“That’s going to be your coffin.” Higher Flight Petty Officer Motoji Ichikawa followed his friend’s gesture. The new weapon he and the other Thunder Gods had been told of, the Ohka, or “cherry blossom,” was a tiny plywood-and-aluminum aircraft with stubby wings, a primitive, cramped cockpit, and a large explosive charge in its nose—no more than a manned bomb. Ichikawa’s shrinking confidence diminished still more as his friend explained that the Ohka would be carried aloft under a Betty bomber and dropped in the vicinity of its target. The pilot would enter its cockpit shortly before it was dropped to guide it. “Don’t be so disappointed,” he was told. “If you crash-dived in an attack bomber, no one would be watching you die. In this thing, you’ll be diving in front of the entire crew of the mother plane.”
Like Ichikawa, the Thunder Gods were new to their duties and still struggling to come to terms with them. The Thunder Gods Special Attack Corps had been officially formed the previous month—October 1944—as an act of desperation. The tide of the Pacific war had turned against Japan, and the U.S. forces were steadily advancing toward the Japanese home islands. In a last-ditch effort to ward off invasion, Japan had added suicide to the national arsenal.
That September, Japanese military leaders had organized the so-called T-Attack Corps to begin carrying out suicide attacks in Zeros. The “T” was a reference to the typhoon that had halted a 13th century Mongol invasion, known to the grateful Japanese as a “divine wing,” or kamikaze. But as the war situation worsened, even the T-Attack Corps was not enough. The leaders began to pin more and more of their hopes on the volunteer Thunder Gods pilots and their Ohkas.
But at Konoike Air Base, the Thunder Gods’ training facility east of Tokyo, the atmosphere was anything but hopeful. The Thunder Gods’ first attack was to be launched from Japanese-held Clark Field on the large Philippine island of Luzon, but a series of setbacks had delayed final preparations for the attack again and again. The strain of facing certain death was taking its toll on the Ohka pilots.
Relations between petty officers and the reserve officers, many of whom had only 90 days of training and were barely able to maintain horizontal flight, aggravated the strain. Reacting to their extraordinary position, the petty officers chose as Ohka pilots had begun to manifest marked anti-organizational behavior. When some reserve officers responded by tightening discipline, the petty officers became further incensed. One repeatedly went to Senior Reserve Officer Hachiro Hosokawa and warned him that there was a serious moral problem in the Ohka squadron. Too inexperienced to perceive the real problem behind the petty officer’s complaints, Hosokawa did nothing.
On January 8, 1945, a troupe of entertainers visited the base. The show seemed to relax the men somewhat, but as the pilots started returning to their barracks, one of the petty officers walked on a lawn that was off limits, and an especially zealous reserve officer struck him. Enraged, the petty officers began talking about getting revenge. The yard between the reserve officers’ billets and the petty officers’ barracks was lit by a bright moon. When some of the newly arrived reserve officers came out into the yard and began admiring the moon, it was the last straw of the petty officers. When one attempted to seize the offending reserve officer and was himself seized, the base broke out in chaos.
The two groups spilled out into the yard and began grappling, punching, and mauling each other. The officer of the day and several others tried to stop the fighting, but the riot continued for nearly an hour.
Suddenly someone standing on a podium in the center of the yard cried out: “Petty officers withdraw!” The voice belonged to Special Service Sub-Lieutenant Shoichi Ota, the mastermind of the Ohka plan, a man who had worked his way up from fourth-class seaman and was greatly respected by all of the petty officers. Their frustrations and energies spent, the petty officers obeyed Ota and returned slowly to their barracks, many nursing bruises and other wounds.
When the petty officers remained defiant the next day, however, a legal officer was dispatched to the base to set up court martial proceedings. Training was suspended and a curfew imposed.
Despite the curfew, several of the veteran petty officers regularly sneaked into town to drink and carouse. They reasoned that since they were to die soon, the rules did not apply to them. Though also facing death, the reserve officers tended to take their duties more seriously and stayed on base.
However, one of them, Sub-Lieutenant Mitsutaka Nishio, had fallen in love with an inn maid named Taeko in the nearby town of Sawara. Nishio’s friends were aware that he had been smitten by the girl and felt sorry for him. Though wartime complications prevented them from marrying, Nishio, knowing he was soon going to die, wanted to somehow formally declare his love for Taeko.
Under cover of darkness, Nishio and his two best friends, Nakane and Yasui, left the base by the rear gate and rode their bicycles into Sawara. Arriving at the inn, they took a room, ordered sake, and asked for Taeko.
