Spiritual Foundation of Kamikaze Special Attack Corps Members
by Senri Nagasue
Senri Nagasue is a former pilot in the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps
Yashima Unit. He authored several books on kamikaze pilots and created a large
website called Aozora no hateni (To the blue sky's end)
with many stories about the Kamikaze Corps.
During the war we were welcomed with a sense of reverent awe, but after the
war even the Special Attack Corps (tokkōtai) came to be viewed as nothing more
than having died in vain. In addition, there are some people who regard them in
the same light as terrorist suicide bombers. In the last part of war, I
continued training as a Kamikaze Special Attack Corps pilot while on standby.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to sortie on a
mission and was able to be demobilized and sent home. I would like to share my
experiences from those days.
I was born in February 1927 and am now 80 years old. I am filled with emotion
when I look back a little more than 60 years ago. In 1943 at the age of 16, I
joined the Kagoshima Naval Air Group as a student in the Kō Class of the
Yokaren, the Navy's Preparatory Flight Training Program. In those days it was
called "Yokaren" for short.
I received basic training in Kagoshima to be an aircraft crewmember. It
included basic knowledge in subjects such as signaling, communications, and
meteorology. However, the most important area was physical training to make
one's body fit to serve as a crewmember. The morning was mainly classroom
learning, and in the afternoon we participated in martial arts such as judo,
kendo, and bayonet drills. Also, we had swimming and cutter rowing in the summer
and 10,000-meter races and ball games such as rugby in the fall. In the winter,
we had various types of training such as sumo.
During the middle of Yokaren training, we were classified as either pilots or
navigators based on aptitude. I was selected to be a pilot. Also, information
was crammed in related to several specialized fields. For pilots, plane
maintenance and glider training were added. This basic training originally was
12 months, but our training was shortened to eight months due to the critical
In March 1944, I successfully graduated from the Yokaren. We who were
designated as pilots for land-based aircraft transferred to Yatabe Air Group in
Ibaraki Prefecture. There I flew a biplane trainer commonly known as Akatonbo
(Red Dragonfly), and I was taught flying skills from the beginning. I graduated
from there in July after finishing four months of training. Next we were
separated into different plane types such as fighters, bombers, and torpedo
bombers, and we were scheduled to receive training in a specific plane type.
I was appointed to carrier-based attack planes, so-called torpedo bombers,
and it was decided that I would receive flight training at Hyakurihara Air
Base. This training location for torpedo bombers during the Pacific War was off
the coast of famous Ōarai, the birthplace of the renowned folk song "Isobushi."
At the end of December, I graduated from flight training, and at last I was
put in an actual fighting unit. I was assigned to the 903rd Air Group, the core
of the offshore defense force. There was a reason for this. When my training at
Hyakurihara was nearing an end, I was named to be a group leader. At the time
I was told that there was an official report that on the previous October 26th a
transport ship was attacked on the way to the Philippines by an enemy submarine
and that my oldest brother who had been aboard had died. Also, I was encouraged
with the words, "Take revenge for your brother!" The group leader in charge of
personnel kept this incident in mind and assigned me to the offshore defense
force that attacked enemy submarines.
The 903rd Air Group was assigned duties of anti-submarine patrols and fleet
escorts. While carrying out these tasks, in the last part of March we received
transfer orders to go to Ōi Air Base. Ōi Air Group was a training air group
for navigators. For that reason, we gladly transferred, thinking that we would be
working as flight instructors.
Formation of Special Attack Squadrons
In February 1945, the Navy made organization changes in the air force to
strengthen aircraft fighting strength at the bases. They reorganized the 5th Air
Fleet, which deployed to Kyushu, in order to make preparations for the
southwestern islands off Kyushu called Nansei Shotō (Okinawa). Also, the 10th
Air Fleet was formed from the 11th, 12th, and 13th Combined Air Groups, which
until then had been training air groups. It was decided to use the 10th Air
Fleet in actual fighting as reserve strength for the 5th Air Fleet.
Having no idea about such things, in the last part of March, I transferred
from the 903rd Air Group to Ōi Air Group, under the command of the newly-formed
10th Air Fleet, with the expectation of being an instructor. However, the men
who received transfer orders were limited to all pilots. So from someone there
was whispering that we might be needed for special attacks (tokkō).
