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Interview with a Zero pilot

Petty Officer Komachi in 1942 This interview was conducted by Endo Ryu and first appeared in Rekishi Gunzou in November 2000. It was translated by Gernot Hassenflug of Kyoto, Japan, and 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 also warned that there may be ambiguities and translating errors in the text.

Komachi was born in 1920 and died 92 years later in 2012. He graduated from flight school in June 1940 and ended the war as a warrant officer with 18 air-to-air kills. Bear in mind, however, that Japanese pilots were especially optimistic in claiming victories. -- Daniel 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 [16,000 feet] 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 your 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 [Zero] 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."

Flying Tigers

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!"

As the war progressed, the difference in aircraft development capability between Japan and the USA became marked. Take for example the specifications of the Reisen Type 52 and the Grumman F6F Hellcat, both introduced in 1943. The differences are glaring. The F6F's engine is 2100hp versus the Reisen's 1130hp, while top speed was 611km/h against the Reisen's 565km/h. Japan's prized Reisen had by then already been developmentally completely outclassed.

"The time which the Reisen was feared as a high performance fighter was during the first one, two years. We, who experienced air combat, felt the difference between our aicraft and the enemy most clearly, and in fact we had access to the relevant data before we even went into combat against them. The specifications were written in various magazines. So for example, if the engine is 2000hp, okay so we know it is twice that of the Reisen. The fuel load also three times? Well, then we could estimate that the Reisen's range advantage too was gone....etc. And indeed, when we did meet the enemy planes, they were full of confidence! (laughter) Up until then they had been very afraid of us, but now they became full of fight.

"The early Reisen's greatest trump had been its small turning radius. In large-scale air combat we used all kinds of tactics to lure the enemy into a dogfight. And finally, the enemy stopped fighting on our terms, and with power and speed they carried out with all their strength frontal attacks and disengaged before we could turn after them.

"In that situation, we could not compete. Our only tactic then was to spot the enemy first and before they had prepared themselves attack and vanquish them."

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

Also, in air combat there are some well-known ironclad rules, such as that one should already be above the enemy and have the sun behind oneself before beginning the attack. For this rate of climb, and therefore power and speed are necessary, but the propeller-driven Reisen of the time used to lose power dramatically above 8000m [26,000 feet].

"The engine began to lose power suddenly from around 5000m. 8000m was definitely the limit of its capabilities. Above that the fighter was extremely unresponsive, making big control movements necessary. Unlike bombers which fly straight to their targets, fighter combat involves control movements to the extremes. At around 5000m or 6000m there was still sufficient air resistance to bank or roll. But at 7000m or 8000m this was no longer possible. Moving the control stick too much theatened to stall the engine.

"Therefore, taking into account also our own decrease in capability with altitude, the Reisen's maximum effective altitude for combat was around 5000m or 6000m, ideally we thought that we should stay between 3000m and 5000m."

However, the USA military succeeded in the development of aircraft with better and better high altitude performance that the Reisen could only dream of.

"When during air combat we reached altitudes of 7000m or 8000m, the Reisen began to behave very badly, whereas on the enemy planes two-stage boosters (turbochargers) kicked in, the fuel injection ratio was boosted again to impede the drop in performance with altitude.

"Especially the twin-tailed P-38 Lightning was always aiming for higher altitudes. When we were battling with, say, F6F's and had achieved a superior position, then from way up high suddenly would plummet down a Lightning. From about 1943 it became the norm for the enemy to employ this form of combination attack. That was one further reason why the Reisen began to suffer so badly at this point.

"I seem to recall that at the end the Reisen also had a little more boost, but no matter what small improvements were carried out, in total we have to admit that the Reisen's performance remained virtually unchanged throughout the war."

From the difference in development capability between the enemy and us, the disaster of our radio equipment and so on, it may appear that this was due solely to a technological gap between us and them. But in reality, there was a common weakness throughout the war in the military general staff, Mr. Komachi asserts.

"In one word, this pointless fixation on mind over matter philosophy (Note: seishin-shugi) and as its result, the tendency to view (Note: or have contempt for) life lightly. This was the prevalent dogma in the military general staff at the time. That is what I feel.

"For example, it was unavoidable that due to the difference in technological skill there should be a performance difference of some kind between US and our aircraft. But the fitting or lack of armour of the pilot comes from the difference in attitude towards human life, way before technology. Frankly speaking, while enemy aircraft had armour in many places around the cockpit, the Reisen had as good as no such protection.

"Furthermore, we heard that US aircraft had rubber coated fuel tanks, and sure enough, no matter how much we hit them we got the impression that there was never any fuel leakage. Now, while we very much wanted the same sort of protection fitted to our own aircraft, in the eyes of the military general staff this was cowardice, and so quite out of the question."

For Mr. Komachi, who experienced air combat every day, day in day out, there was doubtless no day on which he was not aware of the the proximity of his own death. But for the sake of his own life, for the sake of the life of his family and of the future of his country, he continued to fight. In fact, it was precisely because of his strong overriding will to live that he could continue to risk his life and fight on.

