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Interview with a Zero pilot

[The interview was conducted by Endo Ryu and first appeared in Rekishi Gunzou in November 2000. It was translated by Gernot Hassenflug of Kyoto; it is posted here with his permission. Gernot noted that: "in line with Japanese practice, names are given in order of family name followed by first name. Ranks are given in Japanese, and places and battles are referred to by their Japanese names. I have added notes with explanations in various places." In his email to me, he warned that there may be ambiguities and translating errors in the text. -- Dan Ford]

His first campaign was on 8 December 1941, his last battle was fought on 17 August 1945. An Imperial Japanese Navy pilot who fought throughout the Pacific right from the outset of the war until two days after Japan's surrender tells his story.

"The characteristics of a fighter pilot.... Actually, I cannot really give a good description. I suppose, in a fighter, when it comes to an air battle, there are so many areas where individual decisions are important that it is easier for those who possess a good deal of individualism. But on the other hand, if you look at the people on the ground, at the base, and try to categorize and label which are which, you will surely go wrong.

But, take for example people who are used to the air pressure at ground level. If they climb a mountain in the 5000m range, it is said that their lung function is cut by as much as 50%. In a fighter, you go up to that altitude in one go. In addition, you need to keep you cool, and your ability to make accurate judgments. If we try to state the basic requirements of a fighter pilot, perhaps we can say something like that.

However, at that time there was no accurate or detailed analysis from physiological data, so the only method was for the instructor to go up with the trainee pilot and judge as a whole his flying capabilities, marksmanship and general composure and behaviour and decide from there whether he was sharp, useful and so forth. This is something that the instructors would deduce from their years of experience."

This is how Komachi Sadamu, Reisen pilot who fought through the whole war from Pearl Harbor until the surrender over virtually the entire Pacific Theatre, answered our impudent question "What makes a fighter pilot?"

When we visited Mr. Komachi at his offices of the company Grande Town (building industry) which he manages in Ota-ku, Tokyo, we noticed that next to the company logo was a plaque titled "Reisen Tojoin-kai" (Reisen Pilots Association). The Association is a social or friendship club formed in 1974 made up of former Reisen pilots. Komachi is vice-president and has arranged his offices to double as a meeting venue. "Currently there are 778 members, and if you include the 51 supporting members made up of family members of former pilots, and Reisen fans, then we have a total of 829 members. The youngest member is 72, and the oldest are in their late 80's. Each year we just get fewer and fewer. We are thinking of dissolving the group in three years time, you know." Mr. Komachi turns 80 this year. Even as members retire one by one from the Association, his eyes even now still sparkle, while his large frame rests upright and proper (Note: 180cm tall, at the time considered exceptional).

And so Mr. Komachi began to speak slowly, in a low but clear voice, of his life as a Reisen fighter pilot.

"In those days, our education was thus that boys became soldiers when they grew up, so I too vaguely wanted to become a soldier. So in 1938 I joined the Kaihei-dan (Note: pre-war each naval base had a land-based naval regiment, (rikujo-butai)). Fighter pilots were the cream of that age, and I had no idea whatsover whether I would be suitable. Nevertheless I persevered and graduated from the kaihei-dan the following year to join immediately the 49th pilot class at Kasumigaseki."

After that, Mr. Komachi went through about a year of intense training before gong on to join the carrier wing on board the Akagi in October 1940. In May 1941 he was transferred to the Shokaku air group, and it was as a member of this carrier's complement that he took part in the attack on Pearl Harbor. "It was very strange that the entire Kido-butai should rendezvous at Hitokappu-wan in Etorofu. We thought it was a large-scale training exercise or something ...

According to plan, one day all flying group members gathered on board the Akagi where we heard from the commander for the first time of the plan to attack Pearl Harbor.

A little before that I had already thought something was odd. Without our notice, the carrier's passageways, usually filled with all sorts of baggage and cargo had been meticulously cleaned and many crates of beer were stacked up. After leaving base we drank beer every day as though racing to finish the huge stock! Perhaps because of the peculiar excitement we experienced, but no matter that we drank like fish, we did not get drunk at all. In fact, it was as though our perceptions became more clear."

8 December 1941 dawned. On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack (Hawaii kogeki sakusen), Mr. Komachi was not part of the strike force, but instead was a member of the task force air cover to protect against incoming attacks. For Komachi Sadamu, this was his first combat operation.

The work of the carrier-based Reisen pilots was broadly divided into two categories, attack and garrison. Garrison was air cover for the fleet like what Mr. Komaki took part in that day. Attack consisted of close escort of the carrier-launched strike force to protect them from enemy fighters, and attainment of air superiority over the enemy fleet.

"Taking part in one or the other was decided on a rotation basis. I was of the opinion that air cover for the fleet was the more difficult of the two. In attack, simply put, once the bombing mission is fulfilled you can immediately withdraw. During withdrawal it is true that a a very dangerous part of the job is to eliminate enemy fighters chasing the retiring attack force. But during the latter half of the war, the dangers of fleet air cover became much greater than this.

In the general case, 6 or 9 planes were delegated for this duty (a unit of fighters was 9 planes, ikko chutai), whereas the enemy attack could easily be 100 planes, so we had our hands full trying to keep ourselves in one piece. On top of that, because it was our duty to protect the carriers, we could not even think of disengaging and escaping.

For us on the spot, we always wanted to increase the fleet air cover even at the expense of the attack force, but the top level folks who decided on the make-up of strikes always seemed eager to devote as much as possible of the fighter force to the attack. The reason was, these people had never done the work that we did, fighting way above them, you know. We were always conscious of this dilemma."

Fleet air cover included not only the threat of enemy planes but also the risk of being shot down by the fleet anti-aircraft fire. "There were many times when I knew that some of the gunners down there were shooting directly at me. Those guys were also very scared, and anything that flew near they took to be an enemy and shot at it. (laughter) But you know, when you are in earnest, these things happen, and we never complained about it even once. So therefore, when carrying out fleet air cover, to concentrate only on the enemy planes is very dangerous." That was a side issue. Actually, what Mr. Komachi considered the greatest problem in the field was the Reisen's abysmal radio gear.

"You know, can you believe that while we were carrying out fleet air cover we could not even communicate properly with the carriers directly below us! For example, in the morning a squadron of scout planes would be launched in a fan formation to ascertain whether or not there was an enemy air strike coming our way. So let's suppose one of the planed sent news of a contact from some direction. These messages were tapped out in Morse and could be received a long distance away. If this message was received, it was immediately known on which bearing the enemy was.

If this information could have been passed on directly to the fleet air cover Reisens, the friendly fighters woudl have the time and opportunity to position themselves between the enemy and the fleet, perhaps some 30 or 40 miles distant, and intercept the enemy there, giving time for three or four attacks at least, scattering the attacking force and dissipating their attacking power. But, our radio gear was completely unusable, so the information stopped at the commander on board the flagship and never reached us.

As air cover we flew in huge circles over the fleet. At times enemy attack force arrived while we were on the diametrically opposite side of the fleet! At times like that we dearly wished for a radio by which we could have been told that the enemy was not here but there.

So now, you know, when I get into a taxi, I have some mixed emotions when I hear the news from the taxi head office arriving, giving route, next destination and other useful information so clearly. In that war, if the lives of the Reisen pilots had been worth just a little more to the Navy general staff, they could easily have devoted some resources to improving our radio equipment I think. Even now, when I think about it I want to stamp my feet in frustration!"

continued in part 2