The invasion of Okinawa by the American Army began, and Japan's Ten
No. 1 Operation was put into operation on March 26. During that time we who were
newly assigned were carrying out flight training on Shiragiku trainers in
accordance with a change in plane types.
One day there was a message, "All flight squadron crewmembers, assemble
immediately at the projection auditorium!" What could it be? Thinking that a
special film probably would be shown to only crewmembers, I hurried to the
The commanding officer, division officers, and other officers assembled with
tense faces. It was somehow a gloomy atmosphere. At this place where all flight
squadron crewmembers were gathered, Captain Nara, Ōi Air Group Commanding
Officer, together with the base Commanders who wore their gold aiguillettes
(ornamental cords worn on shoulders) signifying their rank, went up to the
platform. They told us about staff officers of the 10th Air Fleet that had
recently been formed. Following this, we were told emphatically, "The speech
that you will hear now is an important military secret. Therefore, you must
never reveal it. Also, even between squadron members it must not be a subject of
conversation!" Tension filled the faces of listening crewmembers as we waited
The following summarizes the staff officer's speech that had been dispatched
from Air Fleet Headquarters:
I think you may be somewhat aware that currently there remains not one
aircraft carrier that can participate in battle. At the Battle of Midway,
Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, and Hiryū were sunk. At the
Battle of the Marianas, Taihō, Shōkaku, and Hiyō were
sunk, and over 300 aircraft and a large number of airmen were lost there.
Next, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, all of Japan's remaining carriers and
aircraft gathered there, and the 3rd Fleet, which attacked at full strength,
completely destroyed both our carriers and aircraft. Also, the battleship
Musashi and nearly all of the cruisers and other ships sank.
Furthermore, the war situation in the Philippines already is reaching a
terminal condition. Next the American forces might attack Taiwan or land
directly on the Japanese mainland. Regarding the means remaining at the time
of this difficult situation, there is no way other than body-crashing (taiatari)
attacks in which you will sink one ship with one plane. Accordingly, the
10th Air Fleet will form Kamikaze Special Attack Squadrons with all of its
planes and carry out "body-crashing attacks."
Based on fragmentary rumors, we realized a little about our losses in sea and
land battles on the southern battlefront. Also, the actions and battle results
of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps in the Philippines were announced
extensively. However, these were special actions by a small group of volunteers,
so we only considered these to be somebody else's affairs. For that reason I did
not dream that I would be put in the position where I personally would carry out
these "body-crashing attacks."
However, according to explanations from Air Fleet Staff, all planes would be
included in special attack squadrons. This was not asking for volunteers but
rather converting existing flight squadrons into special attack squadrons that
would carry out "body-crashing attacks." If this were so, then we were at the
brink from which we could no longer flee or hide.
Air Fleet Staff said, "There is no way other than body-crashing attacks in
which you will sink one ship with one plane." I felt, "All right, I will do it."
But on the other hand, there was an opposing thought, "I do not want to die yet.
Isn't there some other way?" There was nothing I could do with these types of
Usually flight crews placed in extreme danger did not think very deeply about
their own deaths. Even when they made sorties, they just intentionally sidestepped
the issue of life and death by believing that they personally would return
safely alive. However, even when regular bombers or torpedo bombers made sorties,
nobody could guarantee that they would be able to safely return alive.
Unrelated to speculations of us crewmen, the formation of the Kamikaze
Special Attack Corps was proceeding deliberately. Ōi Air Group originally was a
training air group with responsibility for providing specialized training for
navigators. However, training flights for students already had been cancelled at
this time, and the training air group was reborn as an operational unit through
The training air groups that provided training for pilots of carrier-based
attack aircraft, carrier-based bombers, fighters, and land-based attack planes
were reorganized into the 11th and 12th Combined Air Groups. The training air
groups that provided training for navigators were reorganized into the 13th
Combined Air Group. In addition, these three Combined Air Groups were combined
into the 10th Air Fleet, which formed Kamikaze Special Attack Squadrons from all
of its planes.
In those days, special attack squadrons were not formed based on volunteers.
Squadrons that up to that time had been in charge of flight training were
converted to special attack squadrons. I had no choice but to think for the
first time until then about death as something personal. For a normal sortie, no
matter how much the danger, some possibility remained of returning back alive.
As a result, a person could overcome anxieties by believing "I can come back
alive" and "bullets will not hit me."