As soon as she appeared and sat down on a cushion next to Nishio, Taeko knew from the men’s grave and subdued manner that their time was approaching. When Nishio declared his intentions, she burst into tears.
In strained silence, Nishio’s friends took turns filling the small sake cups. He and Taeko exchanged several drinks in a solemn, improvised ritual. In the meantime, other maids in the inn prepared a bridal bed for them.
There were no words the young couple could say to ease their agony. Finally Nishio got up. As if in a trance, Taeko also stood. “I want both of you to come with us,” Nishio said to his friends.
Nakane and Yasui were shocked. The tone of Nishio’s voice and the look on his face told his friends that he was serious, but they could not bring themselves to comply with is request. Finally realizing they were too embarrassed, Nishio led Taeko out of the room and down the hallway to the bridal room.
Two mattresses were laid out side by side. Nishio crawled into one of them, and Taeko got into the other. They joined hands and held onto each other tightly for several minutes, their eyes closed.
Finally, Nishio opened his eyes. “All right,” he said, standing up, “I can go now without feeling any anxiety.” Taeko stayed in the room. Beneath the quilt, she sobbed quietly.
The leader of the Thunder Gods’ Betty squadron, Lieutenant Commander Goro Nonaka, had made some final preparations as well, having already sent his personal belongings, including his favorite tea ceremony kit, home to his wife.
Always outspoken, Nonaka had been vocal in objecting to the Ohka plan. He had long been haunted by the memory of his brother, Shiro, who had been forced to kill himself following an ill-fated uprising against the government in 1936. Nonaka always carried Shiro’s picture. “According to the plan,” he complained to a fellow Betty squadron leader, “after the Bettys drop the Ohkas they will return to base to prepare for another flight. Do you think we can do such a thing? Our men, the ones we have been living with, are being escorted to their deaths in the bloodiest and most cold-hearted way possible. Do you think we can leave them and return again and again? On my first mission I’m going to crash-dive myself. There is no other way.”
As a Betty squadron leader, Nonaka had a house in the nearby town. In mid-January, as the time for their first mission grew closer, the Thunder Gods were allowed visits from their families. At the urging of Commander Motoharu Okamura, Nonaka went home late one evening to see his wife and children. It was exceptionally cold, and the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow. The following morning, standing outside the doorway preparing to leave, Nonaka was suddenly struck by the urge to dance with his wife. He held her as he hummed Strauss’ beautiful Frühlingsstimmen. As they danced they left a double circle of footprints in the snow.
On January 20, 1945, in response to Japan’s worsening position, the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, ordered the 11th Aviation Group, which now included the Thunder Gods Corps and the T-Attack Corps, to move to the Japanese island of Kyushu. The main force of the corps set up command headquarters at Kanoya Air Base in Kyushu. Members of the Betty squadron and the covering fighter squadron were dispersed among several other bases in the area.
When the Thunder Gods had been assigned their quarters they re-hoisted banners Nonaka had flown at Konoike reading “HI-RI-HO-KEN-TEN” and “NAMU-HACHIMAN-DAI-BOSATSU.” Both were favorite saying of the famous mid-14th century general Kusunoki Masashige, who had attempted to help the Emperor regain power from the ruling shogun and killed himself when he failed. HI-RI-HO-KEN-TEN was an acronym for “Irrationality can never match reason—Reach can never match law—Law can never match power—Power can never match Heaven.” The inscription on the second banner was a popular Buddhist prayer.
By late February, it had become obvious that the United States was planning a full-scale attack on the Japanese mainland. Massive air raids on Tokyo and surrounding industrial areas had begun, U.S. airplanes were making daily reconnaissance flights over Kyushu and the main island of Honshu, and movements of the U.S. submarines had become more intense and were extending closer to Japan.
On March 17, the commander-in-chief of the Fifth Naval Air Fleet, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, issued orders for the implementation of “First Tactics,” which called for a radar scout patrol that night, a torpedo attack on U.S. ships at dawn, and an attack by the Thunder Gods during the day.
The next day, the order for the Thunder Gods’ first mission came at 12:13 p.m. Okamura ordered 18 Bettys from the squadron at the Usa Naval Air Base, on northern Kyushu, to get ready. Working at a frantic pace, personnel at Usa pulled the Bettys out of their shelters and began bringing the Ohkas from their secret tunnels. Corps members not scheduled to participate in the mission helped the ground crews ferry the bombs across the runway to the waiting Bettys.
