On June 28, 1945, Ensign Minoru Kuge died
in a special (suicide) attack at the age of
22 when submarine I-36 launched his kaiten manned torpedo at two enemy
destroyers. On June 4, 1945, submarine I-36 made a sortie from Hikari Kaiten Base in Yamaguchi
Prefecture with six kaiten pilots who were members of the Kaiten
Special Attack Corps Todoroki Unit. Submarine I-36 headed for a patrol
off the Mariana Islands. Kuge had been out on two prior kaiten missions with the Kongō Unit and Tenmu Unit but had to return to base because of mechanical
problems with his kaiten. He was from Ōsaka
Prefecture, attended Ōsaka University of Commerce, and was a member of the 4th
Class of Navy Branch Reserve Students (Heika Yobi Gakusei). He received a
promotion to Ensign after his death by special attack.
On June 21, 1945, 17 days after leaving base, submarine I-36 surfaced, and it
was determined that all of the six kaiten weapons had mechanical problems. The
problems for three kaiten were repaired by June 24, but the other three remained
inoperable. Sometime between June 24 and Kuge's launch in a kaiten on June 28,
he wrote in his diary the following entry to base personnel about the three kaiten
pilots who would be returning to base:
Flight Petty Officer 1st Class Yutaka Yokota (1962, 211-51), one of the six
Todoroki Unit kaiten pilots on submarine I-36, writes about the training and
mission of the Todoroki Unit in his wartime memoir Kamikaze Submarine. On June 28
at 11 a.m., a large enemy transport was sighted by submarine I-36, and the
captain fired one of the kaiten human torpedoes. Soon afterward an enemy
destroyer started to drop depth changes to try to sink the submarine that had
launched the kaiten. The excerpt below from Yokota (1962, 237-44) picks up the
story after submarine I-36 already had suffered over 50 depth charges:
Nevertheless, we were at that moment helpless. Reports throughout I-36
showed we had many leaks. We were losing electrical power, too, as
connections were torn loose and instruments shattered by vibration. It would
not take many more attacks before I-36 lost this battle. Those last depth
charges were not as close as the others. They exploded well below us. But
more charges did not have to be close, with the condition we were in. It
would not take heavy blows to kill us off. Light ones, near-misses, could
finish the job. Their vibrations could crack open our battery banks, loosing
poison gas on us, or widen the holes in I-36, letting in sea water. The
situation was hopeless.
At that moment Ensign Kuge, who had righted the wardroom sofa and was
sitting on it, stood up.
"I will go!" he said.
He went to the conning tower and faced Captain Sugamasa. "My kaiten
still works, Sir," he said. "Let me go off and get that destroyer."
"Thank you for your offer, Kuge," said the captain, "but it is
impossible. Even if your weapon survived this battering, even if its engine
still works, I'm almost certain its electrical equipment won't work. Look at
what the depth charges have done to electrical appliances inside this
"Let me go, Captain," Kuge kept urging. "Let me go!" He, like I, felt it
was preferable to die in battle on his kaiten rather than like a
whipped and helpless dog here in the hull.
"But suppose your electrical rudder control is demolished?" said the
captain. "You could not possibly steer your kaiten by hand."
Those words! The officers at Otsujima should have heard Sugamasa now.
Especially the one who said we should turn over our propellers by hand if
necessary. Still, Kuge insisted he should be sent off. "We can't just wait
here for the enemy to kill us!" he said.
Perhaps Sugamasa yet had hopes that his skill in maneuvering I-36 would
get us out of this trap. Or perhaps that change of heart Sonoda spoke of
made him feel his responsibility toward kaiten men more. Perhaps he
interpreted Kuge's volunteering as simply a desire to die and prove those
Otsujima officers wrong. In any case, he still refused permission.
I-36 Captain Tesshō Sugamasa (front 4th from left)
Todoroki Unit kaiten pilots: (from front left)
Hidemasa Yanagiya, Yutaka Yokota, Ichirō Sonoda,
(from front right) Eizō Nomura, Minoru Kuge, Nobuo Ikebuchi
Kuge's voice rose. He explained that he had plenty of training, and said
he was confident he could stop this attacker. They were still arguing when
the destroyer came back to make its fifth attack on us. The argument broke
off as more depth charges exploded near I-36.
This set slammed the big submarine to one side so hard that every man was
thrown to the deck, or against the opposite bulkhead. As the explosions died
away I-36 rolled far to one side heavily, recovered slowly, and her
fore-and-aft list increased. Our bow was now pointing upward much more than
fifteen degrees. Walking through the ship was like climbing the steep side
of Fuji-san, the sacred mountain only a few miles from my home in
"All men not actually on watch," called out Sugamasa, "assemble in the
forward torpedo room!" Dozens of men passed the wardroom, each one carrying
some loose piece of heavy equipment. The stern had to be lightened and the
bow made heavier, or else we could slip backward and keep slipping until we
were at the ocean's bottom and dead. I joined the crewmen, and so did the
other kaiten men. All of us struggled uphill with bags of rice from
the submarine's provisions. We worked until we had filled most of the
forward torpedo room, but it did not make one bit of difference in the
ship's inclination. She still held that steep angle.
