Interview with a Kamikaze pilot

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Nov 9, 2005
The kamikaze pilot who chose life before empire- an oil leak and a kind commander saved a young recruit...

IN ALL ways but one, Shigeyoshi Hamazono is the kind of elderly ex-military man whom you might meet anywhere.
His back is ram-rod straight and his black shoes and grey suit are as polished and crisp as a uniform. His skin is tanned by the southern Japanese sun, and he looks closer to 70 than to his 81 years.
Even if you spotted the singeing that still affects his eyebrows, and the shrapnel fragments in his arm, you would never guess Mr Hamazono's extraordinary story. For he was a kamikaze pilot, destined to die at 21.
Mr Hamazono resolved to die — gladly, as a sacrifice on behalf of his mother country — and flew to the boundary between life and death. Staring across it, to his own great surprise, he chose life.
He tells a story of young men like him, sucked into volunteering for a war they could not see beyond, who were nonetheless deeply ambivalent about the sacrifice of themselves and their comrades, and took great risks to save one another from death.
"I saw so many of these new young pilots, fresh out of training, arriving at the airbase in their fresh uniforms — the next day, they were gone," he says.
"On the surface, they thought they had no choice but to be kamikaze pilots. But deep in their hearts, it wasn't what they wanted."
Mr Hamazono was born into a fishing family in southern Japan. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he volunteered as soon as he could. He said: "My mother could hardly read but she wrote me a letter with the only words she could manage: 'Don't be defeated' and 'Don't die'."
It was the young Mr Hamazono's bad luck to be fighting for commanders for whom these two priorities were mutually exclusive.
As Japan's early success turned to a slow, grinding reverse, he had many narrow escapes as a naval fighter pilot. Then, in October 1944, he found himself in the Philippines, where the first Divine Wind Special Attack Squadrons were organised.
Service in the Special Attack Squadrons was to be entirely voluntary, and so a hundred pilots in Mr Hamazono's group were handed a piece of paper, and invited to mark it with a circle, indicating that they volunteered, or a cross if they declined.
"Three men marked the cross," he says. "And they were forced to go anyway. Some of them came back saying they couldn't find the enemy, or that their fuel was running out. They were sent out again. I feel hatred towards those officers who made them go like that.
"One day, I was called in by the commander, and he said, 'I'm sorry, but will you go tomorrow?' I knew immediately what it meant.
"As a military pilot, there was no way to say no. I was grateful for my training, and the responsibility given to me, and my Zero fighter. This was my duty. That night all I thought about was my mission."
With two other pilots, Mr Hamazono took off the next morning, bound for their target, a British cruiser. In two years of flying a Zero fighter, he had never had a technical problem — but now, suddenly, oil began to leak from his propeller and sprayed across his cockpit window, obscuring his vision. He radioed to his commander in the aircraft in front and was ordered to return to base. Then another order: to go not to Manila, from where he had flown, but to Taiwan.
"I had never cried before — that was the first time," Mr Hamazono said. "He knew that if I landed at Manila I'd be sent out again the next day. I could have disobeyed his order, but the commander recognised that I had not decided whether to live or die. He recognised my feeling, and he saved my life."
Mr Hamazono never recovered the will to die. He stayed in Taiwan, where the engineers obligingly lingered over the repairs to his aircraft. With an increasing shortage of airworthy planes, he was sent back to Japan.
By this time, in any case, the chances of the heavily laden, rickety aircraft penetrating the American air defences to get close to a ship, were almost nil. Two thousand kamikaze aircraft set out during the war, but between them they sank only 34 ships.
Suicide aircraft were supposed to fly with enough fuel for only a one-way trip; on his second mission, Mr Hamazono's engineer made a point of giving him a full tank. But long before they reached their target, he and his comrades were cut to pieces by US Grumman fighters, and he alone limped home to live out the few remaining weeks of the war, training the new and younger pilots who were being hastily sent to their deaths.
He continued serving the Japanese defence forces until retirement.
"They used to tell us that the last words of the pilots were 'Long Live the Emperor!'," Mr Hamazono said. "But I am sure that was a lie. They cried out what I would have cried. They called for their mothers."


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