we were simply waiting for our time to come. And the waiting seemed to go on forever. It was like being sentenced to death as though you were waiting for the electric chair.

Lt. Fujio Hayashi had responsibility to select men to go on kamikaze missions. He describes with deep emotion in his voice how he would run to a hidden place and cry rather than watch the planes take off. He describes how he feels now [4]:

When I think of those who died, when I think of them, they are living in my soul and in my spirit. They're living in me, so to let them live as long as possible in my soul, I have to live longer.

Commander Tadashi Nakajima was not only involved with the Kamikaze Corps in the Philippines and Formosa but he also served as the officer who provided operational guidance to the Jinrai Butai squadron of fighter-bombers  [5]. This squadron was formed after the total annihilation of the first eighteen bombers with ohkas that sortied from Kanoya. Nakajima provides several comments, such as the following [6], that reflect his long and close connection with kamikaze pilots.

When you're a Kamikaze you live, but only so that you can die. But you're not a god. At night, things keep turning round in your head and you might start to cry. It's not because you're frightened but tears just start flowing down your cheeks.

The film's narration and editing related to Nakajima's involvement in the first kamikaze unit do not make clear certain historical facts. The narrator indicates that Nakajima had the task of raising volunteers based on his position as commander of the 201st Air Group. However, on October 19, 1944, Vice Admiral Takijiro Ohnishi personally came to Mabalacat Air Base to talk with officers there about recruiting the first volunteers [7]. Commander Tamai assembled 23 pilots, and they all eagerly volunteered with a show of hands [8]. Nakajima was away at Manila on October 19, but the next day he went to Cebu Air Base to recruit additional volunteers [9].

When Nakajima went to Cebu, he explains in the film that he asked the pilots there to write down their names on a piece of paper if they wanted to volunteer for crash-diving into an enemy ship. He says that there were only three blank sheets of paper, and these men were in sickbay. Interestingly, Nakajima's written history of the Kamikaze Corps states the number in sickbay was two [10]. The film's narrator explains that many of the pilots signed paper in their own blood to increase chances for selection. However, Nakajima's written account makes no mention of any competition for selection and of any signing of papers in blood [11]. The narrator says that the first kamikaze sorties were flown from Japanese bases in the Philippines on October 25, 1944. Actually, the first sortie occurred on October 21, and the kamikaze squadron led by Lt. Yukio Seki from Mabalacat Air Base had sortied on each of the four days prior to October 25 [12]. The pilots had returned to base the previous days since they could not locate American ships primarily due to poor weather.

Four American veterans who experienced or witnessed kamikaze attacks provide colorful comments throughout the documentary. However, the film does not identify the ships on which they served nor clearly explain what direct experiences they had with kamikazes. One veteran describes how he discovered the burnt right leg of a kamikaze pilot in a cargo hold about a month and a half after the kamikaze plane struck the ship. His shipmates sliced cross-sections of the leg bones and made souvenirs such as necklaces, rings, and earrings. Another U.S. Navy veteran tells the story of one gunner whose 40-mm guns had been hit. The gunner said, "It's hot today." Then he climbed over the side of the gun tub and jumped into the water never to be seen again.

The surviving members of the Thunder Gods Corps and their family members met at the Shinto shrine of Yasukuni in Tokyo on March 21, 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first disastrous ohka mission from Kanoya Air Base. The film shows the group sharing wartime photographs and gathered around an ohka model on display at Yasukuni's museum for the war dead. Morimasa Yunokawa explains that Yasukuni Shrine was the special resting place for the souls of those who had died fighting for the country. He still finds comfort at Yasukuni in the presence of his dead comrades.

A one-minute segment near the beginning of the film tells about a ramming attack on B-29 bombers over southern Japan on August 20, 1944. Masaji Kobayashi, squadron leader of Army fighters based at Ozuki Air Base, describes in Japanese a spontaneous attack on the lead B-29 after a pilot ran out of bullets. However, the English subtitles differ somewhat with Kobayashi's description of the incident and do not clarify what actually happened. For example, the subtitles indicate two pilots made ramming attacks on the B-29s, but actually only one plane with a pilot and gunner rammed the lead plane, and the debris of the collision brought down another B-29 [13].

