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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Zero Pilot's Final Message

Jun. 17, 2015

Nearly 70 years have passed since the last shots were fired in World War Two. One man has used much of that time to share his experiences from the frontlines. His goal is to make younger generations understand the tragedy of war. Kaname Harada has long spoken of the fierce battles he fought in. But old age is catching up with him, leading him to decide to stop speaking to large audiences.

Now 98 years old, Harada signed up for the Imperial Japanese Navy at the age of 17. He participated in many battles in the Pacific, including the attack on Pearl Harbor.

He flew a Zero fighter, which was the pride of the Imperial Navy. The plane’s speed and agility surpassed any other fighter plane at the beginning of the war. “I had absolute confidence that if I flew that plane, I would never lose,” Harada remembers.

But his achievements as a pilot are not what remain in Harada’s memory today. “I can’t forget the agonized face of the enemy pilot when I shot him down,” he says. “I remember it clearly because our planes were very close, almost touching. When I shot him, I thought that he must have been in a lot of pain.”

At first, the Zero fighter prevailed, but its glory didn’t last. The US introduced plane after plane, each more powerful than the last.

Harada’s Zero fighter was finally shot down. “I was hit in the arm by a 13 millimeter bullet and the fuel tank was ruptured,” he recalls. “Gasoline was spilling out. Luckily, there was no fire and I stopped the bleeding in my arm with a tourniquet.”

Harada crash landed on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal. He was miraculously rescued and was able to return to Japan. Then the war came to an end.

For many years, he never talked about his experience. He wanted to forget everything. But the Gulf War in 1991 changed his mind. “I felt terrible seeing those bombs dropping,” he recalls. “I heard that when young people saw the same scenes, they said they were like fireworks, entertaining to watch. I thought that was seriously wrong. I decided to talk to people about my war experience.”

Since then, he has been traveling to meet audiences and share his experiences. But he will soon reach the age of 99, and it’s no longer physically possible for him to stand in front of a large audience. He decided to end his series of lectures.

Many young people were in the 300-member audience for his last lecture on June 14. “On the frontline, you have to find the enemy before they find you, otherwise you die,” Harada told them. “That’s the nature of war.”

Harada talked about the day he tried to rescue a young pilot trapped in the wreckage of his plane. “The soldier said that he was ready to give up,” Harada explained. “He asked me to take some of his hair and fingernails to his mother and tell her about his last hours. I told him that he had to live. But he said he was done, and as I watched, his voice faded and he died.”

Harada spoke for two hours, filling the hall with his message of peace. One of the attendees remarked that “first-hand accounts of war may create a chance for people to think differently.” Another said it was “good to hear the stories of someone who survived such harsh experiences.”

Although Harada says he will no longer speak to large groups, he plans to keep talking about the tragedy of war when people visit him at his home. “I’ve experienced war from the cockpit of a Zero fighter plane,” he says. “The peace we enjoy today did not just come naturally. This precious peace arose from great damage around the world. I want young people to protect this peace, so that it will continue. "

NHK World’s investigative correspondent Yoichiro Tateiwa joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Are we running out of time to hear personal experiences from those who fought in World War Two?

Tateiwa: Most of those who took part in frontline battles are now over the age of 90. There’s only a few who can talk about their experiences the way Harada has. Even for him, the memories are beginning to fade. He says it’s becoming difficult to recall his wartime experiences.

Beppu: I imagine retired soldiers wanting to brag about the bravery they showed in battle, but Harada isn’t like that. Did he have doubts from the beginning about Japan’s military policy, and the war itself?

Tateiwa: He was a sailor at first, but he volunteered to become a pilot, an elite Zero fighter pilot. He says he was told to be prepared to die for his country and he accepted that without any hesitation. In actual battle, he learned that life was treated cheaply. He says, with a sense of regret, that this was especially true in the Imperial Japanese military. Harada is a veteran among veterans. He flew more than 8,000 hours in Zero fighters. It is a miracle that anyone could survive so many hours in combat. The Zero was designed with absolutely no protection for its pilot, in an effort to improve the aircraft’s speed, agility and range. Harada told me that he was shocked to find out how cheap his life was treated by his country. He says the Kamikaze philosophy is worse, that it reflects a callous disregard for human life. As the war intensified, Zero fighter pilots were ordered to crash into US warships loaded with bombs. They were called “voluntary missions,” but it was just another form of military order. Harada rejected this so called “voluntary mission,” and said the planes would be shot down before they had a chance to accomplish their mission.

Beppu: We often see suicide bomb attacks being carried out by extremists in the Middle East. The organizers of the suicide bombings hold up Kamikaze attacks as an ideal model. What does Mr Harada say about that?

Tateiwa: Harada says every soldier he saw die on the battlefield called out for their mother at the end. People said at the time that young Kamikaze pilots voluntarily sacrificed their lives for sake of Emperor or their country, but he says that was not his experience. As you mentioned, conflicts continue around the world, and people’s lives are still being treated carelessly. Harada says those who order suicide bombings should learn from the lesson of Japan. He says there is no greater good than human life. I hope that the message of this former pilot, who is nearly 100, will reach people around the globe.