The History Place - Personal Histories

A Kamikaze's Story
by Kanji Suzuki
As told to Tadao Morimoto
Translated by Kan Sugahara

Introduction – The personal account that follows is a matchless document. It is by a former kamikaze flier, Kanji Suzuki. He belongs to that small number of young men who, through no fault of their own, survived their suicide attacks on U.S. ships. When Suzuki's account appeared in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History in 1995, it was the first description published in the West of what one of these young men experienced during moments that he expected to be his last.

Significantly, the notion of crash-dive attacks on American ships was first proposed after the fall of Saipan. As the call, "One Hundred Million Die Together," was broadcast, the first kamikaze ("divine wind") units were being organized. ("Divine Wind" referred to those famous moments in Japanese history when Mongol fleets approached the Home Islands and were twice wrecked by storms, in 1274 and 1281.) During the battles for the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, the Japanese dispatched 2,257 aircraft, which sunk twenty-six combat ships and damaged 300 others, killing some 3,000 men. Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, called the kamikazes "the only weapon I feared in the war."

At the time of the Okinawa campaign, which began on April 1, 1945, Flight Petty Officer 2nd Class Suzuki was attached to Japan's 406th Attack Bomber Squadron and stationed at Izumi Naval Air Station in Kagoshima Prefecture, near the southern tip of the Home Island of Kyushu. Suzuki, eighteen years old and fresh out of flight training, volunteered for tokko, the "special attack missions" whose operatives were not supposed to return. Suzuki-who did return, but only after the war-wrote his own story in an account that was the source of a portion of Tokko, a 1992 book by Tadao Morimoto, from which this article was translated and adapted (the original was written in the third person). Tadao Morimoto, who was a naval aviator during World War II, is a former professor at Ryukoko University in Kyoto and senior adviser for Toroy Corporate Business Research, Inc., in Tokyo. Kan Sugahara, the translator, is an airlines-operations specialist who attended the Japanese naval academy during World War II.

In mid-March 1945, shortly after the abortive Tokko operation to Ulithi Atoll in the western Caroline Islands [a U.S. naval base-seized in September 1944-being readied for the assault on Okinawa], I was transferred, along with a number of other pilots and crewmen, to Izumi Naval Air Station. The early spring air was filled with the scent of plum blossoms. We were billeted in private homes in the village near the station and told to be on standby. I was a reconnaissance man-navigator, assistant bombardier, and sometimes forward gunner-in Ginga No. 8 Special Attack Squad, named for our plane, the three-man Yokosuka P1Y1 Ginga (code-named Frances by the Allies). By the time I arrived at Izumi, many of my classmates were already dead.

When I had first volunteered for the tokko, I did not seriously contemplate my own mortality. I was young, sensitive, full of hope, and curious even about death; I considered myself to be on a battlefield. However, as the standby period dragged on, I became increasingly anxious and depressed. Only death awaited. I was proceeding to an awesome destination, and there was no turning back.

Tokko operations during the Okinawa campaign were quite different from those conducted during the Philippines campaign. Launching sorties from bases in the occupied Philippines presented special problems, chiefly because the Filipinos were hostile to us. This had its rewards, however: It helped instill and sustain a stronger fighting spirit and the sense of antagonism essential for those on kamikaze missions. Most tokko operations to Okinawa, on the other hand, were launched from bases on Kyushu, in Japan itself. (Some of the Okinawa sorties originated on Formosa.) And in the Philippines there had still been a possibility that we would prevail. Better aircraft were used, more seasoned pilots were generally at the controls, and more often than not they were protected by fighter escorts. These differences had a considerable impact on our emotional state and, ultimately, on our view of life and death.

When their time came, crewmen on tokko missions were relieved of their standby duties; in the certainty that their mission would soon be over, they sometimes became cheerful, almost completely different people. But these feelings of well-being, sometimes bordering on euphoria, could be fleeting and transitory.

On March 19, Fumio Hirosawa, a classmate of mine from air training school who was also attached to the 406th as a member of the Ginga squad of the Kikusui Unit, was ordered to attack an enemy task force off the southeast coast of Kyushu. Those of us who were left went to see Hirosawa and his crew depart. We were soon hoarse from shouting encouragement. I noticed that Hirosawa had lost considerable weight; he climbed into his Frances with seeming casualness, although his face looked gloomy and sad. In an attempt to inject a cheerful and colorful note, someone had placed a branch of cherry blossom in full bloom inside the cockpit. I assumed that, as he confronted his forthcoming self-destruction, my classmate was ensuring that his behavior for the momentous occasion was perfect.

It was a cloudy day, but as the Frances taxied out, a ray of sunshine seemed to spotlight the aircraft. Hirosawa and his crew looked as if they had been placed in an airplane-shaped coffin.