The selection of historical film clips for this film generally surpasses the quality found in other documentaries on kamikaze. However, as most other documentaries on the subject, a few clips do not match the narrative. For example, as Fujio Hayashi describes pilots climbing a hill to the runway at Kanoya Air Base, the film shows a clip of pilots walking up a hill at Mabalacat Air Base in the Philippines. This documentary also lacks specific identification of several places, persons, and objects. For example, the narrator says a memorial ceremony took place at a WWII air base at the southernmost tip of Japan, which was probably Kanoya Air Base since the bombers carrying ohka glider bombs sortied from there. A pennant with five Japanese characters (Hi Ri Ho Ken Ten) appears next to a field several times without explanation. These characters were an acronym for a saying by a famous 14th-century general named Kusunoki Masashige, who tried to assist the Emperor to regain power from the ruling shogun and killed himself when he failed. The English translation of the saying is as follows [14]:

Injustice cannot conquer Principle,
Principle cannot conquer Law,
Law cannot conquer Power,
Power cannot conquer Heaven.

Lieutenant Commander Nonaka, leader of the ill-fated squadron of eighteen bombers and ohkas that sortied on March 21, 1945, flew this banner where they trained and where they made their final sortie.

Watching this Timewatch documentary serves as a perfect introduction to a couple of the best kamikaze histories. Thunder Gods: The Kamikaze Pilots Tell Their Stories by Hatsuho Naito tells the history of the ohka and the pilots trained to fly the weapon. Four Jinrai Butai veterans interviewed in the documentary (Technician Lt. Commander Tadanao Miki, Lt. Fujio Hayashi, Lt. Morimasa Yunokawa, Lt. Junior Grade Hachiro Hosokawa) also play key roles in Naito's book. Commander Tadashi Nakajima, who played a key role in the formation and operations of the Kamikaze Corps in the Philippines, coauthored with Captain Rikihei Inoguchi a firsthand account entitled The Divine Wind: Japan's Kamikaze Force in World War II. This book, quoted frequently by other historians, is the most important translated primary source of kamikaze history.

As an aside, a 20-second film segment on Hajime Fujii started Gene Brick, survivor of the sinking of the destroyer Drexler, on his search to find out who sank his ship. When The History Channel showed this BBC-produced documentary in the late 1990s, his ears perked up when he heard that Fujii died on May 28, 1945, the same day Drexler got hit by two kamikaze planes. Fujii's wife had committed suicide along with their two children in order that her husband, an Army flight instructor, could freely join his students to make a suicide attack. Brick, after working for several years to try to determine who sank his ship, finally received information to conclude that two planes from Fujii's squadron were the ones to crash into Drexler (see Who Sank the Destroyer Drexler? for details).

The many excellent interviews included in Timewatch: Kamikaze depict the real beliefs and emotions of Japan's kamikaze pilots and the Americans who experienced their suicide attacks.

Notes

1. Hagoromo 1973, 47

2. From 18:30 to 19:00 of program

3. From 43:00 to 43:30 of program

4. From 5:50 to 6:05 of program

5. Naito 1989, 139

6. From 34:30 to 35:00 of program

7. Inoguchi and Nakajima 1953, 935-7; 1958, 3-13

8. Inoguchi and Nakajima 1953, 936; 1958, 10

9. Inoguchi and Nakajima 1953, 938-40; 1958, 14-17, 38-44

10. Inoguchi and Nakajima 1958, 43

11. Inoguchi and Nakajima 1953, 938-9; 1958, 40-3

12. Inoguchi and Nakajima 1953, 940-1; 1958, 49-57

13. Takaki and Sakaida 2001, 14-6; O'Neill 1999, 243

14. Inoguchi and Nakajima 1958, 146; Naito 1989, 70

Sources Cited

Hagoromo Society of Kamikaze Divine Thunderbolt Corps Survivors. 1973. The Cherry Blossom Squadrons: Born to Die. Edited and supplemented by Andrew Adams. Translated by Nobuo Asahi and the Japan Tech Co. Los Angeles: Ohara Publications.

Inoguchi, Rikihei, and Tadashi Nakajima. 1953. The Kamikaze Attack Corps. Translated and condensed by Masataka Chihaya and Roger Pineau. United States Naval Institute Proceedings 79 (9): 933-945.

________, with Roger Pineau. 1958. The Divine Wind: Japan's Kamikaze Force in World War II. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

Naito, Hatsuho. 1989. Thunder Gods: The Kamikaze Pilots Tell Their Stories. Translated by Mayumi Ishikawa. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

O'Neill, Richard. 1999. Originally published in 1981 as an illustrated edition. Suicide Squads: The Men and Machines of World War II Special Operations. London: Salamander Books.

Takaki, Koji, and Henry Sakaida. 2001. B-29 Hunters of the JAAF. Botley, UK. Osprey Publishing.