The Miracle of Life
fter that visit I began to view the world, life and death, somewhat differently. The temple, and the great, emanating Buddah, the priest. . . and the wind among the lanterns. I had accepted the priest’s philosophy, and although it transcended my sense of reason, it also appealed to it. Even more, it somehow resonated within my being.
Nevertheless, no philosophy, even the most sustaining, could fully vanquish what I experienced during my first escort flight over Okinawa or what I felt in the aftermath. Never before had I seen men, indeed my own companions, plunge to their death in that manner.
After my first escort flight, I tossed in near delirium throughout the night, the images of that mission flashing through my mind in endless and chaotic array. At times I would awaken, wrenched upright into a sitting position, clasping my brow with both hands, hoping to exorcize it all by a concerted act of will. Determination! I told myself, If you have enough determination, you can turn it off and have a little peace. But inevitably, at the first approach of sleep, it returned with diabolical insistence. I could not escape.
Over and over, I was accompanying our fifteen Kamikaze, watching
as the dives commenced, two or three transformed into savage eruptions of flame and smoke, flames the color of molten lava, smoke black as the fur of a panther. At times I was alone with only the boundless water below. Endless water in endlessly varying tones—indigo blue, darkening gray. . . and subtly glowing pearl. . . turquoise and brilliant, spring-rice green.
And water alone was all right, yet asleep or awake, no matter how tightly I clenched my eyes and willed it otherwise, I could not exclude the vision of that first ship. . . and another, and another.
Then, inevitably, the entire enemy convoy—dozens of battleships, carriers, destroyers, and other vessels, sullenly balanced there upon the face of the sea, methodically—imperceptibly, it seemed, at first view—gliding forward, leaving their widening white wakes. The ships swiftly enlarging, the tracers streaking wildly in straight red lines, and the proliferating death blossoms of the flak.
Always at that point, I would escape the nightmare with a jolt. It was the falling sensation that nearly everyone experiences at times on the threshold of sleep but greatly intensified. Then. . . lying there shuddering, afraid of wakefulness, yet more afraid of sleep.
During that night and the days to come, I wondered increasingly what might become of my body at the end of my first and final one-way trip. If I accomplished my mission and struck an enemy ship, what would the explosion be like? No doubt, only a shattered second of remaining awareness. . . unless by some fantastic quirk of fate I were to survive. No, no—ridiculous. No one could ever survive such contact.
What, I wondered, would become of my head? Would my head be blasted from my body? I could almost see it at times, a charred and featureless blob sinking to the floor of the ocean. How deep was the ocean, there off Okinawa? A mile? More? I thought of the Mariana Trench therein the West Pacific. Six miles deep, the deepest spot in the entire ocean.
In my mind I saw a leg—my leg, tossed on an immense wave. I saw one of my arms. Would my arms and legs provide food for the sharks? My fingers. . . would my fingers seem strange to some fish? I saw a fish, its round eye staring impassively at fingers lodged in a strand of kelp. The fish was canary yellow with brilliant stripes of blue, its fins gently wavering, almost transparent. I saw it nibble tentatively.
If I struck an American ship, however, I might take many others with me. What wonderful irony, to find my burial in intimate company with the enemy. Ah yes. . . I shook my head, actually feeling the insinuation of a smile. Death, the grand and undeniable equalizer! What remarkable impartiality! What a curious camaraderie it bestows upon us all!
Often on those sultry nights my mattress became so damp from my own sweat, so hot that I arose and walked to the window, hoping for a mere trace of breeze, the faintest whisper. Usually nothing came, but I would stand there long enough immersed in thought to let the mattress cool a bit. Sometimes I would turn it over because the underside was cooler. Having removed the sheet, I would waft it up and down in the humid air hoping to dry it a little.
Over the past few weeks I had acquired a heat rash on my chest and upper arms that sometimes itched insanely. But no matter, I told myself; all such concerns would soon be of no consequence. Often still, I thought poignantly of home. I wrote few letters now, though, because they were being censored, and several of them had apparently never arrived. Therefore, even this final and tenuous link with my past had been reduced to a few trite words, abstract sentiments that could scarcely be conveyed.
Nevertheless, both my mother and Tomika wrote me faithfully. The first bombs had now fallen upon Onomichi, but thus far our immediate neighborhood had been spared, perhaps because of its sparser population and inconspicuousness upon the verdant mountainside. Happily, none of our family or immediate neighbors had been injured, but now after so many months away it had all become a fond dream, and even the dream was waning, for I would never return.
Now that I was a fighter escort, Nakamura, Tatsuno and I did not see each other as often, and our barracks were some distance apart. At times Nakamura and I flew the same mission, but that provided little opportunity for close association, and Tatsuno, with less experience, was only flying reconnaissance at present.
Throughout it all—the anxiety, fear, frustration, sorrow. . . the fleeting hopes, we escort pilots were learning something valuable, learning what was necessary for a Kamikaze to die effectively and with honor. We knew, better than anyone else, what it required to sink an enemy ship. I
personally knew the best strategy, having witnessed some successes and far too many failures.
To the novice, diving into an American ship might seem relatively simple. In reality, however, it had become increasingly difficult. First, there were the ever-vigilant enemy fighters. In addition, each vessel fired off an astounding barrage. The combined output of anti-aircraft, heavy caliber machine guns, and other weaponry, created a virtual lead wall at times.
Moreover, the moment they were under attack, the ships began to zigzag erratically, so that many of our pilots missed their targets completely, plunging into the ocean. Often, as well, it was easy to become confused in pre-dawn attacks or storm. One Kamikaze from another base, in fact, was reported to have mistaken a tiny island for a battleship during the early hours of morning. A billowing eruption against the gloomy shore had revealed his error.
In my own estimation, the best procedure was to descend from a height of ten to five thousand feet, the sun at our tails. The dive angle would vary from forty-five to sixty degrees, leveling out about five hundred yards from the target and roaring in as low to the water as possible.
Thus an approach would occur below the angle of the bigger guns. That way also the ships were in danger of hitting each other with their own weaponry, and a strike at the waterline greatly increased the likelihood of a sunken vessel
Despite our most desperate and ingenious efforts, however, the average number of hits was now only ten to fifteen percent. A sad contrast to those first impressive results at Luzon.