The tokko squad, four Frances attack bombers, took off without a fighter escort-since the decimation of our forces in the Philippines, the empire was being pushed into an increasingly desperate corner as far as resources and matériel were concerned. As the aircraft began its takeoff roll, the onlookers stiffened for a moment; the next second, as if in an afterthought, we waved our caps vigorously. But our mouths were tightly closed.

After the formation disappeared in the clouds, we returned to our billets. We went to sleep with the laughter of the maintenance personnel in our ears. It was unbearable to listen to the thoughtless banter of outsiders. The contrast between them, who could enjoy being alive, and us, who were burdened with our standby for death, was particularly painful. The tokko squads had long since lost any momentum for living; we seldom laughed anymore.

The creek near the naval station began to warm up; catfish were waking from their hibernation. More of my friends died in action. One afternoon, yet another tokko unit vanished toward Okinawa. On this occasion, as previously, I was left behind. I was always anxious about the ground officers' intense observation of tokko crews. When the night came I was afraid. I disliked the brief period of sunset more than any other part of the day. After the sun set, the sky and my attitude grew darker and darker.

At night, some slept with their eyes open. During the dark hours, delirious utterances and groans could be heard at intervals through the billet, as if we were living in an asylum. Almost every day crews left the asylum for sorties. They boarded their aircraft with forced smiles on their faces. There was an air of lunatic melancholy in their expressions, in their eye. Each night, after they had departed on their one-way missions, I was again depressed, as though I had been deprived of both heart and soul.

Then, finally, for me-and others-the long standby period came to an end. Our sortie was scheduled for April 17.

The day before, Ginga No. 7 Squad left Izumi. I watched as Isao Yoshikawa, the pilot and bombardier on my crew, ran to one of the four Franceses, which was crewed by two classmates of his, Kensuke Eto and Shigeaki Enokida. They were in the cockpit, smiling. Yoshikawa knelt on the wing and poked his head inside to say good-bye. Just before the planes took off, he got down slowly from the wing. I stared at his face and was horrified. I would remember that desperate, terribly aged look forever.

On that day, Ginga No. 7 Squad, like many before it, disappeared into the sky south of us without a fighter escort, on its certain-death mission. The crewmen sacrificed their lives for their country at a point some fifty nautical miles from Kikaiga-shima, northeast of Okinawa.

"Tomorrow it is going to be my turn," I reflected. I pictured the faces of my fallen classmates. The end was near. It was surprising that I had lasted this long since volunteering, I thought. Then I found myself recalling the fun I had enjoyed in the past and felt depressed.

At last April 17, our death day, arrived. I went with Yoshikawa and Shigeyuki Tanaka, my plane's radioman and rear gunner, to the airfield command post to receive our orders. On the way, Tanaka stopped suddenly. He turned to me, his face as expressionless as a Noh mask, and began to talk in a rambling way. He was sorry; he praised me for coping with all the hardships that had brought us to this day. "I'm a coward, aren't I?" he said. I told him that wasn't true and, as the last moment of our lives was approaching, thanked him for the pleasures and sorrows we had shared as comrades.

Other crews were already assembled in front of the command post. Their faces were unfamiliar; by now most of my classmates had been killed in action. We officially received our orders. The mechanism for our destruction had been set when we volunteered and were put on standby, but the orders sealed our fate. I considered the orders sublime; I felt awed. Now I knew precisely what I had to do. It took no more than a few moments for my warrior's heart to overcome the ordinary human instinct to deny the possibility of mortality. And yet, underneath this newly acquired sense of dedication and excitement, I was still aware of a strong attachment to life. This worried and confused me. My bond to life was my karma, my fate, but still I felt like a hypocrite behind the brave facade.

As commander of our unit, I delivered the orders to Tanaka and Yoshikawa. "Location: east of Kikaiga-shima. Target: a carrier. Let's get going."

Tanaka, Yoshikawa, and I began the walk to our munitions-laden Frances, parked at the end of the airfield near the runway. The plane seemed to quiver in the spring heat. I was grateful the aircraft had been left so far from the command post-the farther I was obliged to walk, the longer I stayed on the ground. Behind me, Tanaka and Yoshikawa were running to catch up. "Why hurry?" I thought. "Walk. Take your time." That morning my crew had looked pale and vacant, as if lost in thought. Now their faces beamed joyfully; it seemed they had completely forgotten what was about to happen.

I, too, now had a sense of liberation from all the mortal ties that bound me and the rest of the world. We were utterly free. No one could give us orders anymore, much less criticize or discipline us. Even if death was just around the corner, there was joy in being released from the overwhelming pressure and restrictions of the vise that we called the navy. And it was glorious to be freed from the mental torture of our protracted standby. I found myself nonetheless bothered by trifling and incongruous thoughts: "What will happen to my laundry? Whom did I leave instructions with about my money and personal things?"