Suddenly, a group of U.S. dive-bombers burst through the clouds hanging over the field and began raining down bombs. The ground crews and their Thunder Gods helpers scattered. One after the other, the Bettys on the runway and several still in shelters went up in flames. One of the air raid shelters suffered a direct hit that killed several Thunder Gods. Miraculously, none of the Ohkas was hit.
Meanwhile, U.S. bombers also attacked Tomitaka Air Base, which housed the fighters intended to protect the Ohkas. When the bombing finally ended, approximately half of the fighters had been destroyed.
The Fifth Naval Air Fleet was trying to bring some order out of the chaos, but communications between the bases had been destroyed, so fleet headquarters could not fully assess the damage. Chief of Staff Toshiyuki Yokoi suggested to Vice Admiral Ugaki that he suspend all activity in order to preserve the few forces left.
Ugaki, however, decided to go for a knockout blow. At 8:10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 21, reconnaissance airplanes reported sighting two groups of U.S. warships only 320 miles off Kyushu. One of the groups included two aircraft carriers, apparently with no airplanes flying over them. The weather was clear. Ugaki and his staff reasoned that the carriers must have been damaged in an earlier Japanese attack and that there would never be a better opportunity to finish them off. He again ordered the Thunder Gods Corps to prepare for an attack.
There was tremendous excitement in the underground operations room of the Fifth Naval Air Fleet. Okamura worried about the few cover airplanes available for the mission. Yokoi nodded his understanding, then turned to Ugaki. “Sir, shall we wait for another chance?” he asked. The normally outspoken Nonaka remained silent, looking grim.
Ugaki stood up slowly, a determined look on his face. He faced Okamura directly. “If we can’t use the Ohkas in this situation, we will never have the chance to use them,” he said.
Okamura knew from the resolute tone of the vice admiral’s voice that there was nothing he could do. It was the most difficult thing he had done in his life, but he finally managed to say, “All right, sir. We’ll do it.”
The final decision made, Wing Commander Kunihiro Iwaki and Nonaka left the operations room and headed for the airfield. There was a slight breeze rustling the leaves of the bamboo trees on the hillside. Walking a few steps ahead of Iwaki, Nonaka was deep in though, pondering the life and death of the Kusunoki Masashige, whose words adorned one of his banners. Finally he turned to Iwaki. “Wing Commander,” he said, “there comes a time when things are so hopeless that even warriors have to die.”
Nonaka selected the best pilots in his squadron for the mission, dividing the 18 into six groups of three. Fifteen were to carry Thunder Gods and their Ohka bombs.
The 15 Thunder Gods and the mother airplane crews took clippings from their fingernails and hair and placed them in unpainted wooden funeral boxes for delivery to their parents. They took off their old clothes and burned them, putting on new uniforms. They then sat down and carefully wrote out their death statements. “My body will collapse like a falling cherry blossom, but my soul will live and protect this land forever,” wrote 23-year-old Reserve Sub-Lieutenant First Class Yuzuru Ogata. “Farewell. I am a glorious wild cherry blossom. I shall return to my mother’s place and bloom!”
In front of the headquarters building, the Thunder Gods who had not been chosen for the mission were all preparing farewell cups of sake for their colleagues. Many of them appeared more pale and nervous than those who knew they were about to die.
One of them, carrying a tray of drinks across the flight line, passed in front of a Betty just as the pilot turned on the engines for the routine preflight check. He was sucked into the propeller, thrown high into the air, and killed instantly. The dead Thunder God was quickly removed from the runway, but word of the accident flashed around the field, straining even more the ominous mood.
A drumroll was sounded, the signal for the Thunder Gods and the crews of the mother airplanes to line up in front of the headquarters building. The 15 Ohka pilots were wearing headbands that had been inscribed with the words “Thunder Gods” by Admiral Toyoda. Each one also had a sword in a brocade sheath strapped to his waist.
Nonaka, the overall leader of the mission, was wearing a white muffler. He unceremoniously sat down in a chair, holding his saber like a cane, with its tip resting on the tarmac. Beside him a large blue and white streamer and his two large banners flapped in the wind. The sky overhead was clear and blue. To the north were patches of white clouds. It was a beautiful early spring day.
The assembled men waited, growing more uneasy as each minute passed. Vice Admiral Ugaki was late. Finally he showed up, solemnly taking his place in front of the formation. Okamura was the first to speak, but it was hard to understand the commander because his voice was choked with tears.
“Today’s mission will not be an easy one,” he said. “But brave and resolute action will scatter even devils. With your passionate spirit of martyrdom, you will be able to overcome any kind of difficulty! You will succeed! Keep this conviction strong in your minds!”