However, that way of thinking regarding certain death in a "body-crashing
attack" was not accepted. I was driven by necessity to deal with "death" as a
reality, which I had been doing my utmost up to that time not to think about,
since I had been afraid in the corner of my heart to do so.
Ways That Special Attack Corps Members Thought About Death
When ordered to be a special attack squadron member, most men took two or
three days to prepare themselves, make up their minds, and sort out their
feelings toward death. Some men continued suffering for about a week. If they
were still undecided even after a week passed, there was no choice but to drop
In what way did special attack squadron members sort out their own feelings
toward death and prepare themselves for it? First, religion generally is thought
to be an important factor in dealing with death. My family members were
believers in Shinshū Buddhism. As a child, I had some interest in reciting
various Buddhist scriptures by sitting behind my mother when she faced the
At Buddhist memorial services, I often was deeply impressed listening to the
sermon of the priest as I recognized the impermanence of life in The
Letters of Rennyo Shōnin, which begin, "This is to deeply contemplate the
phase of transient human life . . ." However, no matter how much I believed in
paradise, it would still be "killing" even though the enemy. Consequently,
rather than heaven, wouldn't I go down to hell? As I began to think about such
things, I was more and more confused.
"That's it! My target is an enemy ship and not enemy soldiers!" I personally
found peace in my heart by making up my mind that way.
From my age and human experiences at that time, I was familiar with faith to
a degree. In comparison to that, the issue that needed to be dealt with was much
too large. Therefore, my faith fell short of a state of mind in which I could
affirm death by means of religion.
Next, there was the State Shintō teaching that states, "I live for an eternal
cause." Spiritual education in those days was summed up in this one point.
However, in the same manner as the aforementioned religion, I could not truly
grasp this and understand my own death by means of this.
My everyday conversations with other men included the following type of talk.
- "If we die in battle, we can become war heroes [literally "gods" or
"spirits" in Japanese] and be enshrined at
- "Yes, those who went before and will go after us will be at Yasukuni
Shrine. I'll go before and wait for you. Those who come late will serve the
- "Don't act dumb. Will war heroes be doing such things as serving tables?
Everyday we'll all drink as much sacred sake as we want with no need to do
- "Yes, we'll be war heroes. So from now on I'd sure like you to offer me
- "What are you saying? What you want offered to you is your mother's
Even though we jested with each other like this in our talk, I think that
probably not even one person really tried to deal with the issue of death by
seriously considering the idea of becoming a war hero and getting enshrined at
Humans die once. That being the case, in a greater or less degree there is
the attraction of wanting to leave behind a worthy reputation to future
generations. War heroes and Yasukuni Shrine were the only images after one's death
that could be imagined while alive. Heaven and hell were not mere fantasy
It was a fact that it was promised that we would be enshrined as war heroes at
Yasukuni Shrine if we admirably fought and died in battle. However, thinking of
that as the objective from the beginning would be blasphemy against the gods. We
understood State Shintō in the abstract, but it was as a means for imagining our
form after death in battle. We had no choice but to seek something else with
which to deal with death.
There was a way by resigning oneself to one's fate. Certainly there are
aspects of people's destiny that cannot be predicted. We fully realized the thin
line between life and death with examples of past battles and aircraft
accidents. Therefore, it was not strange that we felt this current situation had
something to do with fate.
However, since it can be described as a result, dealing with death through
fate is simply the theory of resignation. I was troubled since I could not
completely resign myself to death. Consequently, this was not a means of dealing
with death. The main point was not addressed with reason, and I was seeking
something that I could understand emotionally.
Being conscious of death, what I thought of foremost were the persons closest
to me, such as my parents and sisters. As a last resort, I dealt with the issue
of death using the idea that with my sacrifice the nation could survive and my
parents and sisters could live safely.
I think that the way of thinking for persons other than me was probably
essentially the same with only minor differences. To understand this subject, I
believe that there was deep love toward family. Depending on a person's age, the
object of his affection may have been his wife, children, or a woman he loved
and with whom he had exchanged promises.
Love of these family members made possible the important resolution to
sacrifice our lives. Changing places, when looking at this from the parent's
side, they also must have been overcome by complex feelings.
Parental love exceeds one's love for his parents
How will they take the tidings of today?
