A Vital Explanation
hyly expectant, typically reserved and polite, Yasuo Ku – wahara was only twenty-six, I myself a year younger, when we met at Camp Kobe where I was stationed with the United States Army. The time was summer, 1955, three years following the Occupation, there between the two great cities of Kobe and Osaka, and Kuwahara was one of many Japanese nationals employed at that base. Except for his eyes, I would have imagined him to be even younger-eyes that smoldered within their depths as though they had absorbed much hardship and violence. The eyes, it seemed, of one who had trained, as he maintained, to become a suicide pilot, a Kamikaze, only to be preserved by an ironic and terrible quirk of fate toward the war’s end.
Following that first encounter involving Kuwahara’s brief and amazing summation of his experiences, we met for an hour each day until my departure ten months later. Our goal was to collaborate on a book in that regard. During the course of those interviews, I asked him thousands of questions, taking copious notes on an ancient upright typewriter, and with each visit his story became more astounding. Simultaneously, we developed a close and highly valued friendship, and I never had the slightest reason to doubt anything he related. Kuwahara answered every question, no matter how difficult or technical, with marked insight and authority, rarely hesitating, and never seemed to contradict himself. Furthermore, everything he related corresponded perfectly with all that I was studying on the subject.
Consequently, I became increasingly confident of his account’s validity as it unfolded. Nevertheless, as the time approached for my departure from Japan and the military, I advised Kuwahara that any prospective publisher might naturally request supportive evidence by way of witnesses to his experiences, and he readily concurred. I then summarized, in a few sentences each, eighteen of the main and most pivotal events from his account which he translated into Japanese. Of special significance among them were the following:
1. His first-place championship as pilot in the National High School Glider Contest
2. Resultant induction at only age fifteen into the Japanese Army Air Force
3. Brutal survival-of-the-fittest basic training during which nine of his squadron committed suicide
4. Qualification for fighter pilot school
5. Ferocious aerial combat
6. Flying of fighter escort missions over Okinawa for his fated Kamikaze comrades
7. Near death in the process from the American enemy and a tremendous thunder storm
8. Receipt of his suicide orders
9. His ultimate, staggeringly ironic, escape from death because of the most horrible destruction ever visited upon mankind.
The entire list of eighteen key events, in both English and Japanese, was then sent to three individuals with whom Kuwahara claimed to have been closely associated during his year and a half in the Air Force. One was Capt. Yoshiro Tsubaki, his base commander at Hiro, and later at Oita, who allegedly issued Kuwahara his suicide orders in person there. The second and third were his fellow pilots and prospective Kamikaze, Seiji Hiroi, and another person whose name I have lost over the years.
About two weeks after their mailing, the lists were signed and returned by Tsubaki and Hiroi. Then, after several more days awaiting a reply from the third pilot, Kuwahara asked me if we should move ahead without it. To this I agreed because my time in Japan with the military was nearly over. It should be stressed, however, that Kuwahara knew without question that I might be writing to both Tsubaki and Hiroi before long at the addresses listed under their signatures.
Following my return to Salt Lake City, in 1956, I published a condensed version of Kuwahara’s account in Cavalier, a national men’s magazine, and was contacted soon afterward by Ballantine Books inquiring whether I had sufficient material for a book-length work on that subject. Fortunately, as explained, that had been my intention from the onset. Neither the magazine’s senior editor James O’Connell nor the book publisher lan Ballantine, however, required more than my word regarding Tsubaki and Hiroi. Therefore, I never attempted to contact them.
The resulting book Kamikaze was finished within the following year and first reached the stands in 1957. Happily, for both me and my friend Yasuo, it did very well, eventually being translated into several languages, and selling over half a million copies.
Ever since then readers have invariably said that they “couldn’t put it down,” or “stayed up all night reading it,” that it is “the most exciting story” they have ever encountered, etc. Throughout its history Kamikaze has been, and still is at times, adopted as assigned reading for various high school and college literary courses in both Utah, my home state, and other parts of the nation.
Often readers have also insisted that Kamikaze would make a splendid movie. Over the years, in fact, I have been contacted by eight prospective movie marketers or producers, all highly enthusiastic about this work’s potential as cinema. Unfortunately, none of them ever realized their objectives mainly because of filming difficulties and production costs. Nevertheless, the interest is still there, and any expenses should be significantly lower because of miraculous advancements in filming techniques including special effects. Surely the Kamikaze war was the strangest and in many ways most dramatic ever waged. One wherein nearly five thousand young men were converted by their leaders into hu
man bombs as the suicide pilots who lived to die and caused the greatest losses in the history of our United States Navy.
