Wings of Defeat – Kamikaze Pilots Who Survived

A kamikaze pilot flies over a U.S. carrier in his burning plane. National Archives.
A kamikaze pilot flies over a U.S. carrier in his burning plane. National Archives.

One candidly admits that his reaction upon being told he was to fly his mission was, “Oh, I’m screwed.”

Internationally, kamikaze pilots remain a potent metaphor for fanaticism. In Japan, they are largely revered for their selfless sacrifice. Yet few outside Japan know that hundreds of kamikaze pilots survived the war.

On Tuesday, May 5 at 10:00 pm (check local listings), PBS’ Independent Lens presents Wings of Defeat, a documentary produced by Risa Morimoto that tells the kamikaze story from two dramatically different perspectives. A survivors’ reunion of the USS Drexler, a destroyer instantly sunk by kamikaze late in the war, provides a backdrop for the American perspective and a nuanced counterpoint to the kamikaze stories.

Through rare interviews with surviving kamikaze pilots, viewers learn that the military demanded pilots volunteer to give up their lives. Retracing their journeys from teenagers to doomed pilots reveals a complex history of brutal training and ambivalent sacrifice.

Wings of Defeat has just received the 2009 Erik Barnouw Award by the Organization of American Historians, given annually for outstanding reporting or programming on network or cable television, or in documentary film, concerned with American history, the study of American history, and/or the promotion of history.

The review by Richard R. Muller reprinted below originally appeared in the October/November 2008 issue of World War II magazine.

Wings of Defeat
Director: Risa Morimoto
Time: 90 minutes. Color/B&W. Edgewood Pictures.

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz remarked that the U.S. Navy’s Pacific war pretty much unfolded according to plan. The only surprise, he admitted, was the kamikaze campaign. Imperial Navy suicide pilots sank some 40 American warships and inflicted damage on hundreds more, mostly during the Okinawa operation in spring 1945. Today, the kamikaze campaign remains surrounded by misconceptions—something this powerful film will change, as it preserves the memories of a unique group of World War II vets: four kamikaze airmen, three of whom actually took off on missions against the American fleet off Okinawa.

Most Western views of the kamikaze have emphasized their mindless fanaticism, and after 9/11, many pundits suggested parallels between the suicide bombers of 2001 and the Special Attack Force. The film’s producer and director, Risa Morimoto, a Japanese American, shared that belief. Then, the surprising discovery that her late uncle had been in training for the kamikaze force (of his experiences he had told her only, “I was a pilot cadet”) forced her to confront this perception. She became determined to locate survivors of the dwindling kamikaze cadre, those who crash-landed safely during a mission, turned back with engine trouble, or were still in training when Japan surrendered. The result is a unique historical document as well as a gripping film.

A kamikaze goes down in flames. National Archives.
A kamikaze goes down in flames. National Archives.
Wings employs an effective combination: interviews with veterans, including sailors from the USS Drexler, a destroyer sunk by a kamikaze off Okinawa; commentary from historians, both American and Japanese; archival footage (much of it new and very effectively integrated); and visits to former kamikaze bases, memorials, and museums. The film’s centerpiece, of course, is the four airmen. Their stories reflect a continuing effort to come to terms with the Japanese wartime experience. One pilot speaks with pride of having answered his nation’s call, while another forcefully condemns the emperor for allowing the war to drag on. One candidly admits that his reaction upon being told he was to fly his mission was, “Oh, I’m screwed.” Some viewers may be taken aback by seeing one crew’s mission depicted as a manga cartoon, but the technique is very Japanese—and surprisingly effective. With first-rate production values added, this worthy documentary sheds new light on a poorly understood aspect of World War II.

To read an interview with an American sailor who survived a kamikaze attack off Okinawa, click here.

12 Responses

  1. TomCox

    Saburo, Japan’s leading WWII ace, discusses going on such a mission in his book Samauri. After his group failed to break through and returned to base he was never ordered on such a mission again

    Reply
  2. Ace

    It would suck sooo much to survive a kamikaze attack. ur legs would be hanging off and crap.

    Reply
  3. Duane Carter

    In 1955, while stationed at Yokota Air Force Base as a photographer, I went out on a photo excursion about 30 minutes from Fussa, Japan. Walking along with a friend, Bud Hoffman, we met, talked and were invited into the home of a former Kamikazi pilot. He had been injured, but survived the war. He showed us photos of himself with his comrades and with his plane. We sat on a tatami mat, drank his saki and our scotch and talked for a few hours. What an interesting experience. He was so cordial and invited us back, but I never did return.

    This is in regards to your ‘Wings of Defeat’ documentary.

    Reply
  4. john steven grissom

    Did these piolts have suicidal tendencies beofre being chosen for service as KAMIKAZE pilots? i mean, who the heck would take the job knowing absolutely for sure they were not coming back? stevegtexas@aol.com

    Reply
    • R

      they were not suicidal, they were absolutely normal people. you need to think of the japanese empire at the context of that time. serving your country and the emperor was very important to the japanese people. this sense of duty and responsibility was so strong that when the soldiers were asked who is willing to be on a mission such as this, i doubt there was even one japanese soldier that didnt step forward. of course many were willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the empire, the emperor and the japanese country.
      you can ask something very similar about the germans during wolrd war 2, were they blood thirsty to begin with, before committing all those crimes? of course the answer is no, germans back then were loyal to their government, so they did many things most of them never thought of doing, but it was for the sake of something much bigger than them.

      to understand things of this sort you need to look at the bigger picture. its very important to understand the circumstances of every era and every nation.

      Reply
  5. john steven grissom

    More can be found on this interesting topic on SODAHEAD.com where i originally posted the topic in regards to my above question posed to the others on sodahead about kamikazes. 2012. stevegtexas@aol.com

    Reply
  6. R

    i just read the first few sentences, and i must ask if this is accurate. i’m a student of japanese history and some things on those few sentences i read dont add up. saying “hundreds survived”, this is rather off. 200 soldiers volunteered for this mission, to have “hundreds” survive.. all those 200 pilots must be alive. and they’re not.
    furthermore, the little square on the side that says something like “if you were chosen you’re screwed”, they were not chosen, they volunteered. its true that many volunteered our of sense of responsibility and stuff like that, out of them only 200 actually went on the mission. but they were not just picked.

    Reply

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