Kamikaze squadrons took teenage boys and converted them into human bombs. These boys became suicide pilots whose sole purpose was to die for the Emperor. Ultimately, the Kamikaze caused the greatest losses in the history of the United States Navy.
At age 15, Yasuo Kuwahara entered military service where he suffered through basic training so brutal, nine men of his squadron committed suicide. After qualifying for fighter pilot school, he survived ferocious aerial combat and barely escaped death at the hands of the American enemy. Upon receipt of his suicide orders in August of 1945, he traveled home near Hiroshima to bid farewell to his family, but ironically escaped his suicide mission due to one of the most ironic twists of fate of World War II.
It is New Year’s Day 1945 at Hiro Air Base in western Honshu, and Captain Yoshiro Tsubaki, Commander of the Fourth Fighter Squadron, has just called a special meeting. We have assembled in a mood of intense expectation . . . somberly, even furtively. Silence settles profoundly, accentuated by sporadic gusts of rain against the roof and windows.
We are called to swift, rigid attention as the Captain enters and commands us to be seated. For several seconds he stands before us, arms folded, eyes dark and glitteringunblinking, spearing each man to the heart. Then he speaks, sonorously: “The time, young airmen, has at last arrived. We are faced with a momentous decision.”
Again he pauses, but I feel it comingthe fear, beyond anything I have yet known. Momentarily the rain subsides, then returns with increased intensity as he continues. Death is there with us, gray tentacles, sinuous and inexorable, clasping at our throats. “Any of you unwilling to offer your lives as divine sons of the glorious Nippon Empire will not be required to do so.” I hold my breath, feeling my temples throb. “Those incapable of accepting this great honor will raise their hands.”
Once more, the silence is palpable, but the tentacles relax slightly. The rain subsides in a soft drizzle. Then, hesitantly, timorously, a hand goes up. Then another and another . . . five, six in all. Six members of the Fourth Fighter Squadron have chosen to live. Our captain waits, one eyebrow arched eloquently. The decision is mine: I can choose to live or to die. Has not our captain just said so? Yet somehow . . . of course, of course, I want to live! But my hands remain at my sides trembling. I want to raise them, desperately want to raise them. Even my soul would have me do so, yet they remain at my sides.
“Ah so desu ka!” Captain Tsubaki transfixes those who have responded in his stare. “Most enlightening.” His eyes are devouring. “It is good to know in advance exactly where we stand.” He glances at the floor, nods, purses his lips. Slowly his gaze ascends as though evaluating the structure of the ceiling then returns to the gathering before him. Never, perhaps anywhere, has there been a more attentive audience. “Here, gentlemen,” he continues, appraising those who have responded, “are six men who have openly admitted their disloyalty.” Their faces blanch, turning ashen. For an instant his tone is ironically complacent. “Since they are completely devoid of courage and honor. . . .” He even shrugs but suddenly becomes menacing. “Since they are completely devoid of courage and honor. . . . it becomes my obligation to provide them with some. These men shall become Hiro’s first attack group!”
The breath, held so long within me, escapes almost audibly. I want to inhale, expel more air, obtain relief. But my innards clench, and something sears the inside of my chest like a hot, electric wire. Six of my friends have just been selected as Hiro’s first human bombs.
Thus began the suicide war for Yasuo Kuwahara and his compatriots at Hiro Air Base upon that memorable day at the beginning of l945. It was one that had been launched officially two months earlier with the first highly successful Kamikaze assault upon an American task force near Sulan in the Philippine Islands
His profound and remarkable personal story, however commenced more than a year earlier when he won the Japanese National Glider Championship. He was only fifteen years old, but his accomplishment promptly captured the attention of Japan’s military, and he was summoned to join that country’s Imperial Army Air Force shortly thereafter.
There at Hiro on the Island of Honshu Kuwahara and his fellow draftees, many only a year or two older, were hurled into the inferno of a basic training regimen that made most others throughout the world seem very tame by comparison. Like most of those in his country, however, his own was literally survival of the fittest involving extreme punishment including beatings with ball bats, whippings, blows to the face, and additional forms of torture. Of the sixty men in his squadron, nine committed suicide before that three-month ordeal was over. Nevertheless, those who survived such rigors, both historically and certainly during World War II, were ferocious antagonists far more willing to die than surrender.