Then Okamura’s voice failed him completely. Tears flowed freely down his face, and he looked as though he were going to pieces. He struggled to continue.
“Looking back, your serene state of mind and outstanding behavior since last November has impressed me. I could not be more proud of you. Now you will go into the next world. And just as you have been in this world, I pray that you will continue to be pure, beautiful, healthy, and cheerful. Your colleagues and I will soon be following you. Please remember the ties we had in this world!”
Ugaki, Okamura, and the other officers exchanged farewell cups of sake with the Ohka pilots and Betty crewmen.
The fighters had been pulled out of their shelters and were now on line. The ground crews began warming up the Bettys. Their whirling propellers glistened in the sun, and the roar of their engines filled the air.
Nonaka stalked to the front of the formation and turned to face the men. For several seconds he was silent, staring intently into each man’s face. Then he said in his impressively loud voice: “We will now make an attack on the enemy’s warships! Once you are in battle, do not hesitate. Attack aggressively and destroy your target regardless of all else. Let us fight to the death! Let us fill the Pacific with our blood!”
Nonaka turned to face Okamura, saluting him in his usual brusque fashion. “We go, Commander!” he said. Okamura returned his salute, his face drained of color.
Nonaka turned and signaled the men to break ranks and man their airplanes. The white flag went down. The roar from the airplanes’ engines drowned out everything else. The Bettys, their heavy Ohka bombs suspended from their bellies, lumbered down the runway like fat gooney birds. As soon as they were in the air, the fighters began taking off.
As they turned to the east, the two squadrons were joined by a third squadron of 23 assisting fighters that had taken off from adjoining Kasanbara Air Base. The group headed southeast. Seven months after the Ohka program was first proposed, the Thunder Gods were making their first sortie.
About half an hour later, half of the fighters returned to base with malfunctioning fuel pumps. Because there hadn’t been enough time to service the fighters properly, they hadn’t been able to draw fuel from their second tanks. The shock to those waiting at the airfield was considerable. But more was to come. Most of the airplanes that had taken off from Kasanbara had the same problem and had to return. Only 30 fighters were left to cover the entire mission.
To make things worse, a reconnaissance airplane flying ahead of the Thunder Gods radioed back that three groups of American ships were in the area, with three aircraft carriers in one group and two each in the others. Not only was the force much stronger than previously believed, each group was sure to have covering airplanes.
There had been no word over the radio at all from Nonaka. It had been agreed beforehand that he and his squadron would maintain complete radio silence throughout the mission, but now the waiting was almost unbearable.
Several members of the Fifth Naval Air Fleet staff wanted to scarp the mission and call Nonaka back. But Ugaki, waiting in the operations room, refused. “The Thunder Gods are right now face to face with the enemy,” he said. “I cannot bring those young boys back now after they have made up their minds to die. It would be too much for them to bear.”
It was then approaching 3 p.m., well after the time they mission should have reached the target area. Still there was no word from Nonaka. If the airplanes were still in the air, their fuel would soon be gone.
The air in the underground operations room was stale. The men sat around in silence, not trusting themselves to speak.
Just after dark, guards outside the tunnel reported the sound of an approaching airplane. A badly damaged Zero came in low from the bay and made a rough landing. It was followed by a second airplane. Both were pockmarked with bullet holes and streaked with oil. The pilots were exhausted, but between them they managed to tell what had happened to Nonaka’s squadron.
At about 2:20 p.m., when the squadron was some 50 to 60 miles from the U.S. fleet, it was suddenly attacked by about 50 American fighters. The 30 Japanese cover fighters fought back, but nine Bettys and two special-attack bombers were shot down in just over 10 minutes.
Unable to match the enemy in number or firepower, the 19 remaining fighters dispersed. Left unprotected, the mother airplanes jettisoned their unmanned Ohkas, dispersed, and began battling to save themselves. Within 10 minutes, the only airplanes surviving were Nonaka’s and three others. When one of the Zero pilots last saw them, the four were diving wing to wing toward the sea.
Altogether, 160 men had been lost, including the 15 Ohka pilots.
Inside the underground communications room, the radio man refused to turn his sets off, listening in vain for some final word from Nonaka. Outside, as searchlights swept the still dark sky, Nonaka’s HI-RI-HO-KEN-TEN banner fluttered quietly in the night breeze.
From Thunder Gods: The Kamikaze Pilots Tell Their Story by Hatsuho Naito, translated by Mayumi Ichikawa; published by Kodansha International, Ltd., copyright 1989. Printed by permission. All right reserved.