“My Body Will Collapse Like a Falling Cherry Blossom”

Memoirs of a suicide squadron survivor.

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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.

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