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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.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.