They came to experience in reality the above poem that Yoshida Shōin wrote at
his death. Even if you say it is on behalf of the country, there are no parents
who do not wish security for their children. It is truly callous if their mutual
love and trust ever became the motivating force for the aberrant behavior called
Feelings of Special Attack Corps Members
Training for our deaths continued in an atmosphere of "today you, tomorrow
me" in which we did not know when orders to make a sortie would come. Even though at
one time I had made up my mind to die, there were times in the middle of the
night I would suddenly wake up and let my thoughts race to my hometown. As I
wondered if there wasn't a way somehow to survive, often I was troubled about my
attachment to living and my not wanting to die yet.
In the beginning when special attack squadrons were formed, everyone in the
same way became silent and hid their resolve inside. However, as the days
passed, they soon became more cheerful than ever. I wonder if they had accepted
his own deaths, or perhaps this cheerfulness on the outside was a way to hide
the anguish in their hearts.
Even among classmates who confided in each other, they did not speak together
directly concerning this subject. That was because it was an issue that must be
resolved by oneself without allowing intervention by others. Even saying this,
it was heartless to let young men of 18 years of age with little human
experience come up with such answers.
However, in contrast with my usual inner conflict, only when piloting a plane
did my distractions not surface due to the tension of flying. Even when doing
ultra-low flying while training to die, I felt exhilaration rather than fear.
Even though training continued and my skills improved, my anxiety and fear of
death, far from disappearing, increased more and more. I felt that most likely I
could not sever my attachments to this life until the time of receiving orders
to sortie and making my last takeoff.
Perhaps it is possible that anyone choosing death will have extreme emotions
for a while. However, for us ordinary individuals, such a terrible situation of
accepting rationally one's own death and continuing this mental state for a
fixed time period is impossible to even imagine for people who have never
experienced it. I can judge this also from instances in which, on the occasion
of formation of "special attack squadrons," men who were usually bigmouths hid
by even going as far as feigning illness.
Changing viewpoints, perhaps that was the person's true nature. In the midst
of the gloomy atmosphere of "all planes special attack" like in those days, I
think even a person who made efforts to hide from death needed considerable
Others' hearts cannot be fathomed. Nevertheless, other men watched your own
appearance when you deliberately joined in everyone's conversations, amused
yourself in silly little topics, and forced yourself to behave cheerfully. They
also probably had the same kind of mental state as my own. When we were all
having a friendly chat together in a circle, there were many times someone
shuddered with uneasiness when something suddenly crossed his mind.
During the day, one could be distracted talking with the other men. However,
night was each person's own time. Not being able to sleep, again and again I was
flooded with hometown memories and imagined the unknown world after death.
Fretful days continued on as we wished for a brief moment of repose in this
transient life by putting out of our minds the distractions that popped into our
heads one after another without end.
Hopes of Bereaved Families
After the war there have been many opportunities to talk with members of
bereaved families at memorial services for the war dead and at classmate
reunions. Nearly all these families desire "proof of death in battle." They
understand that the remains of their sons or brothers will not come back since they
were airmen. However, instead of remains families ask for some evidence such as
mementos or writings to be able to acknowledge their deaths.
There are also some individuals who say that perhaps their sons or brothers
are still living somewhere since they cannot believe they died in battle. While
bereaved families may acknowledge death in battle on the outside, inside they
may strongly hope that they are still living.
In those days even if we petty officers wrote final letters, we did not have
a way to pass them to our parents or other family members. Families that
received mementos or letters were limited to a small number. There was no
opportunity for them to attend a traditional "Navy funeral" and receive the
items according to formal procedures. Nearly all families had to wait for a
favorable opportunity to find out some details.
As 1945 began, hardly any "Navy funerals" took place on the bases due to
disorder in public transportation caused by air raids. Therefore, only
brief notices of "died in battle at such and such location" were delivered to
most families. There were also many cases where even though there was a notice
it was delayed because of confusion in personnel administration, so it did not
get delivered until after the end of the war.
It is probably human nature that a bereaved family wants to know the final
circumstances of a son's death. What type of plane did he fly in? When and from
what base did he depart? Where was the attack? And how did he die in battle?
Fortunately, through cooperation of the National Institute for Defense Studies
and surviving classmates, the final circumstances of most airmen who died in
battle have been ascertained for the most part. As classmates it is our natural
One father who attended a memorial service said with grief and tears in his
eyes, "If someone could have taken his place, I would have died instead of him.
I wanted my son to live a long life." A mother told how she visited the sortie
base during heavy air raids to say farewell while he was alive. It was surely in
the minds of many mothers that they must say a final goodbye to the sons who they
had lovingly raised, but they had no way to do so.