Most lights were gone now. In the pale glow of emergency lighting the
crew's faces were gaunt and shadowed, smeared with grease and perspiration.
So this is the way a submarine dies, I thought. This is how my friends had
met their deaths. It was nothing like the attack I had endured in I-47 back
near Bungo Strait weeks before. Here we simply sat, taking blow after blow,
awaiting the final one that would put an end to us all. There was no respite
from the assault. By the time I-36 stopped quivering, the enemy was back
again, pouring down his deadly shower upon us.
This time we could plainly make out ourselves that there were two sets of
screws above us. That first destroyer now had an assistant. Perhaps it was
the one that dodged Ikebuchi's kaiten. Where was Ikebuchi now? Dead,
no doubt. His fuel must have long since run out. He had probably used his
short sword to commit seppuku. We had heard no distant explosion, as
there would have been if Ikebuchi used his inside switch. He must have
continued on until his fuel was exhausted, then disemboweled himself. What
an end for a man so brave!
Each depth charge explosion made me think it would be the last one,
especially when those two destroyers crisscrossed above us in the sixth
attack. They knew exactly where we were. So far as they were concerned, I am
sure, it was simply a matter of time. All they were waiting for was the
telltale bubbling of black oil that would show our side was ripped open and
that we were sinking. It puzzled me how we could take the punishment dealt
out so far and survive.
Then came the seventh attack. Another dozen or so depth charges plummeted
down toward us. They, too, exploded below us. This was luck. Had they
realized what Captain Sugamasa was doing, the enemy destroyer commanders
would set their depth charges for shallower explosions. On our deck, in the
kaiten warheads, were fifteen thousand pounds of high explosives. If
one of the warheads went, we would be finished. So, perhaps, would one of
those destroyers, if it were overhead at the time. Its bottom could be
Over ninety depth charges had come down at us by that time. Still I-36
staggered on. I had reached the point where every nerve end was ragged. I
quaked constantly, and so did others I could see. In my palm I held a
celluloid container of potassium cyanide. I was sure the enemy would get us.
Once they made their sought-after direct hit, and water came rushing into
out hull, I was going to swallow the container's contents. I could not bear
to think of death by drowning, or suffocation.
It was now 3:00 p.m. We had been subjected to seven separate depth charge
attacks in two and one-half hours. Captain Sugamasa's voice came over the
loudspeaker. It was desperate-sounding.
"Kaiten men, get ready! Man kaiten Number Five and Number
Kuge was getting his wish at last. Yanagiya was also being sent to his
weapon. I shouted, "Good luck!" as they struggled along the slanted deck to
their access tubes. I wasn't sure whether Captain Sugamasa put any hope in
them, or whether he was simply giving them their wish, to die as kaiten
men should. Maybe he knew his own life was short, and wished to close it
with a grand gesture.
Mechanics had checked the kaiten. The electric rudder control was
inoperative in each one. They were dry, though, a miracle after all that
depth-charging. But Kuge and Yanagiya would have to employ manual rudder
control. It would be very difficult for them to maintain a course for the
All of us had practiced using manual control of rudder in training. It
made a kaiten zigzag terribly. If those destroyers were not close by
when our kaiten were launched from I-36, there would be little chance
of hitting them. The run-in would have to be short for success to be
achieved. The captain knew of this. It had made him reluctant to give
permission when Kuge first asked for it, hours before. But now one last
frantic effort had to be made to get the monsters off our backs.
There were no telephone connections to either kaiten. Both had
snapped loose during the attacks from above. Kuge and Yanagiya would have no
information from the conning tower on which to act. One hammer blow on the
hull would be the signal for Yanagiya to go off. Two hammer blows would be
the signal for Ensign Kuge.
Yanagiya's clamps were loosened, and a crewman swung a big hammer with
all his might against the hull. Then we waited. A second passed. Then
another. Then, welcome sound, we heard Yanagiya's propeller spin rapidly. He
moved away, and was off in search of the enemy.
How would he handle his kaiten, I wondered? Would his meters and
gauges give proper indications? At this moment we were at the 215-foot
level, having slid down to it in spite of every effort made within the
submarine, including the carrying of rice bags forward. Yanagiya would have
to climb almost vertically if he were to remain near I-36's location and
ambush the enemy.
Yanagiya's engine sound was still audible when a second crewman struck
the forward part of our hull twice. We heard the securing bands for Kuge's
kaiten snap open and fall on the deck, but there was no sound from
his engine. Would he simply float to the surface? If so, the enemy would
machine-gun his weapon. Could we survive the mighty explosion of his warhead
if it went off directly above us? These questions passed rapidly back and
forth among the group of men near me, and one said, "What difference? If
those kaiten are lost, we are lost too!"
