Laurence Rees: Kenichiro Oonuki, a Japanese student, knew that once the war began he would have to give up his studies and join the armed forces. But he had a dream.
Words of Kenichiro Oonuki: The young people at that time had a sense of longing about being a pilot. If you have to join the army, I thought being a pilot may be interesting. So it was a simple motivation. Nobody knew nor dreamt that this –that kind of sad ending – was awaiting. If you have to go to war in the end you may meet your death, but being a pilot and meeting your death may be a lot better rather than fighting on the ground and shot by a bullet. The youngsters have a simple thinking like that.
Laurence Rees: Then in the Autumn of 1944 he and the rest of the trainee pilots at his base were ordered to assemble and listen to the words of a senior officer.
Words of Kenichiro Oonuki: All the pilots of fighter planes were called together, about 150 in that training base, and the senior officer, the head of that troop, told us that they were recruiting those who wanted to apply for a special mission – and at the end of this special mission there is no survival. That was the lecture. And everybody returned to one's room and we discussed among fellow student soldiers, and we discussed what this special mission was all about. During the training we saw various accidents. An accident immediately led to death. So we had seen the death of our colleagues already. But when we fulfil this special mission and achieve that, why is it that we cannot come back alive? So we're not sure. So our representative went to the senior officer, the head of the troop, and asked what this special mission is all about. And we were told that we have a bomb on our plane and then simply crash into an enemy vessel and explode ourselves. There's no possibility of survival.
So we were taken aback. I felt it was not the type of mission I would willingly apply for. Everybody thought that was ridiculous and nobody really was willing to go. And we wanted to give that answer. But later on we thought, ‘Wait. Can we write ‘no’? What would happen? What would become of us?’ We were cornered. If you are sparing your life, you are not committed enough, dedicated enough? You are a coward. And shame on you. How can we respond to that? In the military there are no reasons. We could not simply say that we are not willing to meet our death with such a mission. When you joined the forces, then you should be determined to dedicate your life, to throw your life away, that was the atmosphere. And I will be labelled as a coward and not worthy of being an officer. Shameful. Fully ostracised, isolated, put together and sent to the forefront of the most severe battle and meet a sure death anyway. And it will be reported back to my family. When my family is informed of that, how would the family feel? They will be ostracised in the community. Your son is a coward, not honourable, shameful. I've heard of many cases of such in the past. So thinking all of that, we have no choice but to write ‘yes, with all my heart’. That was the pressure all around us. So everyone put down the answer which is opposite from what we were feeling. Probably it’s unthinkable in the current days of peace. Nobody wanted to, but everybody said, ‘Yes, with all my heart.’ That was the surrounding atmosphere. We could not resist.
Laurence Rees: Oonuki and his comrades were sent to special training to learn how to dive bomb their planes on enemy ships. And one day in early April 1944 they were told to take off to attack allied ships off the island of okinawa. But Oonuki’s plane had technical problems so he couldn’t leave with the pilots he had trained with.
Words of Kenichiro Oonuki: I went to my colleagues, once their engines had already started and they were on the runway. The azaleas were in full bloom, and so I made a bouquet of azaleas and gave it to my pilot comrades. And one comrade said, ‘I am going ahead of you. I wanted to meet my destiny with you. I’m sorry.’ They were the saddest eyes I ever saw. It’s often said that before one’s death a person has that really sad expression in their eyes, like a deep-sea fish looking up at the blue sky above.
Laurence Rees: But Oonuki’s turn came two days later when, his plane repaired, he took off with a new group of kamikaze pilots, to take part in the battle of Okinawa.
Words of Kenichiro Oonuki: And everybody was calm. And it is said that they were all fanatic and hot and heated up to attack the enemy fleet. It wasn't the case. No, it was very calm. What happened at the last moment, you can say that human beings will think about various things, but at the very end you have to be fully determined and fully convinced. So when I thought that I had only 20 minutes to Okinawa, then I felt taken aback. You see that death, one's own death, is something you have not experienced before, so you don't feel realistic about it. Even though your death is hanging right in front of you, it would be very difficult to fully convince yourself that in 20 minutes time in Okinawa, above Okinawa, you are to die. And I had a deep sense of fear, instinctive sense. Oh, but no way, no way to go back. I've crossed the line of no return.
Laurence Rees: But before he reached Okinawa, Oonuki’s plane once again developed technical problems, and he was forced to make an emergency landing on a nearby Japanese held island. From there he was picked up by a Japanese launch and taken back to face his superiors.
Words of Kenichiro Oonuki: I felt it was dishonour, because the special attack mission means you must meet an honourable death. So as a solider it meant mission unfulfilled if I survived. Whatever the reason, survival gave you the sense of a burden. Your colleagues, to whom you have a stronger bond than almost your family, have passed away – but you simply survived. We were all reprimanded and scolded. We were told, ‘Don’t you feel sorry and shameful and guilty in the face of all those that have passed away? You are a disgrace to those who died.’ Every possible accusation was made against us by senior officers. It was just the weakness of our mind that we survived. And then I was beaten by a bamboo sword to the extent that I could not move at all. We couldn’t even kill ourselves – we didn’t have anything to do it with.
During the war, be that combatant or non-combatant, everybody had to go through very sad, miserable experiences. Wars are something which should be driven out of this earth altogether. But when a country starts fighting another country, then combatant or non-combatant or general public, everybody has to be drawn in, take part. You could not simply say no and stay away. You are drawn into this major vortex and swirling around without your own will. So on my part, whether I liked it or not I was a soldier, so I have to fulfil my mission. But that special mission attack, kamikaze attack, that was an operation of folly – ridiculous.