There was always a large crowd around a Frances that was being prepared for a sortie. I approached the aircraft with a conqueror's stride, outwardly arrogant and proud. I could hear the cheers and exclamations of admiration even above the din of the powerful radial engines. I would feel guilty if I did not smile. I forced one, but it was difficult.

Four Frances aircraft were scheduled for tokko sorties that day. I was getting impatient and began to feel agitated when I realized that the engines of some of the other aircraft had not been started.

"What time is it?" Tanaka kept saying nervously.
"Almost zero nine-thirty," Yoshikawa replied.
"What the hell's going on there?" Tanaka said.
"Maybe--" Yoshikawa began.
"Called off?" Tanaka interrupted.

Yoshikawa and I remained silent while Tanaka continued his irritated tirade. "Son of a bitch! I don't give a goddamn what happens."

At 10:10 A.M., the command post signaled the sortie. At that moment, I involuntarily turned and looked back. Only our Frances had taken off, and without a fighter escort. (The others might have experienced mechanical difficulties; their Nakajima engines were notoriously unreliable on the low-octane aviation fuel available toward the end of the war.) One solitary aircraft. I was struck with horror. One lone Frances could not possibly reach the target area-where, even if we did, powerful enemy fighters would undoubtedly be patrolling. Our superiors couldn't possibly expect successful results by sending out a single Frances armed with a 1,700-pound bomb; yet they dared to send the three of us on our mission anyway. It didn't matter to them. By this time, the deaths of the tokko fliers had become an end in itself, the primary aim of the cold-blooded operations planners. Is this why innocent young men were sacrificing their lives? Even now, a half century later, one is struck by the callous decisions that led to this slaughter. The tactics defied logic.

Isolated and prey to our uneasiness as we were, we all fell completely silent during the flight toward the target area. Our senses seemed paralyzed; even while we were still over land, the beautiful scenery below gradually blended into mere layers of colors. This was, in fact, the onset of the so-called fainting phenomenon.

To break the uncomfortable silence, I began singing, but Tanaka and Yoshikawa refused to join in the chorus, increasing the awkwardness and tension. My heart was now so constricted with the reality of approaching death and the resultant fear that I started to display visible physiological changes: faster, shallower respiration; cardiac palpitations; abnormal perspiration; micturition. My temples ached. When my voice began to sound hollow, I would stop singing for a time.

I glanced at the altimeter. When we took off, the aircraft had been headed south-southwest, cruising first at about 13,000 feet and later at about 16,000. Now the altimeter indicated we were at almost 30,000 feet. Had this happened because Yoshikawa, the pilot, was trying to evade the enemy fighters? In fact, he had unconsciously been applying gradual backward pressure to the control column. I had never flown so high before. A higher altitude might postpone the engagement-and by getting closer to the stars, perhaps we would find ourselves elevated to perennial youth and immortality! Somewhere far away in the depths of my consciousness, I realized that our unscheduled climb was both a result and a contributing cause of the fainting phenomenon, which would never have occurred during flight in formation with other aircraft.

Our symptoms were not unique. I am told that crew members of tokko aircraft often became so aware of their forthcoming extinction that they experienced this kind of reaction.

Predictably, just before we reached our target area we were spotted by fifteen Grumman F6F Hellcats on routine patrol. One against fifteen was hopeless odds. Some enemy aircraft began to climb and turn to get into firing position at our rear; others were already there on the starboard side.

In the midst of this chaos, as our plane dodged enemy fire, a small but significant mishap occurred. "The machine gun! I can't fire it! There's a cartridge jammed in the magazine!" Tanaka screamed through the speaking tube.

At this point enemy fighters occupied my entire field of vision, and I was frozen with terror. As an F6F approached head-on, I unconsciously closed my eyes an instant before the impact that seemed certain to come. When there was no crash, I felt tremendously confused and disoriented and found myself thinking, "Isn't there any emergency procedure to avoid this?"

My desperation alternated between feeling as though I was failing, because my knees were so weak from fright, and somehow trying to find a way to run from the attacking aircraft. But there was nowhere to run. I groped for some divine ray of hope that might extricate me from our catastrophe.

The Frances gradually lost altitude, yawing violently. We were still locked in a mortal struggle with the enemy fighters. "Haven't you sighted the target yet, Suzuki?" Tanaka kept asking. The fact that the F6Fs were attempting to block us probably meant that the carrier wasn't far away. Suddenly the Frances shook violently. The starboard engine had been hit and was trailing smoke. With the increased drag of the dying engine, our airspeed dropped sharply. I began to wonder if we would reach the target at all.