We waited, breathless, wondering what would happen. Then, about thirty
seconds after Kuge's hold-down clamps had snapped, we heard a familiar
sound. His engine had started! What a wonder! the kaiten was an
unpredictable thing, I thought. In spite of scrupulous maintenance, those
engines often did not start at Hikari and Otsujima. Now we had two weapons
that had been exposed to the sea for twenty-five days, and had been beaten
badly by many depth charges. Yet they worked. Some things are simply
The next few minutes were very quiet. The kaiten engines faded,
and no destroyer propellers could be heard. Another ten minutes passed. It
was almost fifteen minutes since Yanagiya had been released. The two men
must be steaming toward their targets, those two destroyers.
Quite suddenly we heard several small explosions, quite a ways off,
followed by a giant one. A kaiten had detonated!
Hoarse cheers rose from our tired throats. "They did it!" we shrieked to
one another. "One of them got an enemy!" A charge of 3,000 pounds had gone
off, and we were sure in our minds one of the hunters above had been
destroyed. Tears of sorrow and joy for my comrades welled into my eyes. One
of them, at least, had fulfilled his destiny.
What of the other? Our sound room reported that only one destroyer could
now be detected. He seemed to be heading toward the spot where the big
explosion had occurred. He was dropping depth charges, the sound operator
said. They were very far away from us.
More depth charges were fired. We in the hull could make them out
faintly. We decided that this remaining enemy ship was pursuing the second
kaiten. One of our friends was saving our lives for us. He was
drawing off an attacker so I-36 could make an escape. How the enemy must
have been surprised, we told one another. At one moment he was thinking he
had a sure kill of a submarine. He was dropping depth charges as a hunter
fires cool shots at fleeing game. The next moment he was faced with two
giant, high-speed torpedoes, seeking to kill him instead.
More time passed. The sound of enemy screws disappeared completely. And
no more depth charges could be heard. Both the kaiten and that
destroyer must be somewhere far beyond the horizon. Captain Sugamasa changed
course and crept away as quietly as he could. A returning enemy would have
practically no chance of finding us now.
Thus did Petty Officer Yanagiya and Ensign Kuge save our submarine. Which
one had hit the destroyer, and which had played the decoy? Had it been Kuge
whose explosion we had heard? Had the shy Osaka man, who had written to his
brothers and sisters daily, killed off that threat? How fierce had been his
determination, this man who had suggested to Captain Sugamasa the idea of
firing kaiten from the depths! How paradoxical did his behavior seem
to people other than kaiten pilots, who knew him best? Kuge was so
shy and bashful that he had to pretend he had a sweetheart when other men
discussed the subject. On one occasion he showed us a picture of a lovely
young girl in her school uniform, and told us it was his lover's. It was not
until much later that we found out it was really a picture of his sister.
Had this modest, retiring person been the one who'd struck that mighty blow?
Or was it Yanagiya, who had to stay at home, working in a fishery, while
the rest of Japan's young men fought on far shores and distant seas? Growing
furious at each bad turn in the war, he had finally overcome his parents'
opposition and convinced them he had to fight for his country, even though
they had already given one son in death. What a warrior he had been! At
Tsuchiura this short, stocky man from the north had proven his aggressive
spirit beyond doubt. A wrestling party was held, with 100 cadet pilots
ordered to fight. Yanagiya was the only survivor, defeating all others after
they in turn had defeated their opponents. More than a score of cadets were
sent tumbling by his thick arms and body. Had it been this merry, honest
man, who made no pretense about his being from a humble home, who had driven
into the enemy's heart? Or had he foregone glory, to draw the second ship
away and aid us to escape?
We would never know.
Captain Sugamasa spoke to us over the loudspeaker, his words interrupted
"Attention, all hands!" he said. I wish everyone to make their best
efforts to repair the damage done to us. Ensign Kuge and Petty Officer
Yanagiya have just died heroes' deaths, as did Lieutenant Ikebuchi. Do not
let them die in vain! We will return to the base as quickly as we can, once
the damages are repaired. We will refit, and come out to fight again. We
will take our revenge for these three brave comrades. I give you my word I
will lead that fight myself!"
All around me men were weeping. The only clean spots on their dirty,
grease-smeared faces were where tears ran down them. I had wept on
occasion before, but this time it was different. These were tears of true
sorrow. They came up from the center of my being. This time I was not sorry
for myself. I grieved for those brave men, and their honest, heroic acts. I
actually wanted to return to port. I wanted to go to Hikari, get a new
kaiten, and came back out with Sugamasa after the enemy.
The writings come from Matsugi (1971, 120-1). The biographical and mission information
of submarine I-36 come from
Konada and Kataoka (2006, 249-58, 374-5), Matsugi (1971, 120), Mediasion (2006,
62-4, 85), and Yokota (1962, 211-51).