What drives men to willingly drive an aircraft into a ship, and what goes through the mind of a person scheduled for death and seemingly embraces the opportunity?
There are stories from pilots of many nations flying damaged aircraft and unable to return home opting to ram a target to make their deaths count for something, but in World War II the idea of taking off with the purpose of dying was unique to Japan.
One of the best places to learn about this is the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, Japan’s most comprehensive kamikaze museum. The museum is built over the old army airfield which originally had a very different mission from the one it’s known for.
Though the Japanese hoped for a short war in 1941, the Army knew it would have to support air operations in what was now a two-front war, fighting the Chinese as they had been for years, and now the Americans, British and Dutch. In preparation for this need, the Tachiarai Army Flight Training School Chiran Branch was established on Dec. 24, 1941, two weeks after the Pacific War began.
While Japan’s military was scoring repeated victories throughout the Pacific, Chiran’s first training flight of vermillion biplanes took place on Feb. 4, 1942. Many of its pilot trainees would be considered school children by today’s standards, but at the time, boys in their mid-teens could join the army or navy in programs, such as the Army’s Shonen Hikohei, where they went through three years of training to become pilots. Chiran would continue as a training base until March 26, 1945 when it began kamikaze operations.
The idea of using the aircraft itself as the bomb that would sink ships began with the navy. Japanese airpower had become increasingly ineffective as the war went on, with fewer successful air attacks carried out and less aircraft returning from fruitless missions, carrying out tokubetsu kogeki, or “special attack,” went from an option to consider in 1943 to a practical solution by August 1944.
(Tokubetsu, also shortened to “tokko,” is the proper term for all forms of kamikaze and is the term primarily seen inside kamikaze museums, though the museums themselves may use the term “kamikaze museum.”)
The army and navy generally did not cooperate, share ideas or anything else other than a common contempt for the other service. Their internal war was almost as bad as the one they waged with other nations, but the army saw the value of the navy’s kamikaze operations and decided to start running their own. Chiran training base, less than 500 miles from the battlefield and already full of eager, expendable young pilots was a logical site for flying the sorties.
During the Battle of Okinawa, 1,036 army pilots would die attempting to ram Allied vessels, the majority of which came from Chiran. (Please note this is army only and not counting navy kamikazes) Other bases on Kyushu and Formosa (Taiwan) also hosted kamikaze missions.
They had hoped to trade one plane for one ship, showing that a dedicated Japan, where every man was weapon, could not be invaded or defeated. Japan used about 2800 kamikazes during the war, 14% hit their targets, sinking 34 ships and damaging 368 others.
The relevancy of those attack numbers goes out the window when visiting Chiran. The museum doesn’t glorify war or attempt to justify its causes, but shares the stories of men whose lives were cut short and honors their memory.
This focus on the human side of war is what sets it apart from other aviation-related museums. Sharing personal stories are among the most effective ways to teach about an event or era, we often see the tools such as airplanes but rarely do we get much on the hand that wielded it.
Chiran maintains a positive attitude about the pilots and why they died; I don’t believe it’s spin, but rather a matter of being respectful toward the dead. Museum and perpetual memorial service is probably a good way to describe the atmosphere.
I was hit full blast with this feeling walking around the main memorial room, which is ringed with pictures of the pilots, their last letters home and personal effects, all centered around a convincing replica of an Army Type 1 / Ki-43 (Allied reporting name: “Oscar”) Hayabusa kamikaze aircraft about to take off for its last mission, statues of pilots and ground crew waving their goodbyes. Originally built for a movie about Chiran kamikazes, “I will die for you,” the brightly lit centerpiece is almost drowned out by the somberness around it, the faces and the letters. I was allowed to shoot photographs for my story, but pulling out a camera in there almost felt like bringing out a camera at a funeral or wake.
Though it has many little artifacts, most of the room’s materials are the final letters. Having such a large collection of pilot’s letters is unique to kamikaze museums. Since death was almost certainly guaranteed on a mission, it seems everyone wrote final letters home before flying off. I can’t read the physical Japanese letters, but touch screen displays around the room had many translated letters. It was far more than I could read during the few hours I had to visit, and shows how much the museum wants to engage foreigners as well as Japanese in sharing its story. All four of the kamikaze museums have these letters, but this is the only one with translations available for any of them.
Going in no particular order, I tapped different names to see what came up. Most were young men and teenagers, so most were written to parents. Sometimes it was a bold and patriotic statement, but usually it was a heartfelt goodbye sometimes mixed with the desire to have been a better son or a reminder why he’s doing this. The words were different but the sentiment the same. One that stuck out to me was a pilot’s letter to his parents, asking them about mundane things going on in their lives, telling them he had something important to tell them… but then deciding he would tell them later. I wondered if they knew what he had signed up for or possibly been pressured into.
We watched a video in the auditorium that went more into the history of kamikazes and shared a few more personal stories, including an unusual one about a Chiran instructor who was allowed to volunteer after his family committed suicide so he would have nothing to hold him back. Other videos we watched had interviews with surviving pilots (some had to abort or where still awaiting a mission when the war ended) and talked about the history of Chiran and how it transformed from a small samurai town to the kamikaze airfield.
