‘We were all ready to die’: Kamikaze pilot reveals the fear and fanaticism of suicide squads
Keiichi Kuwahara, 91, one of the last surviving kamikaze pilots, says he struggled to convince himself that he “had to die” for his country
As Keiichi Kuwahara flew out to sea he gazed back with tear-filled eyes towards Japan and the homeland he never expected to see again.
His mission was clear – crash into an enemy warship, killing himself along with hundreds of troops who were coming to invade his country.
Kuwahara, now 91, is one of the last surviving kamikaze pilots, having cheated death twice to survive the Second World War .
He says: “They didn’t need to tell us what to do because we knew. It was simple. We had to get in a plane and crash into a target.
“I kept looking back, thinking it was the last time I would see the land. As I did the sun came up and made the horizon shine light pink. I thought ‘I have to go in order to defend this beautiful land.’”
More than 5,800 Japanese servicemen died in suicide missions during the closing months of the war in 1945.
Among them were 3,800 kamikaze pilots. For 70 years they have been viewed as brainwashed zealots eager to sacrifice themselves – much like today’s terrorist suicide bombers.
A string of Japanese films made during and after the war reinforced that image, depicting kamikazes as heroes who happily laid down their lives for their country and its beloved Emperor.
But a new programme, The Last Kamikazes, to be broadcast on the BBC World Service next week, reveals many did not want to die and felt compelled to “volunteer” for the suicide missions.
Kuwahara says: “I struggled to convince myself I had to die. I thought my death would be pointless. Even if Japan won the war my family would die in the gutter because I would not be there to support them. It tormented me. I felt as if I was losing my mind.
“We were told that rather than accept defeat we should offer our lives. There was no choice. We had to follow orders when push came to shove. But we didn’t wish for death.”
Kuwahara was 17 when he was recruited to the naval airforce in 1943. His family could not afford to pay for his education and a recruitment officer convinced him he could expect a lucrative career as a commercial pilot after the war.
By the time he completed training, Japan was so short of pilots, planes and weapons that his squadron was disbanded and he was ordered to enlist in a kamikaze unit. He dared not refuse.
Kuwahara took off from the Kushira base on May 4, 1945, heading to Okinawa to attack ships invading the outpost 400 miles south of the main islands.
But his engine failed, forcing him to crash land. A week later mechanical problems forced him to abort his second suicide mission.
His relief at surviving was outweighed by the fear he had dishonoured his family and how he would be treated by the other pilots when he returned.
The following day his kamikaze unit was disbanded. Wracked with guilt that he survived while so many of his friends died, he still lays flowers every year for the kamikazes who died.
Kuwahara, from Yokohama, says: “I hope to continue offering flowers as long as I live. We were unreasonably forced to sacrifice ourselves. That is miserable.”
Recruits were often told in large groups that the war was going badly and Japan needed them to make the ultimate sacrifice. Those who refused had to step forward and raise their hands.
Peer pressure made that all but impossible in a country that placed so much emphasis on honour. But not all kamikazes were reluctant to die.
Osamu Yamada trained other pilots while waiting for his own suicide mission, often sending his favourites first to avoid accusations of favouritism.
He was furious when the Emperor announced Japan’s surrender and was too ashamed to visit the parents of friends who completed their missions.
Yamada, now 94, says: “I was single at that time and had nothing holding me back. So I had one thought in mind: I must give myself up to defend Japan.
“We were all prepared to die. So when I heard we were defeated I felt like the bottom had fallen out of my world. It was as if my soul was pulled out of me.”
Japanese journalist Mariko Oi made the The Last Kamikazes after discovering her grandfather Kenkichi Matsuo, 95, was an engineer who made bombs for the planes.
As the Japanese ran out of planes and bullets, the engineers were ordered to make bamboo spears to give to women and children to repel invaders.
Matsuo says: “I thought it was a daft idea but we didn’t have a choice. I thought about an old woman or young girl waving a bamboo spear. It was kill or be killed.”
That generation may have been willing to sacrifice themselves for Japan but times change. Today just 11% of Japanese say they would fight for their country, the lowest figure in the world.
Mariko set out to investigate what the kamikazes could teach us about modern suicide bombers.
She says: “I believed the kamikazes willingly took their own lives. I was shocked when Mr Kuwahara told me he and many other pilots didn’t want to die.
“But I was shocked by Mr Yamada’s story too. I spoke to his granddaughter, who was expecting a baby. She would never have been born if he’d died but he still regrets not completing his mission.
“Both men were upset when I told them suicide bombers today were described as kamikazes. They didn’t choose to die, they were defending the country.”
The Japanese people never believed they would lose the war. Children were taught that sacred storms saved them from Genghis Khan’s unstoppable Mongol army by sinking his ships.
The kamikaze units tapped into these mystical beliefs – their name meant “divine wind”.
Their training manual told them: “Transcend life and death. When you eliminate all thoughts of life and death, you will be able to totally disregard your Earthly life.
“It is essential that you do not shut your eyes for a moment so you do not miss the target. At the very moment of impact, do your best. The spirits of your dead comrades are watching you intently.”