“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.