Other mothers have said they prayed that their sons would return safely and vowed
to abstain from tea or salt. In those days there were parents who would have
exchanged or shortened their own lives for their children's to try to save them.
Parents prayed earnestly for their children's safety.
There is a proverb that says, "A pheasant in a burnt field, a night crane."
It is said that a pheasant caught in a grass fire will not fly away, but rather
will protect its chicks and die together with them. It is not necessary to
consider the wild birds. One is truly touched by how deep and unstoppable is the
love of these parents for their children.
Children willingly sacrifice themselves wishing to protect their parents, and
parents willing to offer themselves pray for their children's safety.
Considering this mutual love between family members, the origination of those
desperate "body-crashing attacks" was truly heartless. At the moment a pilot
crashed his plane, he must have had etched in his mind an image of his parents
full of affection for him.
Course of Special Attack Operations
In April 1945, special attack squadrons were formed at the same time as the
start of the Kikusui attacks. While doing "takeoff," "enemy contact," and
"attack (body crash)" flight training, spiritually I overcame my struggle with
attachment to life and fear of death. Perhaps anyone choosing death can have
intense emotions for a time. However, I think that such a grave situation of
accepting rationally one's own death and continuing this mental state for a set
time is impossible to even imagine for people who have never experienced it. My
classmates, who were 17 and 18 years of age, broke their attachments to this
world, took off on attacks from which they would not return, and died in battle
one after another.
The 13th Combined Air Group, made up of Air Groups at Suzuka, Ōi, Tokushima,
and Kōchi, formed special attack squadrons from Shiragiku training
planes. From Kikusui No. 7 Operation on May 24, these squadrons finally became
part of the 5th Air Fleet, proceeded to Kanoya Air Base and Kushira Air Base,
and carried out "body-crashing attacks" one after another. Through Kikusui No.
10 Operation on June 26, 118 planes did not return, and over 230 men gave their
lives in the skies.
Training for our deaths continued in an environment of "today you, tomorrow
me." One day when flight training ended, as I returned to the barracks (at that
time scattered in woods outside the base), I peacefully recalled the fields of
my hometown with flowers of Chinese milk vetch at the roadside. In the middle of
the night, I suddenly awakened and become concerned about the future of my
father and mother (my oldest brother had died in battle, and my next oldest
brother was at the front). Even though at one time I had made up my mind, I
often worried whether this was right.
The war situation was undergoing change during this time also, and special
attack operations against Okinawa were stopped after the Kikusui No. 10
Operation in late June. Along with this, I was relieved from standing by for
assignment to a special attack mission, and I was dispatched to the Tanaka Unit
at Suzuka Air Base. I was in charge of drilling and training navigators at
Suzuka Air Base. It was a complex mixed feeling of dissatisfaction toward such
an ordinary assignment of being a pilot working aboard training planes and a
sense of relief at being released from standing by for a special attack.
However, an invasion by American forces of the Japanese mainland was
expected, so for that purpose special attack squadrons were formed again on
August 5, and they were put on standby for special attacks. Also, in contrast to
training during the Battle of Okinawa, this time training occurred where day and
night were switched with the object being only nighttime attacks. In other
words, this irregular living led to flight training that was carried out only at
night, and we slept during the day in tunnels serving as air-raid shelters. We
did not hold to the easy notion of preferring simply to die, but rather we
intensified our efforts day and night on how to die with effectiveness.
In post-war assessments of special attack forces, writings appeared that
covered only battle results. However, if one truly evaluates this matter, I
think one must assess the mental state, or special attack spirit, that reached
the point where young men of less than 20 years old carried out their duty with
their lives for whatever their reasons.
As stated above, I believe that "love" toward family is the way to simply
describe the spiritual foundation of special attack squadron members. Love of
one's country or people is not an abstract theory, and true love is a
subjective, unilateral, and self-sacrificing act. It should be realized that it
is something that cannot be reasoned. In time of emergency, a relationship of
mutual trust formed with deep love becomes the motivating force to realize
Translated by Bill Gordon
The original Japanese version of this essay can be found on Senri Nagasue's
web site at:
The English translation of the sections on "I Do Not Yet Want to Die!" and "Last
Letters and Writings" are not included on this web page.
Spiritual Foundation of Kamikaze Special Attack Corps Members