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The scratchy recorded voice that fought its way out of the oft-repaired speakers had a few more minutes to run. Sixteen-year-old Mitsuharu Nagase had already heard enough to cause tears to flow down his cheeks. He shot a sideward glance at a squadron mate standing next to him who was sobbing as well. Despite the poor acoustics, no one misunderstood what they were hearing. Their country was surrendering. “That’s not the Emperor!” someone in the room shouted. “It’s an American trick!”

The squadron leader, a Lieutenant Omori, leapt onto the stage and brought his hands down to command silence. The 60 young men complied. They remained quiet, listening until only the scratching of the needle on the record indicated the conclusion of the dramatic announcement. Again the officer motioned for silence, but the crying continued—too convulsive to be stopped. Cupping his hands around his mouth, the lieutenant bellowed: “That was our Emperor! There is no doubt! He has ended the war!”

The men stood in place sobbing and looking at the floor for nearly 10 minutes. “We were crying like babies,” Nagase remembered.

For several months, Nagase had trained diligently for one goal—to deliberately sacrifice his life for his country. At first the notion of voluntarily crashing a plane into an enemy ship was difficult for him to fathom. After an American firebomb raid killed his mother and siblings in their home in Nagoya, however, he lost any hope or desire to survive the war and thought only of avenging his family’s deaths. His resolve was strengthened by superior officers who daily harangued him with the question, “What good would it do you to survive the war only to live under the boot of the American invaders?”

The 16-year-old even knew the date and the time of his impending death. He had seen it in written orders: “Pvt. Mitsuharu Nagase of the Wakazakura Tai [Young Cherry Tree Unit], flying a Nakajima 97 aircraft, will leave at 0900 hours 23 August 1945 to attack enemy ships and sacrifice his life for the Emperor of Japan.” The date had been marked on the calendar hanging on the squad room wall.

But on August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito’s announcement ended the fighting, though it would be another week or two before all the details were finalized. Only a few months earlier, Nagase had been just another middle school student. Now, the anticipated date of his death only nine days away, he was weeping—distraught that he would not be able to kill himself and ashamed that he would live to adulthood.

A sobbing squadron mate put his arm around Nagase and said: “Our country lies defeated, and we have not had our chance to do what we could to save it. This is the saddest day of my life.” Three soldiers rushed up on the stage, interrupting the weeping and quiet meditation. “Who stands with us?” they pleaded. “Our country is not defeated as long as the Wakazakura Tai is alive and has airplanes. Let us all mount bombs to our planes and form one great armada. We will strike such a mighty blow that there will be some minds changed about this surrender.”

One or two in the audience spontaneously joined them, but most just stood still and waited to see what the officers might do. Major Nakakawa, the commander of Wakazakura Tai, slowly climbed the steps to the front of the stage. His voice trembling, he spoke in a carefully measured tone. “I am proud of the spirit of great patriotism that lives in your hearts,” he said. “None of you should feel any shame. No one could do more than to offer one’s life for his country. It is only I who failed. Now I am asking myself: Could I have better trained my men to avoid anti-aircraft fire, to improve their angle of attack and all of the other things that might have given us the edge for victory?

“As the war has turned out, I have sent hundreds of young men to their death… needlessly. I alone am responsible. I admire your courage to continue the war, but all that we have done and shall do in the future is carried out at the will of our Emperor. He just now clearly expressed that will. You must end the fighting and submit to the conqueror. Japan’s future will need you.”

Nakakawa paused and hung his head so long that Nagase thought he had concluded. At last, the major looked up and spoke, his voice now choking with his feelings: “I cannot find the words to tell you men how proud I am, and how much I love each of you. You are….” His words trailed off, and he stumbled from the stage. Omori caught his arm and guided him until he was steady on his feet.

Nagase watched in silence as the major made his way to one of the quarters that had been constructed for senior officers at the rear of the squad room. He was pondering his commander’s feelings when one of the fliers announced, “It’s chow time, and I’m hungry.”

“How can you think of feeding your belly at a time like this?” Nagase asked. There was no answer, and the rest of the boys talked about visiting a shrine or finding lost friends. Some wondered how the Americans would treat them.

A loud pistol shot from the room where the major had gone shattered the quiet. No one wondered what had happened. They knew. Captain Iwata was first to enter the major’s office. Through the crack in the door, Nagase saw the major on the floor, blood pulsing from his head with each dying heartbeat.

Shortly thereafter, Nagase was no longer a kamikaze, just another Japanese youngster on a crowded train making his way home. As he jostled along, he scribbled a quick haiku on the back of his discharge papers in an attempt to capture his thoughts at the moment.

Autumn and this train

Race each other through the dusk

To vacant nowhere

As the train pulled into Nagoya, Nagase was surprised to see how little damage the station had sustained. The intelligence officer in his unit had once mentioned to the squadron that the Americans seemed to be sparing the railroads. Pushing himself out of the train, Nagase headed south from the station. His family’s home was in that direction. Some 200 meters beyond the tracks, there was nothing. Not a building remained standing.

To get home, Nagase counted the blocks, trying to remember how far the house should be from the station. As he walked, he met a man pulling a cart, followed by two women who were scavenging for anything of value along the street. When they found a kitchen utensil or a toy that could be repaired, they dropped it in the cart. One of the women, with her head down, almost ran into Nagase. She bowed and apologized, and then asked: “Did you know they firebombed this same area three times? They must have had so many bombs they just dumped them anywhere. Places that are already burned are burned again.” As she spoke, a C-47 transport plane bringing in occupation troops came into view. In panic, both women scurried back to the cart. “The war has ended! No more bombs!” shouted Nagase.

He lost track of his block count after the encounter. A blackened reinforced concrete building on the right might have been his elementary school. Here and there he saw stone fences, but nothing looked familiar. The setting sun produced long shadows, giving every surviving object a ghostly appearance. In those evocative surroundings, Nagase felt the spirits of his mother and sisters had come out to speak with him. When darkness fell, he became disoriented and stumbled into a half-demolished chimney. He climbed onto a pile of rubble, raised his face to the sky and begged his mother for forgiveness. He apologized for failing to avenge her death and asked that she guide his life. His nostrils filled with the smell of an incinerated nation, he cleared out a spot among the ashes, lay down and fell asleep.

An orphan now, Nagase moved in with relatives and in 1948 finished an education that had been interrupted by the war. His best subject on returning to school was English, and under the tutelage of his instructors the former kamikaze pilot became fluent. Nagase’s facility with the language led to a civilian job with the U.S. Air Force.

Having impressed his superiors, Nagase obtained a student visa with the help of an American colonel in 1953 to study in the United States. A degree in engineering led him to a position at General Dynamics Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas, where he worked until his retirement. Today, Nagase and his American wife live in a small community outside Fort Worth.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here