Japan's kamikaze pilots regret survival
Tokyo - More than half a century after World War II, veterans of Japan's suicide fighters are still haunted by regret that they survived their kamikaze missions.
"When the war was over, the first thing I said to myself was 'Damn, I failed to die'," said Hiroshi Shinjo, 77-year-old former navy pilot of the Kamikaze Special Attack Force.
"I was ashamed because we all thought we were born to die in war," Shinjo said.
"I felt some happiness when I married and had kids, but I still cannot find any excuse for my survival to my comrades and juniors who completed their attack and died before me," he said, eyes closed.
"My mission now is to continue holding memorial services several times a year in honour of my late comrades in arms, until I finally die," said the pilot of the famous aircraft, known as "zerosen" in Japan.
On Sunday, Japanese war veterans, including some 900 surviving zerosen crew members, mourned the souls of late warriors on the 54th anniversary of Japan's surrender.
Kamikaze pilots were war-time heroes in Japan with their lethal sacrifices often making front-page news. Now, they are mostly forgotten and many of them live quiet lives without speaking in public of their past.
The suicide diving squad was first formed in 1944 in a desperate effort to fight the Allies. Kamikaze crew members carried out the deadly missions mainly with the zero fighter.
"I missed the chance to die twice as the zerosens I was supposed to pilot were destroyed by the US military just before my mission," said Morimasa Yunokawa, another zero-fighter pilot.
"When we finally noticed our defeat, some pilots said we should commit suicide to follow the late comrades, but we were ordered not to do so," the 77-year-old former lieutenant said.
"When the war ended, only five, including me, survived in my 54-member unit. Maybe this was my destiny," he said.
Even after late emperor Hirohito declared the surrender on August 15, 1945, on the radio, 18 determined kamikaze pilots dared to attack Allied ships in Okinawa.
Perhaps the toughest missions of the force were code-named Cherryblossom, in which mother aircraft released single-use bombers crewed with one pilot against Allied ships.
The six-metre aircraft were powered by engines that lasted only 27 seconds. They had no propellers and were nicknamed "stupid bombers" by the Allies.
Even the emperor hesitated to give approval for those missions.
"When I saw the aircraft, my knees trembled with fear," Shinjo admitted. "I thought I had really given up my life when I saw the aircraft."
The fiercest attacks were carried out in Okinawa, where the Japanese employed more than 2 000 planes for suicide attacks. The Allies declared 34 ships sunk and 288 damaged by kamikaze missions.
While zero fighter pilots are nostalgic for their air battles against former US enemies, most of them concede the concept of the mission was a mistake.
"I still display a zerosen plastic model in my room, which reminds me of the good old days," said Shinjo.
"You couldn't say our comrades died a dog's death, but the 100-percent guaranteed death mission was plain wrong," he said.
"The most painful moment was when I had to choose pilots for the mission from my unit and saw the chosen men write a will to their families, cut their nails and get their hair cut ready for the attack," Shinjo said.
"I told myself: 'I will follow you soon'. But the war ended before I could carry out my promise," he said.
Bokugun Tsuchiyama, a 75-year-old zero fighter pilot, said: "My colleagues were killed by the military top brass who created a system which did not treat us as human beings.
"I am still proud as a zero fighter pilot," he added. "But when I recall my late colleagues, I don't bear hatred for those high-ranking officials but it is something very close to that." - Sapa-AFP