We were descending rapidly. An enemy round struck me in the face. I felt a sharp pain as though I had been whipped. Warm blood spurted out of the wound, streaming down my neck and soaking into my silk muffler. I lost consciousness for a moment, but the freezing air blowing into the fuselage through the cracks in the damaged nose canopy revived me. I felt very cold. A piece of the lenses of my goggles had stuck in the fur trim of my glove. I was vomiting reflexively and starting to lose consciousness again. I felt I was at the end of my rope. By now I was so disoriented I had become completely detached and decided that the enemy assault must be someone else's problem.

Despite this, somehow the realization clicked that the F6Fs had disappeared. Simultaneously I saw streams of red, green, and yellow tracer fire, apparently aimed straight at me. It was as though I was taking an inverted shower in Technicolor. The surreal image had come from a fusillade of antiaircraft fire out of the task force below. "There they are!" I shouted in my mind. The badly damaged Frances was still trailing ominous black smoke.

At last I caught sight of the target carrier. "Here we go!" I shouted through the speaking tube to Yoshikawa and Tanaka. No one answered. The altimeter was pointing to zero.

I kept track of the target despite my restricted vision. "Turn starboard three degrees," I told Yoshikawa. I was bleeding profusely but felt no pain. Then I got very drowsy and almost lost consciousness again. "Am I going to pass out or am I going to die?" I thought. As I concentrated on our attack onto the target, I felt a strangling fear grip my entire body. From the other crew positions-I couldn't tell whether it was Yoshikawa or Tanaka-I heard meaningless sounds, more like groans mixed with shouts than words.

The large target loomed vaguely in my dimming vision. I think that I shouted, "Target, starboard, enemy carrier," but I couldn't be sure my words were clear or even audible. However, Yoshikawa was apparently alive and responsive to my instructions, because the Frances began a slow right turn. I could see a large shadow of the target, but it was almost obscured by the heavy barrage of AA fire. "Is this an illusion?" I wondered.

I watched as the bull's-eye of the target got bigger by the second, and, after the one-against-fifteen air battle of a few minutes ago, I was rather relieved and pleased. I felt proud that my hard training was about to be rewarded. As our distance from the carrier became shorter and shorter, I could no longer distinguish among the furious fireworks of the AA barrage, my fear of death, and my duties and responsibilities. As I was about to lose consciousness, I saw that a portion of the carrier's hull had been burned, and it appeared red. It was very striking.

Steady. At last the target was within reach. We had come an extremely long way, and a hard one. At that moment, just seconds before impact, I felt neither excitement nor animosity. The outline of the enemy target seemed merely a floating object on the water. I did not feel nearly as much fear as I had expected. I was finally relieved of my burden, and I did not want it any longer. "This will do it," I thought. "A perfect angle of approach on the target." It was the beginning of a solemn ceremony.

I felt cold again, as if shrouded in a pale veil. "I've done my duty. My war is over. I'm exhausted." With a sense of relief, I saw an out-of-focus, inexpressible death awaiting me in a space I had previously occupied. At that last moment, I felt relieved of duty. "Steady as you go-body impact. I've won!"

Postnote: Suziki's Frances was shot down at that moment. A U.S. Navy destroyer picked him up; the other two crewmen died. He spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner. In his book, Suzuki chose not to describe the end of his military career. He certainly had not been afraid to die. Was he ashamed to have survived? Perhaps.

Little is known about Suzuki's later life. After his repatriation, he married, went to work for a local government fishery, and then became a fireman. He is now retired.

"Steady as you go-body impact. I've won!" When Suzuki wrote those final words, years after the war, he was describing his feelings in what he believed were his last moments. After the long standby period as a tokko volunteer, in which he suffered the agony of alternating between dedication to supreme sacrifice and attachment to life, he thought he had accomplished his ambition of a glorious death in battle. He probably felt more of a victory over himself than over the enemy. At the final moment he was, at least to himself, both a great warrior and a great human being. Did he feel cheated by his miraculous reprieve?

What power inside these men enabled them to proceed? There was certainly nothing in the teachings of the various Japanese religions, all of which deplore human destruction and celebrate life. And what was tokko, really?

In his book on the Battle of Leyte, where kamikazes first became a force to be reckoned with, the writer Shohei Ohoka writes that "there were some people in our generation who overcame inconceivable mental agony and vacillation between life and death, and who reached their goals. This has nothing whatever to do with the stupidity and corruption of the Japanese war leaders of those times." The number of young men who sacrificed their lives in the tokko operation is said to be between 3,000 and 4,000.

Excerpted from "No End Save Victory : Perspectives on World War II" by Robert Cowley (Editor). © March 29, 2001, Putnam Pub. Group used by permission.

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