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The Tragedy of Kamikaze

Dec. 8, 2015

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor 74 years ago, thrusting the US into World War Two. Shaking with anger, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made an emotional speech to Congress.

"December 7th, 1941...a date which will live in infamy. We will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God."
Franklin D. Roosevelt / US President (1941)

The Japanese Imperial Navy's Zero fighter played a key role in the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time, the high-performance plane was Japan's main military aircraft. It is known to have achieved significant results in the early days of the war.

But as the conflict dragged on, the US gained the upper hand, helped by its material superiority and strategy.

Desperate for a breakthrough, the Japanese military came up with a new tactic, known as kamikaze suicide attacks. Pilots began sacrificing their own lives. Zero fighter planes became suicidal weapons. They were laden with explosives, and the pilots were told to slam them into enemy vessels.

Young pilots were ordered to carry out the hopeless missions with little training. Once a mission began, there was virtually no chance of survival. About 4,000 young Japanese pilots lost their lives. Almost all of them died without even reaching their targets.

A handful of survivors have long kept their stories to themselves. But they're starting to speak out, to let the younger generations know what it was really like.

Portraits of the fallen line the walls of the Chiran Peace Museum in southern Japan. Only young men died in the suicide attack operation during the closing stages of the Pacific War. Some of them were teenagers.

The museum stands on a former Japanese Imperial Army airfield. Pilots took off from here in planes packed with explosives; 439 of them never returned.

Masuo Minetoma was born and raised near the base. He was 15 when he worked here as a general assistant, lending a hand to aircraft mechanics. He recalls how he waved off the pilots almost every day. As he saw them off, he would tell them he'd be sure to follow them.

Kamikaze pilots' orders were to crash their planes-- loaded with bombs-- into enemy warships. The operation was conceived as a way to turn around Japan's flagging military position.

One plane was specially designed for suicide missions. The Ohka was stacked with explosives and carried underneath a large bomber before being released midair.

The pilots became heroes. It was believed the young men volunteered for their missions, in a moving aspect of the kamikaze tactic.

But a veteran fighter pilot says many of the heroes were actually coerced.

"There was a pretense that it was a voluntary mission. But once your name is written on a blackboard, that's the final decision."
Kaname Harada

Harada-- who's now 99 years old-- and other experienced pilots knew the kamikaze operation wasn't producing the intended military results. He was one of the few to refuse an order to take off on a suicide mission.

"It's not that I didn't want to die. We knew that all pilots were shot down on their way. I didn't want to die in vain."
Kaname Harada

Documents from the Japanese and US governments reveal kamikaze attacks produced almost no military results. Many of the aircraft were shot down before they reached their targets. Despite the reality, Japanese military leaders persisted with the approach.

They tried to boost the troops' morale by running a propaganda campaign that focused on the noble, brave spirit of kamikaze pilots who were prepared for self-sacrifice.

Masato Tajiri is a kamikaze survivor. The 93-year-old hasn't talked about his experience until now. During the war, he was tasked with preventing the US military from landing on Okinawa.

He said he was prepared to be called for a kamikaze mission because he was a pilot. But he was shocked when he saw the aircraft that had been assigned to him for the Okinawa operation.

It was an old model that had been used for training. It was slow, with no bullet-proofing and no radio. The plane was loaded with 500 kilograms of bombs on its wings.

"The plane was just staggering. It was ridiculous...hopeless for sure."
Masato Tajiri

Tajiri was issued with a sortie order. He prepared himself, hopped on board, and started the engine. But when he was about to leave, he saw a sign saying the mission was cancelled.

After that, he waited to be called up for another suicide mission. But before long, the war ended. Tajiri says he is telling his story now so that people understand how cruel and irrational the operation was.

"I think military superiors at that time regarded the lives of pilots, or any other human beings, as worthless vermin. I can never forgive those who planned the miserable suicide operations. They kept themselves in safe areas and let us go on missions one after another. They lived comfortably long after the war ended."
Masato Tajiri

The survivors are worried about a growing sentiment that glorifies kamikaze attacks, both within Japan and overseas. They say the kamikaze tactic should be remembered as a mistake-- never to be repeated.