Few people will ever comprehend the feelings of those men who covenanted with death. Countless individuals, of course, have entered the inferno of war, knowing that their chances for survival were poor, and throughout time men have sacrificed their lives for others and the causes they have espoused. Never have so many human beings, however, unitedly and deliberately agreed to die for their country without hope of any alternative. Where, before or since, have so many specifically planned and trained for their own annihilation, mulling over every aspect and minute detail, for weeks, sometimes months, in advance?
There are, of course, certain obvious parallels between the Japanese suicide war and the attacks frequently launched or attempted almost daily at present by individuals and smaller groups of Islamic terrorists. There are also significant differences which can barely be touched upon in this commentary. I will simply stress here, that today’s terrorists are often killing themselves to destroy so-called “infidels” – all those including innocent women and children—who do not endorse their benighted and despotic view of the world. Conversely, the Kamikaze, however reprehensible their actions to many people, attempted to reverse the misfortunes of war by attacking America’s navy and almost exclusively from the sky.
No one, in any event, except the few vanishing survivors of that experience, can now comprehend the kind of physical and emotional trauma entailed in such preparation. Undoubtedly, religion was a sustaining force for some, and National Shintoism promised that those who died valiantly in battle would be honored as guardian warriors in the spirit realms. Buddhism, on the other hand (which, strange though it may seem to western minds, was sometimes embraced simultaneously), offered nirvana as the ultimate reward. For many, however, the practical distinction between nirvana and annihilation was uncertain at best. Surely also, that must have held true for the Kamikaze, pawns of an autocratic, militaristic government and often mere school boys who wept at night for the arms of their mothers.
Two or three years after our book was published Kuwahara lost his wife to leukemia in Kobe and moved to Innoshima near Hiroshima with their small son. There he inherited a fine home and orange orchard from his deceased uncle, eventually remarried and fathered three more children. Sadly, however, having also established a successful photography business, he died unexpectedly in 1980.
Sadly as well, I must explain that in the year 2000, a Kamikaze movie promoter, then researching related material in Kuwahara’s home town of Onomichi, encountered two men who said that his account was a fabrication. Both said they had been his high school acquaintances and contended that he had never won a national glider championship or been in the Japanese Army Air Force. Instead, they maintained, Kuwahara was merely one of many students drafted by their government to support the war effort on that country’s military bases.
The claim is set forth here with considerable misgiving, for it impugns my friend’s integrity, and he is not alive to defend himself. Furthermore, such allegations should be weighed against all the positive evidence delineated in his behalf above. I must stress also that the individual who discussed Kuwahara’s story with these alleged acquaintances barely knew them, and had no way of determining their motives or the validity of their own claims. Finally, it should be noted that the experiences, many extremely fascinating and violent, of countless military men throughout history, including from World War II, are not known even to their closest friends and family.
Such may have been the case with Kuwahara. Nevertheless, ethics and honesty dictate the above disclosure. As for myself, I wrote and published this remarkable story fully convinced that it was true, and have yet to find any major discrepancies in terms of all I have studied about the war between America and Japan including the unique role of the Kamikaze pilots. Readers of what follows must reflect upon its authenticity for themselves and in many cases may never feel certain of an answer in this veil of tears.
I must explain, in any event, that like most biographical writers I have utilized what might be termed “creative logic” in rounding out the characters involved, their reported or probable conversations, and in describing from a sensory standpoint what seemed most natural in the
specific situations that my friend Yasuo related. This is especially true of the present revision which entailed much additional effort, hopefully reflecting more understanding on my part and greater literary quality than the original.
Ever since the concerns discussed arose in the year 2000, I have always explained their pros and cons to those interested in movie rights, use of the work in school literature curriculums, or publication of this revision. Almost invariably, however, such individuals have felt that the account should continue to be read and promoted. Regardless of whether Kamikaze is fact or fiction, they argue that it is a great story fraught with immense drama and human interest, one consistent with the historical accounts of its time. They contend also, like numerous others before them, that it will yet succeed in a big way on the big screen. I believe they are correct, and thanks to Gary Toyn of American Legacy Media, the revised book version, with all that promise, is in your hands. Please keep reading.
Gordon T. Allred April 2007.