Kuwahara’s amazing story recounts his preparation to become a fighter pilot which was in some ways even more trying. On one occasion he retaliated during a demanding training flight obsessively pursuing his sadistic instructor and forcing him to bail out, causing his aircraft to crash and burn. Consequently, Kuwahara was placed in a cold and barren guard house with little to eat for nearly a week and viciously beaten several times a day “to pay a full reparation.” This was the nadir of his entire experience to that point and nearly incurred his own suicide.
Even so, soon after his release he went on to become a fighter pilot, eventually shooting down three American aircraft, including very possibly a B-29 Super Fortress, last seen giving off smoke and descending toward the Inland Sea. Soon after the memorable event described above in the Prologue, all the fighter pilots at Hiro began training for their own suicide missions by diving at the outlines of ships painted upon their base air strip and barely pulling out in time to avoid being demolished upon the waiting concrete.
Following the main destruction of Hiro by B-29's, Kuwahara was transferred to Oita Air Base on northeastern Kyushu. There he underwent a poignant romance with a beautiful young woman named Toyoko Akimoto who was nearly seven years his senior and employed at a nearby night club. Toyoko soon became his reason to live and hope of survival.
There at Oita, because of his prowess as a fighter pilot, Kuwahara was preserved temporarily to fly escort missions for his fated Kamikaze comrades over Okinawa. During June 1945 he witnessed the deaths of twelve associates, including a close life-long friend, in that connection. Simultaneously, he was nearly shot down himself in a ferocious air battle involving numerous enemy planes and intensive fire from the convoy below. In attempting to escape, he was caught up in a violent thunder storm, nearly losing his life a second time. Eventually he emerged into the daylight, and with only a few gallons of gasoline remaining, reached Taihoku Air Base in Formosa.
He was then temporarily assigned to a smaller base nearby for two weeks as an instructor for other suicide pilots, observing more closely than ever the reactions of men who were soon to become human bombs. Shortly before his departure he witnessed a highly ironic occurrence in which one Kamikaze turned back only minutes after takeoff diving his aircraft into a hangar. The hangar and those nearby all went up in a series of savage, flaming explosions, blotting out the sun with their smoke and destroying nearly all the remaining fuel and fighter planes.
Kuwahara’s own plane, however, had already been fueled and secreted in the jungle on the opposite side of the air strip, and a short while later he returned to Oita Air Base. Upon his arrival he was summoned to the office of his commanding officer Yoshiro Tsubaki where he reported upon the memorable attack off Okinawa and was even asked for his views regarding the status of the war. Minutes later, with great reluctance, Tsubaki verbally issued Kuwahara his suicide orders informing him that he was immediately being transferred back to Hiro which was again in operation. There official confirmation and the exact date of his assignment would be sent to him in writing.
After nearly a month of agonized waiting, Kuwahara received his death orders for an attack to occur August 8, 1945. On August 6, he obtained a two day pass authorizing him to return home to Onomichi and tell his family farewell. Such was the Japanese military’s magnanimity to its fated young sons. That morning he stopped off in nearby Hiroshima to visit some wounded friends in the Second General Army Hospital. He had just left a street car when the atomic bomb was dropped in all its historic and colossal destruction. A mile from the blast, he was buried for several hours under a house that had collapsed and temporarily buried him alive. Ironically, however, it had shielded him sufficiently from the explosion to preserve his life.
Upon being liberated by some of the survivors, he witnessed the devastation of a city that had been reduced to an immense and blackened rubble pit in a matter of seconds. For about two hours he wandered throughout an area filled with the dead and dying, offering what pitiful help he could. In the process he observed countless bodies afloat in the Ota River and those of 350 young women who had been struck down in an instant while awaiting entry into the Yamanaka Girl’s High School.
Eventually he was picked up by a passing army truck and returned to Hiro. There he and others at that base heard the Emperor’s Surrender Proclamation on August 15. Immediately afterward he observed the varied reactions of those present, saw fighting among men and officers and also witnessed the deaths of some of them through harakiri and other forms of suicide.
On August 23, 1945 Yasuo Kuwahara was discharged and returned to his family in nearby Onomichi. He was then seventeen years old, having undergone experiences that most other people could never have encountered in many lifetimes.