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Suzuki-san remembers the Flying Tigers

Suzuki was an officer pilot in the Japanese Army 21st Hikotai, based in Hanoi, French Indochina (now Vietnam). A hikotai was a group made up of dissimilar aircraft--in this case, 10 Nakajima Ki-27 "Nate" fighters and 10 Kawasaki Ki-48 "Lily" twin-engined light bombers. On December 20, 1941, the American Volunteer Group was credited with destroying three bombers near Kunming plus another crash-landed across the border in Vietnam. Mr. Suzuki was one of the suriving pilots. He was interviewed by a television crew at his home in 1992, as part of the project that led to the Fei Hu video. This is the first Japanese account of the December 20 engagement. Note that the translator consistently says "squad" when "squadron" is the intended word.

Before the war against China broke out in 1937, what were you doing?

I was a student of Army Air Force Academy [Rikugun kouku shikangakkou noseto deshita].

What made you go into military?

When I was in high school (we called it junior high back then), there was a great teacher who taught us military exercises. I admired him.... He had very pure and respectful thoughts. This might sound a little vague, but I was attracted by these points.

What kind of feeling did you have towards Chinese Air Force?

The Chinese air force had almost never showed up. There might have been some planes, but they had never appeared. So we did not even worry about them. I thought Chinese air force was very small and weak. Therefore, I had never imagined they would fight back.

Where and when did you first hear about the war between Japan and America, and what did you think about it?

I thought we were in a big trouble.... I was in Hanoi the day American declared war with Japan. I heard about it on the radio. I thought war with such a resourceful nation, America, was impossible. I thought I won't be able to go back to Japan alive.

Can you describe the battle between American Tiger Squadron on December 20th in detail? What was the objective of the original mission?

The objective was, since the Malaysian Operation had begun, to draw enemy airplanes into China so that we could take an advantage in Malaysia. So, though we did have fighter planes, we attacked Kunming without them in order to get the attention of the enemy command and diverge their fighter airplanes. Therefore, our squad was called Discarding Stones Squad [Suteishi Butai], which means a sacrificial squadron....

We left Hanoi at 10:20 [a.m., Tokyo time] on 20th. Altitude was 6,000 [meters?]. It was fine day but there were some clouds. We came to near Kunming in about two hours. That area also had some clouds. Just before we reached to Kunming, American airplanes came up in four units, each of which had six fighter airplanes. We kept going on for a while. Then, American P-40s started to attack us all at once. Our squad turned direction to left. I guess our leader thought none of us would survive if we kept going to the destination. We bombed a town below because we need to make our airplanes lighter by losing bombs. Then, we began to fight back....

While I was changing direction, I saw one of our airplanes in the right-side unit being shot and quickly going down. Next was a closer airplane. I think the pilot was probably shot. The airplane went down in a very unbalanced way. I recognized these two, but didn't see the leading airplane, Captain Funamoto's airplane, being shot down. But when we went into formation again, I noticed there was one more airplane missing. It had been shot down while I was not watching.

We had the battle for about 30 minutes, and before it was over, the gunner sitting behind me died on the airplane. Then another gunner who sat on my left was also killed on the airplane. I didn't have much experience in air combat, but I felt this was a very harsh one. But since our airplanes had rubber covers over the fuel tanks to prevent gun shots, they never had been set fire though they were carrying a lot of bombs. Therefore, seven of our airplanes could come back to the base though lots of us couldn't lower landing gear due to the damage from the shooting. So, some landed with only one gear, and others on their bodies. Everyone landed somehow, but all airplanes had bullets in their bodies. Even mine had about thirty shots.

Can you tell us about the fighting?

First of all, since they were so many, I thought we were going to have a great amount of damage.... Though they had Chinese marks on their airplanes, it was apparent that they were not Chinese air force because of the great number of the airplanes. I immediately thought they must be a volunteer squad because I had already heard such a possibility. And also they were extraordinarily brave. [Sorede, hijoni yukandatta desuyone.] When we were flying, they flew directly toward us, and we immediately recognized them. Although the marks were Chinese, it was clear that the pilots were American because they were brave enough to come in such close quarters....

Because it was our first air battle, the gunners could only think returning fire but not taking the offense. Our response was really bad. Also, the front gun on our planes did not have much angle. So when an enemy airplane came from outside our reachable angle, we couldn't shoot.... We also had a gun which was set on the bottom of the airplane and could shoot downwards. And this one also had very small angle to move. So we couldn't shoot anything except those which came directly towards the gun.

Even though we tried to do our best, the airplanes themselves had these kinds of problems. So when the enemy attacked us knowing these disadvantages, we couldn't do anything. After all, the disadvantages of the airplanes and inexperience of the squad. Because we had just been transferred from a patrol squad to a bomber squad, and because we didn't have enough training. But we had a command to go, and that's why we went.

Whose death hurt you the most?

All of the 14 men who died in the battle. There is no particular person, but all of them, their death was.... And I feel very sad about it.

Tell me about Tiger Squad's pilots and its plane P-40.

First of all, the pilots were very brave. And also the fact that they volunteered for the squad. I respected it very much. I don't know the purpose for the volunteered squad [i.e., I don't know why they volunteered], but I think it was a very respectable deed. The airplanes were, in my opinion, very good for the battle against bomber airplanes. But I'm not sure if they did a good job for the battle against fighter airplanes, because their bodies seemed to be very heavy.