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Etajima Museum of Naval History

The Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, founded in Tokyo in 1876, moved in 1888 to the island of Etajima in the Inland Sea near the coast of Hiroshima City. The Allied Forces closed the school in 1945, but the base at Etajima was reopened in 1956. Etajima now serves as the location for the First Service School and Officer Candidate School of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. The Museum of Naval History opened in 1936 from donations of Naval Academy graduates who wanted to preserve the history of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The museum has two large rooms with exhibits related to the Navy's special attack forces of planes, midget submarines, and manned torpedoes.

The museum covers Japan's naval history chronologically from the late 19th century to the end of the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1945. The exhibits focus on Japan's naval accomplishments and victories, such as Admiral Togo's defeat of the Russian fleet in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese War. Other than the role of the special attack forces in World War II, no mention is made of the Navy's disastrous defeat at Midway in 1942 and the series of naval losses suffered by Japan up to the sinking of the battleship Yamato in April 1945 and the loss of Okinawa in June 1945.

The first room dedicated to the Navy's special attack forces has a long bronze tablet on one wall, and the placard in front says that inscribed on the tablet are "2,633 names of members of the kamikaze special attack corps and the kaiten 'human torpedo' force who died a heroic death." The Imperial Japanese Navy considered the young men who piloted planes, submarines, and torpedoes in suicide attacks to be part of the same general group of special attack forces. The tablet includes the names of 80 pilots of kaiten (manned torpedoes) and 28 pilots of midget submarines, including the nine crewmen who died in the five midget submarines that participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Curiously, the bronze tablet and the rest of the museum's exhibits make no mention of the over one thousand men who died as part of the Navy's Shinyo Special Attack Corps in suicide attacks using explosive motorboats [1]. In addition to the bronze tablet, the first room has several exhibits of last letters, photos, and newspaper articles about the pilots of kaiten torpedoes and midget submarines.

The second room on the Navy's special attack forces presents the leaders of the kamikaze operations and about 150 last letters and wills written by kamikaze pilots. The room has large photos of the following three naval officers who played significant roles in the kamikaze attacks:

  • Vice Admiral Takijiro Ohnishi - organized first official kamikaze corps in October 1944 in Philippines
  • Vice Admiral Masafumi Arima - prior to formation of first official kamikaze corps, personally led group of planes against U.S. carrier task force and made suicide attack on ship on October 15, 1944
  • Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki - commanded Naval Air Fleet in 1945 in attacks on enemy ships around Okinawa, and personally led group of planes in final kamikaze attack of war

The museum does not attempt to tell the overall history of the kamikaze special attack corps, and the descriptions of the kamikaze leaders indicate that the museum's purpose is not to critically evaluate their actions but rather to honor them, as illustrated by the following description of Vice Admiral Ohnishi:

As Commander in Chief, Naval Air Fleet, Admiral Ohnishi was greatly loved and respected by his men of the kamikaze special attack corps. He desperately, but unsuccessfully, put forth his utmost effort in an attempt to turn the tide of war. When he received the Imperial edict to terminate the war, he left a farewell statement and fulfilled his responsibility to his men by nobly committing harakiri (ritual suicide).

Shikishima Unit of the First
Kamikaze Special Attack Corps

 

The museum does not try to cover the entire record of the aerial special attack operations, since the exhibits make no reference to the over one thousand Japanese Imperial Army pilots who died in suicide plane attacks. The Imperial Japanese Navy and Army had separate traditions and often quarreled with each other during the war, so it is not surprising that the Museum of Naval History does not mention the Army's contributions to the special attack operations.

The second room on Special Attack Forces also has four paintings of events related to the kamikaze operations. One picture depicts the men of the Shikishima Unit of the first Kamikaze Special Attack Corps in October 1944 as they prepare to depart from the air base at Mabalacat in the Philippines (see copy of painting at left). The painting shows the men as they offer a ceremonial toast of water as a farewell. Yukio Seki, leader of the first kamikaze unit, is shown with a cup in his hands, and Vice Admiral Takijiro Ohnishi, who organized the first kamikaze unit, is in the middle of the painting facing the five men of the Shikishima Unit.

The kamikaze pilot letters include a photo of each writer and a small card with background information such as date of death and home prefecture. The letters are displayed in cases arranged by order of home prefecture beginning with Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture, and proceeding south. Some photos show young men in formal naval uniforms, and others show them with pilot's gear. The display cases around the side of the room make it very difficult or impossible to read the wording of the letters because of the distance between the glass and the letters. One exhibit case contains the thirteen volumes of the personal diary of Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki from the beginning of World War II to the final day of the war, when he personally led eleven Suisei dive bombers on the final sortie of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps. Three letters by kamikaze pilots have been roughly translated into English. These letters convey the honor felt by the pilots at being selected to make an attack, as shown by the following excerpt from the letter by Masatoshi Sakai (English translation has been corrected):

I am honored to have been selected as a member of the kamikaze special attack air corps, and since then I feel my body has been filled with courage and fighting spirit. I promise to make every effort to the maximum extent until my last moment to ensure the everlasting prosperity of our lovely country and people.

The free 90-minute guided tour of the campus of the former Naval Academy includes a 30-minute visit to the museum. Etajima can be reached by a short ride by ferry from Hiroshima or Kure, and then a visitor must go a short distance by bus or taxi to reach the Maritime Self-Defense Force site. About 70,000 visitors annually take a tour, which requires a guide since the location is an operating Self-Defense Force facility.

A guidebook with photos of the campus is available in English, but it contains very little information about the exhibits on the Navy's special attack forces. The museum has a limited number of written explanations translated into English, and none of these give historical background for the exhibits. The museum does not sell any books or other items about its collections, and the small web site maintained by the Self-Defense Force schools at Etajima does not have any details about its museum exhibits.

Date of most recent visit: May 16, 2004

Note

1. The plaque erected by the Tokkotai (Special Attack Corps) Commemoration Peace Memorial Association in front of the Yushukan Jinja Yushukan in Tokyo indicates that 1,082 men died in the Shinyo Corps, but the Etajima Museum of Naval History has no mention of the Shinyo Corps that carried out special attacks with motorboats loaded with explosives. Although the placard at Etajima Museum of Naval History states that 28 pilots of midget submarines died in battle, the Tokkotai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association plaque at Yasukuni Jinja Yushukan indicates that 436 men of the Special (Midget) Submarine Force died in special attacks. See plaque at Yasukuni Jinja Yushukan on following web page:
Kamikaze Pilot Statue (Yasukuni Jinja Yushukan)