An Oka suicide attack airplane found in Okinawa Prefecture at the end of World War II (Provided by the Kamisu city board of education)
U.S. troops gave the nickname of “baka bomb” (idiot bomb) to one of the weapons used in Japan’s suicide attacks during the closing days of World War II.
The Oka (cherry blossom), Japan’s first manned rocket-propelled airplane, was designed to crash into an enemy vessel with 1.2 tons of explosives in its nose. It had to be carried underneath a Type 1 (G4M) land-based attack bomber, which discharged the Oka with one pilot aboard. The Oka was designed to fire its rocket immediately before reaching the target.
Although the Oka could reach a maximum speed of about 1,000 kph, it had a limited flying range, so its discharge meant death for the pilot. It was used in the Battle of Okinawa 70 years ago.
U.S. troops, who landed on Okinawa’s main island in April 1945, mobilized 550,000 personnel and waged a war of indiscriminate slaughter on the strength of their overwhelming material resources.
Japanese troops facing the offensive tried to draw on their limited war potential to sink U.S. aircraft carriers and other vessels. The key component in their strategy was the use of suicide attacks, including by the Navy’s kamikaze “special attack” units, such as the Oka squads. But the Oka units only succeeded in sinking or damaging a handful of enemy ships.
Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which faced the kamikaze attacks, left a cool-headed appraisal of the situation.
The U.S. troops were steadily improving their anti-kamikaze measures to such a point that they could spurn the threat of suicide attacks with confidence, Nimitz said in a memoir. He added that the suicide squads were also changing in nature, and they had almost run out of purely dedicated types who pursued glory out of their own will and with pleasure.
CHERRY BLOSSOMS 'FALL APART'
The last sortie of an Oka unit took place on June 22, 1945, when a fleet of six Oka attack planes and their carriers took off from Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, around 5:30 a.m. Four of them never returned, while the two others returned. The sortie, which resulted in 32 deaths in battle, ended in a virtual failure.
One of the planes that never returned spotted three enemy cruisers near Iejima island west of the main Okinawa island, according to battle outlines preserved at the museum of the Maritime Self-Defense Force Kanoya Air Base. Part of the document reads: “The plane prepared itself for an attack, but the Oka failed to drop. The plane faced shootings by two F6F enemy aircraft that had descended from among the clouds, went up in flames and exploded itself, with no military gains.”
Aboard one of the planes that never returned was Makoto Horie, a chief flight sergeant.
The 19-year-old native of Akita, who had been in a school gliding club, had a particular passion for aviation. He had volunteered to join the Navy’s preparatory flight training program.
He left no last will and testament. The only available clue to his inner feelings at the time is an airplane-shaped ornament, which he handed to his mother who came to see him. On the transparent surface of the ornament, which was made of processed windshield material, was engraved a verse that read: “Cherry blossoms/ So fine when in bloom/ And so fine when falling apart.”
“It was such a strange war,” said Hajime Horie, Makoto’s oldest brother two years his senior, who was a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army. “Even Isoroku Yamamoto (commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet) knew about the fathomless strength of the United States, didn’t he? I suppose the war could have been ended if only the emperor had ordered it to be ended.”
The Japanese troops in Okinawa ended their organized resistance the day after Makoto died.
One of the Oka pilots went missing immediately before the operation took place. The unit was about to go out on a sortie with a stand-in pilot when the missing one was found out.
He was discovered by writer Sohachi Yamaoka, a Navy war correspondent, who later went on to publish “Tokugawa Ieyasu,” a 26-volume historical novel.
Along with his colleagues, including future Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, Yamaoka kept close company with suicide squad members in Kanoya, and he knew very well about their lives. He grew so intimate with the young pilots that he asked them to leave messages in a notebook of autographs so that records of their feelings at the time of their sorties could be kept in their own handwriting.
The pilot who was exempted from going out on the sortie as a stand-in survived through the postwar period. He put his own retirement money to build stone monuments, in Kanoya and elsewhere, in memory of dead suicide squad members.
Yamaoka, on his part, set down in writing the life of warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate who ended an age of wars. When he finished writing the novel, Yamaoka dedicated his manuscript to “Kuchu Kannon” (Aerial Avalokitesvara), a worship hall that he built on the premises of his home garden, to tell the spirits of suicide squad members about what he had achieved.
A pressing desire to hand down to posterity a tragedy witnessed from close by probably found embodiment in the form of monuments and a novel.
‘MAY JAPAN BE A FINE COUNTRY’
Members of generations that never experienced the war face the question of how they should view the suicide attacks: as an ultimate form of self-sacrifice, or as “baka bombs”?
Film producer Shohei Kotaki has been involved in the making of movies themed on Japan’s suicide squads, such as “Fly Boys, Fly!” (1995) and “Last Operations under the Orion” (2009).
Kotaki, who has met many former members of suicide squads, said he has done his best to reproduce historical facts and avoid excessive empathy, such as glorification or condemnation.
Kotaki once received a letter from a former Oka squad member who had watched one of his films, part of which read, “My war comrades at the time crashed and sacrificed their lives in the belief that their nation is a fine country.” Another part of the letter read, “May this nation be a fine country.”
I reflect on the heavy presence of U.S. military bases that continues in Okinawa, and the conduct of politicians who are so eager to emasculate the Constitution, in asking myself once again: Is this nation a “fine country”?
“If I give my body to be burned but do not have love, I gain nothing,” says a passage from Chapter 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians in the New Testament, a chapter that Makoto loved reading.
Perhaps one of the things we can do is to constantly ask whether Japan has grown into a nation that deserves the love of the pilots who gave their bodies to be burned.
By TSUYOSHI KOMANO/ Senior Staff Writer Asahi Shimbun