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INTRODUCTION

Looking back on the multi-year journey that led to this book, I have difficulty in comprehending it. If someone told me ten years ago that I would one day live in Japan and interview the country’s last surviving World War II Navy aviators and mechanics, I would have never believed him! When I was a boy, my father took me to air shows and tried to teach me about World War II. As a result, my passion for WW II history blossomed, and I became fascinated by the aircraft of that time, and more importantly the personal stories of the men who fought during the conflict. As I became more and more interested, I wanted to learn about what happened on the “other side.” However, as I searched for books and other materials to read, I found countless works about Germany and its military men but very few English language publications existed about WW II Japanese Navy airmen. Furthermore, I realized that most books, and even postwar movies, invariably focused on the European Theatre. I kept on saying to myself, “Why do these historians and popular media focus only on the European Theatre?”

As my interest in the war grew, I became very engrossed in the Japanese side of the conflict and it’s fascinating culture. While my passion about the war grew, I read all the books that I could find about Japanese aviators. During my “quest,” I found a handful of good books by historians such as Henry Sakaida and Osamu Tagaya which had some quotes from the veterans and had valuable information. However, I still wanted to know more. How did the Japanese pilots feel when they attacked Pearl Harbor? Did they really “hate” America and her people? Were they really ordered to conduct suicide attacks? Did they really think that it was an honor to die for the Emperor? However, I could never find any answers to my questions in books or documentaries on television.

In early 1999, I decided to meet and interview some of these Japanese Navy veterans before their stories were lost, due to the passing of time. However, how would a foreigner with no Japanese language skills go about doing this? First, I wrote and called several museums and Japanese militaria collectors for assistance. I had limited success with this method and was able to get contact information for just one veteran, legendary Zero fighter pilot Saburō Sakai. Hence, I decided to visit a college friend in Japan and interview this well-known veteran at the same time. However, after arriving in Tokyo, I was saddened to hear that my friend would not call Sakai-san “out of the blue” because it was impolite to do this. During this first trip to Japan, I had a good time, visited several important cultural spots and tried lots of interesting new foods but was very disappointed about missing my big chance to interview Sakai-san.

When I returned home, I was not ready to give up on the project. I was very fortunate to become friends with historians Gary Nila and Henry Sakaida, who both understood my passion and offered to help. Henry Sakaida, one of the few westerners ever to interview WW II Japanese veterans, wanted to help me. He introduced me to one of the few bilingual veterans in Japan, Jirō Yoshida who also offered his assistance. They made me an offer, “As long as you respect Japanese culture and history, you are welcome to come to Japan and interview several veterans.” This really changed my life in many ways. At the same time, I became friends with Jerry Larson, a wonderful man who helped me by encouraging me to write and to interview these forgotten airmen. Sadly, he passed away just before I embarked on my journey to interview some of these veterans.

With the support of these individuals, I interviewed a core group of distinguished WW II Navy veterans who participated in operations such as Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway. This even included Sakai-san, the Zero pilot mentioned above. In summary, this second visit to Japan was so successful, that a new idea came to my mind – why not try to record the stories of these forgotten veterans for future generations? Though not setting out to write a book, I wanted to learn more about the war and the men who experienced it over half a century ago. However, I was so moved by these ex-navy airmen and their untold stories that it became my “mission” to ultimately research and publish this work.

After my short trip to Japan, I returned home and began my research in earnest. However, it was very difficult to do while living in Chicago with limited Japanese language resources. I also realized there was a lot more still to learn in Japan while these men were still healthy and able to tell their stories. Hence, I concluded that the only way to really learn about what happened during the war from the Japanese side was to move to Japan. However, with the encouragement of several friends, primarily historian Mick Prodger and magazine editor Graham Orphan, I decided to take the plunge and moved there in November of 2000.

Life in Japan wasn’t easy, but it was very rewarding, and I learned something new everyday. To help pay my bills, I worked as an English teacher during the week, and then spent almost every holiday conducting research and interviewing the veterans in Japan. I was very fortunate to meet Keigo “Hammer” Nakahama, who also worked with me at my school. “Hammer” was simply incredible because he was a native Japanese person who spoke English perfectly. He spent countless hours researching and translating Japanese materials to prepare properly for each interview. “Hammer” was instrumental in teaching me about Japanese culture so I could conduct my meetings with the veterans while observing proper etiquette.

Prior to going to Japan, I tried to go there without any preconceived ideas or stereotypes of the Japanese veterans. Because I neither served in WW II nor had a father that fought in the war, I thought that this would be feasible. After interviewing a few veterans and establishing a good rapport with them, they wanted to help me. However, I could never approach a potential new contact directly without the introduction of a mutual veteran friend. Most Japanese people, especially WW II veterans, would be reluctant to open their hearts to a complete stranger and even more so if the person were a foreigner. If I wanted to find a particular veteran (for example, an aviation mechanic who served on board an aircraft carrier), I would ask some of my veteran friends for some potential people to interview, and they would introduce me.

I believe, for the most part, the veterans understood why I wanted to interview them and they really enjoyed talking with me about their war experiences. Because of this, I interviewed veterans accessed by very few people and attended several reunions which are not usually accessible to foreigners or the general public. I feel so fortunate and honored to have met these fine gentlemen and attend some once in a lifetime events.

In general, I think the WW II Japanese Navy veterans are very private people but once I gained their trust, they opened up and talked frankly about their war experiences. They also seemed very happy that a younger person (especially from the West) wanted to talk with them. Remarkably, out of the fifty plus veterans that I wanted to meet, only a small handful turned down my interview requests.
Because of spending over seven years of my life doing research and traveling to many parts of Japan to meet these long-forgotten men, I eventually befriended several of these veterans, all of whom left an indelible mark on my life. I feel blessed to have met Japan’s last surviving elite WW II Navy airmen and learn their stories firsthand. I also am very lucky to have become acquainted with so many good people in the United States, Europe, New Zealand and Japan while conducting research for this work, including several historians, friends and my wife.

The goal of this work is not to tell the entire story of every big battle that occurred in the Pacific Theatre during WW II; there are plenty of good books that cover this material. Instead, I focus on the lives of the Japanese Navy airmen and what they experienced over sixty years ago. While I directed my questions about what the men felt and saw during WW II, I also made an effort to find out what happened in their postwar days and how they feel today. I believe readers of this book will discover these WW II Japanese Navy veterans offer moving and introspective reflections about the conflict which changed their lives forever. Wherever possible, with the help of several other seasoned historians, I was able to locate and incorporate the original American, British and Japanese war records to support and clarify the veterans’ stories in this work.

My other goal for this book was to tell the stories of many different WW II Japanese Navy airmen, not only the fighter pilots. However, there were countless more men who flew multi-place aircraft such as the Type 97 carrier attack plane and others who served as aviation mechanics to keep the aircraft flying. I strongly feel that these brave men were largely forgotten, and they all served important roles during the war. Hence, this work tells the stories of those veterans as well.

Let’s travel together back to the Japan of over half a century ago with war clouds looming on the horizon and its navy training hard to prepare for a possible future conflict .......

 

 

 
Copyright 2008