During the final year of World War II in the Pacific, close to 4,000 airmen from Japan's Imperial Army and Navy would willingly give their lives as kamikaze. Literally translated, kamikaze means "divine wind." The pilots were sent on suicide missions to protect their homeland, as part of Japan's last-ditch effort to cripple the American Navy. The Japanese Navy had ceased to be an effective fighting force after the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October of 1944.
Coerced to Join
Masayuki Shimada was just 17 years old when he began his formal training at the Tokyo Army Flight School in October 1942. After two years of intense study and training, Masayuki was sent to China where he learned to fly fighter planes. In February 1945 he and his fellow pilots were called to a meeting with their commanding officer. Their leader told them that the war Japan was fighting was difficult. The enemy forces in Okinawa needed to be stopped to prevent an invasion of mainland Japan. He told the men these were glorious missions for their country and asked for volunteers to join the Special Attack Corps.
"We were given an application form and were told to circle one of the three choices: 'I have an ardent desire to join the forces'; 'I wish to join the forces'; and 'I do not wish to join the forces'. All of us without exception circled 'I have an ardent desire to join'. If you chose 'I do not wish to join', anything could happen. It was practically a coercive order to us."
"Destined to Die"
Those who volunteered for the suicide missions would forever be honored at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where Japan honored its war dead as gods. Shimada was one of twelve pilots selected for the special corps."Being pilots, we knew that we were going to die in battle sooner or later. Since we were destined to die, we wanted to die a glorious death on a special attack mission."
In May 1945 Shimada joined others of the Special Attack Forces on Kyushu in southern Japan. His mission would take him to Okinawa, targeting the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Before departing, the pilots wrote farewell letters home, cut pieces of hair and nail, wrapped them in white paper and, along with all their other belongings, placed them in a box to be mailed home to their families. Shimada also included poems that he wrote while in China, along with drawings he made of his mother.
"I myself did not get emotional when I wrote my farewell letter because I had already made up my mind."
On June 3, after receiving a speech of encouragement from their leader, the pilots drank a toast, said good-bye and took to the skies, headed for Okinawa. As Shimada neared his target, he tried to gain altitude to attack, but an oil leak caused his plane to stall and crash.
"I woke up to realize that I was lying in a room in a farmhouse. I felt pain in my head. I reached up and found that I was wearing a bandage around my head. At first, I was at a loss as to why I was there. Gradually I remembered what had happened: I had to make an emergency landing and my plane was overturned. However, I could not feel any joy for being alive. Instead, I regretted that I survived without accomplishing my mission. As night fell, the sound of ocean waves became distinct. It was too painful to hear the sound of the waves because all my comrades successfully made the attack and were dead under the water. I lamented that I alone was left behind."
It took over a month for Mr. Shimada to make his way back to the air base. His return was an unpleasant surprise for his superiors.
"I said, 'I wish to go on another mission. Please prepare a plane for me.' To my surprise the officer was angry and yelled at me, 'How could you come back alive? You must have spared your own life...' I was angry, and my hands were trembling with rage. They called us war gods. For the first time I realized that I was regarded merely as part of the plane. Isn't it natural that I decided not to sacrifice my life again?"
Military leaders in Japan had planned on using more than 5,000 kamikaze aircraft to attack American forces in a projected U.S. invasion of Kyushu. The war ended in August 1945 before the American invasion took place, and before another plane was procured for Masayuki Shimada. He lives today in Matsumoto, Japan, where he owns a trophy-selling business.
My American Experience
Were you there for the storming of Normandy beach? The Bombing of Germany? The Victory in the Pacific? Or perhaps your friends and relatives have passed on stories of their own World War II experiences that you would like to share.