"For example, due to the fact that we could not make use of our radio gear, there were I think many many cases where pilots could not get a bearing on their carrier after combat and ended up missing in action, in other words ditching in the sea.

"After completion of combat over the Pacific, with no islands at all to show the way, there was no way of telling which direction and for how many hours to fly in order to return safely. That is a pretty damned situation."

Actually, Mr. Komachi and his comrades repeatedly informed the general staff of the problem, but the reply was invariably, "A fighter plane does not fight with its radio. How many aircraft can you shoot down with a radio set?", completely missing the point. [It's not that the high command missed the point, but that the Japanese military considered human life an unimportant thing. -- DF]

Mr. Komachi's opinion was that main and most important reason for the lack of flexibility of the the Japanese military illustrated by the above was the ghost of the "Victory in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese War (Note: Nisshin, Nichiro no Shori)", which was still very deeply rooted even during the Second World War.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

"During the initial phase of the Pacific war, with the attack on Peark Harbor, the battle of the Malaysian Sea (Note: Japanese history records the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales as the Battle of the Malaysian Sea) and others, even though aircraft had achieved such an incredible degree of success, the military staff admirals and generals above Mr. Yamamoto Isoroku, all leftovers from the Meiji era, possessed an awareness regarding aircraft that amounted to no more than an inkling. Like the absurd argument of how one could possibly fight with a radio set, likewise aircraft were not seen as the able to destroyer the enemy, that would always be the realm of the big guns of the battleships.

"And so, finally it came to tying bombs to our planes and going out to die. No matter how you think about it, it was a tragedy for the planes and for the pilots who were forced to man them."

Incidentally, fighter plane enthusiasts often have a tendency to praise famous wartime pilots, referring to them as kings of shootdowns or aces of the sky (Note: in Japanese, aces are referred to either by the english word 'ace' written in katakana, or more fancifully as gekitsui-o, or o-sora no ace). Mr. Komachi, however, deplored this, saying, "I don't care for those expressions.

"First of all, we lost the war. People of such a country cannot possibly feel happy when they are referred to as kings of shootdowns or aces. And then, secondly, we pilots, and our foes too, fought in deadly earnest to protect our families and our homeland, we did not fight to settle a personal score. Therefore, the thing is, I do not want people to use game score expressions, you know.

"There are many tales of pilots painting stars on the their planes' fuselages to designate the number of downed enemy. Yes, for sure it looks really neat (laughter), but those were tales from the very early relaxed part of the war. As the war became desperate, such things were just no longer around. There was incessant restructuring of units, and transfer between them, and planes too changed all the time. It was not possible to keep an aircraft for personal use and so on, and also no time to paint star marks."

As planes changed all the time, naturally each plane picked up and mixed the peculiarities of the various pilots. "On practice flights we could pick this up easily. Like for example, the stick precision might be off by 3cm. But this was the experienced pilots. In combat, these small differences were unimportant. In other words, when we were already fully occupied shoving the stick from one extreme to the other continuously we had no time to notice the little differences in comfort (laughter)."

If we look again at Mr. Komachi's war history as a Reisen pilot from Pearl Harbor until the conclusion of the war, it really is overwhelming. Just taking major attack operations into account, he took part in more than ten such, while the number of air combats, including during escort missions, is beyond count.

Each day imposed physical dangers, but during his service there were two occasions when Mr. Komachi was just a hairbreadth away from death. One of those was in June 1944, when he was surprised by an F6F while on his final approach to Guam airfield. The aircraft riddled and in flames, he crashlanded and suffered large-scale burns. The other time was about two years previously, during the Battle of the South Pacific in October 1942 (Note: the Japanese name for the Battle of Santa Cruz).

"I was a member of the Reisen group that took off from Shokaku and Zuikaku, our job to attain air superiority in the attack on the US task force. On that day, the enemy's fleet air cover met our incoming attack about 30 or 40 miles distant from their task force and began their attacks.

The Grummans that we encountered here were truly tenacious and dogged. Attacking us in waves of multiple aircraft, I was ultimately chased up to arond 8000m altitude. Looking at it from another side, I managed to divert quite a number of enemy fighters and thus help in protecting out own strike force. Actually, at that time I could see very clearly the blazing carrier Hornet on the surface of the sea far below.

"My job done, I went into a sudden spin and left the area post-haste, but when I reached the rendezvous area, there was nobody there!"

He could not get any use out of the radio. No friendly aircraft around. While tring to figure out what to do, more Grummans arrived and attacked him. And he did not know which direction was home... Under those circumstances, Mr. Komachi spent approximately another three hours flying over the ocean.

"In that situation, the only thing I could do was trust my vague instincts like an animal. Finally I made the judgment that if I flew directly south I would meet up with my side. Despite that, the only thing I saw was the the empty horizon in all directions. There was not a single solid object to see anywhere on the ocean surface. This is it, this is going to be the end, I concluded.

Dusk began to fall. Fuel too was getting low. My time is up I thought, and unconsciously turned my gaze to the sinking sun. At that moment, silhouetted in the sinking orb of the sun I could see two or three tiny bean-like objects. Those were ships!

