The Japanese Pilot

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An aerial view of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped

The following is the story of one man, a pilot in the Japanese Imperial Navy trained for a one-man suicide submarine mission (as a “kamishio”, the Navy's equivalent of the Japanese Air Force's kamikaze) and overcame defeat after the war by rediscovering his sense of purpose in the U.S. The man wishes to remain anonymous

At 15, in December 1943, I became a Naval Air Force Pre-flight Cadet. After six months of strenuous basic training, our commanding officer explained the Japanese Imperial Navy’s decision to employ “special tactics”. He appealed for volunteers. The prerequisites were (1) eighteen years of age or over; (2) not the first born in a family.

Small pieces of white paper were distributed. Those who did not wish to volunteer, or did not meet the requirements, were to place an “X” under their signature; those who were not eager but would go if needed, were to draw one circle; and volunteers, two circles. I misrepresented my age, and drew two circles, signing my name. I was accepted. We were sent to Nagasaki, and in the calm waters of Shimabara Bay, we trained in maneuvering high-powered motor boats designed to run explosives into enemy landing crafts.

In January 1945, we were transferred to Hikari Naval Special Tactical Force Base, near a small fishing village facing the Japan Inland Sea and home of the kaiten, Japan’s one-man suicide submarines. I underwent training as a kaiten pilot.

The realization that I was to play a role in history was exhilarating. The dark, gleaming, rocket-shaped kaiten meaning “Turning the Course of Destiny”, was a converted torpedo—40 ft. in length and 4 ft. in diameter, at the mid-section, where the cockpit and control panels were located. The kaiten carried a warhead of 1 1/2 tons of TNT, with a force underwater sufficient to sink any ship during World War II.

As pilot trainees, we underwent several months of intensive study learning how to maneuver by depth, direction and speed. There were two hatches, one above and one below the cockpit. These were not for escape purposes; even if the pilot attempted to escape, he wouldn’t survive. My training propelled me toward my final goal: death. Life was meaningful as it had a definite and immediate sense of purpose.

Still, I was deeply afraid of death. I prayed to the gods of my ancestors for sufficient courage to face death. Eventually, a quiet peace came over me and I was sure of myself; my courage would not fail.

The bomb exploded fifty miles from my base. At first, we had no idea of what had caused the terrific shock and the awesome drone. We refused to accept the fact that Japan was barely hanging on, and pretending to be unshaken by the bomb, we went about our tasks with as much zeal as before.

On Aug. 14th, Japan surrendered. Hours after being discharged from the Navy, I was on a train heading home—a trip I had never expected to make alive. The last of my companions had gotten off, and now I was alone in the crowd, away from all my buddies who had eaten, slept, worked and studied with me for the past eight, exciting months. My life seemed completely futile and empty. Had the war lasted a little longer, my remains, prepared in advance—toenails and fingernails, and bits of hair—would have been sent to my family in a small, white wooden box.

Almost sixty years have passed since that day on the train. But I have come, finally, to a conviction that life has meaning and beauty beyond anything I had hoped to know. A witness to conflict, past and present, I believe that an honest review of Japan’s past would win her the respect of her neighbors. To acknowledge past mistakes is a sign of strength and emotional security, not weakness.

Is victory in war worth that much indignity inflicted on mankind?

Next: Morris R. Jeppson, 83