While the museum has a wealth of material, what they have only covers what the pilots could write home with the eyes of military censors reading and the pictures that would be approved for public release.
For a more candid snapshot of the pilot’s thoughts and feelings, visitors can take a walk into town and visit the Hotaru-kan, “Firefly House,” Torihama Tome’s diner where many pilots passed time and passed uncensored letters home, before their final mission. These lacked the bold, patriotic final statements that some pilots would make in their official farewells.
This is because not everyone’s reason for being kamikazes was as simple as desiring to defend their country and believing this was the only way to do it or to have a meaningful death. While there were more than enough volunteers, there were pilots given the “privilege” of volunteering, been pressured into volunteering and in some cases men were ordered to do it.
These suicide missions were not universally popular, though it was not a sentiment one could voice openly in wartime Japan. Saburo Sakai, Japan’s leading ace to survive World War II and raised in his family’s samurai tradition, felt it went against the bushido he was taught. A samurai goes into battle ready and willing to die, but not for the purpose of it. Sakai himself was ordered, along with his squadron, to crash into an American carrier as proto-kamikazes; the formation of the official corps was four months away, but Sakai was saved by very foul weather.
The visit was a bit emotionally draining and left us feeling melancholic. My fiancée is more emotionally sensitive than me, so on our rather quiet drive from Chiran to Bansei I asked how she felt. She had the same feeling, but surprised me by saying visiting the museum made her also hate Tojo, as he started the war that lead to this.
As an aviation and military museum, Chiran doesn’t have as much as a dedicated air museum like Kanoya but there is plenty to see. For vintage airplane hunters, their Army Type 4 / Ki-84 Hayate (Allied reporting name: “Frank”) fighter is worth the trip. If you’ve been to a lot of museums and don’t recall ever seeing one of these, that’s because of the 3,416 built, Chiran’s Frank is the only one remaining. According to Pacific Wrecks, it was captured at Clark Field in the Philippines in 1945.
The Ki-84 was the Japanese army’s best fighter in World War II and near the end it was their most common. Developed by Nakajima, the company which also built most of the more famous Zero fighters, it was based on lessons learned in combat and combined the best qualities of the army’s earlier fighters. This resulted in an interceptor that was fast, maneuverable, well-armored and heavily armed enough to take down the American heavy bombers that had begun appearing in the skies over Japan. The design was lethal, but hampered by bombed out factories, a lack of quality fuel and poorly trained pilots rushed into combat. As the war came to its conclusion, most of these aircraft were used for straight-forward kamikaze missions despite their fighting attributes.
Outside there is another Ki-84, a replica built for the same movie as the Ki-43 inside. I don’t know why they don’t move it beside the kamikaze pilot memorial statue instead of the post-War turboprop trainer beside it.
A very easy to overlook but neat part of the museum to see is the pilot barracks in its natural habitat. The triangular, wooden building is sunk into the ground and hidden by the trees around it, like the real ones were. It’s very sparse inside but the bunks are made and gear is tucked away to show what these were like in use.
There are a few side stories here as well, not directly related to the Chiran kamikazes, such as the room of uniforms and equipment from the Meiji Restoration and the Satsuma Rebellion, which was fictionalized in “The Last Samurai.” I was also excited to see a full-sized mockup of a Shinyo, the kamikaze torpedo boats employed by the navy. The Shinyo boats are less known than the airborne kamikazes, but also performed suicide attacks during the Philippine campaign and later were squirreled away around Kyushu in preparation for meeting American landing craft head on.
There aren’t many buildings intact from the original base. As Chiran town expanded, it was mostly demolished, but a few buildings and the water tower are now mixed innocuously with the newer civilian construction. The museum points out where they are if visitors are interested in finding them. Unfortunately for me, I was out of time and couldn’t go exploring for them. Some of the barracks and antiaircraft defense sites have also been preserved, though the structures themselves are gone.
For English-speaking visitors it’s important to check out an audioguide to make the most of a Chiran visit. While some displays are in English, the guide can add a lot more information if you know how to use it. The basic guide tablet only initially shows overview audio- i.e. the audio explanation of the room and not individual artifacts, yet there are a lot of audioguide numbered displays. To hear the audio for them you need to dig into the menu and pull up the complete audio list. Doing this you’ll find a good amount of the museum is actually translated into English, even if the displays themselves physically aren’t. I wish I had figured that out sooner than the last half hour of my visit.
To learn more about kamikazes you can also visit the Kanoya Air Musuem, Tachiarai Peace Memorial Museum and Bansei Peace Memorial Museum, which is a short drive away from Chiran. Bansei is rather small and best seen as part of a day trip or weekend visit to Chiran.
For visitors hoping to see the Army Type 3 / Ki-61 Hien (Allied reporting name: “Tony”) fighter that often pops up in image searches for Chiran, you’re out of luck. That aircraft was moved to Kakamigahara Air Museum and will be on display ther
e in late 2017.
Admission is 500 yen and an audioguide is an additional 200, but is definitely worth it if you do not speak or read Japanese.
CHIRAN PEACE MUSEUM
Address: 17881 Kori, Chiran-cho, Minamikyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture 897-0302