"With my last strength I slung the aircraft in that direction and true enough, they turned out ot members of a destroyer flotilla. A cruiser and two or three destroyers. It would have been awful if they had taken my fast-approaching fighter for an enemy, so I screamed silently to myself, I'm a Reisen, don't shoot, I beg you! and banked next to the cruiser, landing on the water."

Seeing this, the cruiser stopped at once, but immediately started up again and sailed on. From one predicament into the next! There was nothing for Mr. Komachi but to step out of the cockpit and trust his life jacket as he stepped into the sea.

Flying Tigers

Finally, several hours later, a destroyer returned, searchlights on, and rescued him. When he was pulled from the ocean, Mr. Komachi was mentally and physically so exhausted that he could not stand on his own.

"Yes, it was a feeling like coming across an oasis in the middle of the desert. Nevertheless, you know, I cannot recall even the name of the destroyer, let alone the name and face of those who pulled me out of the water. I think the severity of the shock to find myself saved after already having thought I was going to die just evaporated all those memories."

Like this, he took part in many many operations from the start of the war. With death ever near and making use of the Reisen to the degree that it became like an extension of his own body in the process, Mr. Komachi survived throughout the war to take part in his Final Combat in a most unlikely place, at a most unlikely time and flying a most unlikely fighter.

That was on 17th August 1945, at Yokosuka.

Two days previously he too had listened to the broadcast voice of the emperor and heard that the war was over, but at the Yokosuka Naval Arsenal air wing there had been no communication from the Navy HQ. Therefore, they waited fully prepared as usual to fulfill our role of Defence of the Imperial Capital, without disarming.

At 1pm that afternoon, they were informed that a Boeing [actually, Consolidated] B-32, the newest US bomber, was crossing Tokyo Bay en route to Kanto on a low-level recconnaissance mission.

"I scrambled at once in response. You know, for years now in the south we had been receiving large aerial attacks from 50 to 100 bombers, and with escorting fighters included sometimes 200 two 300 enemy planes regular as clockwork like the morning post every morning, as we gulped down our breakfast. Probably it was this ingrained habit of scrambling immediately on hearing the air raid siren."

With any luck, Mr. Komachi would have time to prepare a deadly attack against bombers, perfected at the front in the Pacific war theatre, the vertical dive.

"You would climb steeply high above the enemy, advance parallel wuth them for a short distance, and then throw the fighter on its back into inverted flight, and then go instantly into vertical descent passing the enemy aircraft at 90 degrees, like a cross. Passing like this, firing guns and releasing air-to-air bombs, to strike the enemy, this was the vertical dive."

This time too Mr. Komachi executed a perfect vertical dive. The B-32 spewed smoke and looking a sorry state broke off and headed back towards Iwo Jima. But Mr. Komachi, in the middle of his vertical dive, shouted out "Damn!"(Note: shimatta!).

Certainly, his attack had had effect. But at the same time, Mr. Komachi became acutely aware that the aircraft he was flying was not his trusted Reisen, but was instead a Shiden-kai.

"After all, it was one of the newest aircraft, and its engine was much more powerful than that of the Reisen. Also the speed was different. And in the vertical dive, not only the engine power but also the weight of the aircraft combined to give a total speed more than double that of horizontal flight, so it seemed that in an instant I would hit the ground.

"I pulled on the stick with all my might to go from dive to climb, with no effect. My body too was gripped by G-forces much greater than those I experienced with the Reisen. The edges of my vision went black. Oh no, I've screwed up! (Note: shippai shita!) I thought."

Finally though, pulling on the stick three times what would have been needed in the Reisen he managed to pull out by a whisker, just above the sea surface.

The result of Mr. Komachi's exploit was that the high Navy staff went pale. Leaving pilots at their bases there was no way of telling what they might do, so the next morning Mr. Komachi and his comrades were awoken and sent back to their hometowns.

"I heard that the propellers were removed from all fighters at Yokosuka that same night.

"Really, while we risked our lives fighting for so long, to be like thrown out and sent home packing at the end and thereafter hear absolutely nothing, you know, at the time it made me unbelievably angry.

"But, regarding those B-32 crew members, even today I feel that what I did was really awful."

Happily, no downed aircraft was reported from the GHQ (Note: the Allied GHQ). However, there was another pilot at Yokosuka who scrambled with Mr. Komachi, but because his timing was late he were not able to launch an attack and instead watched Mr. Komachi's vertical dive from the air. On landing he came over and said the following to Mr. Komachi.

"That vertical dive just now, that was you, right? I could have guessed. When I saw that, I thought that must be Komachi-san, I was very impressed."

17th August 1945, and renowned Reisen pilot Komachi Sadamu's last air combat was over all too soon. At the same time, this was quite possibly the very last aerial action in the history of the Pacific war.

[A few B-32s were lightly damaged on August 17, 1945, with no reported injuries. There was another interception the following day, when two Americans were wounded, Sgt Anthony Marcione fatally, to become the last US serviceman to be killed in the Second World War. -- DF]

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