“Be resolved that honor is heavier than the mountains and death lighter than the feather.”―Yasuo Kuwahara
July 4, 1945
The sun broke through the clouds and spilled shafts of light across the field. Where they fell across the aircraft lined up, engines idling, showed the first as the only one without a patchwork of repairs and binding. The others were Frankenstein creatures in the dawn light; like the monster in that American movie, Isamu thought. His mother had taken him to see its reshowing for his birthday in San Francisco. “Isamu, why do you like these awful movies? They are not suitable for you.” Six years she had been an appreciated if not respected cleaning woman in America. After December 7th of 1941, that had changed to loathing and then abuse. She had fled—just ahead of internment—to her family home and four years later, on March 9th of 1945, had died
Today was her birthday and his. ‘A day of no meaning now, and one that meant everything,’ he thought. Slender and tall for his age, Isamu’s fine features squinted into the sunrise. Long fingers held the soft cover on his head as the wind whipped across the field. He was sixteen years old.
Near a small building, an impermanent wooden blemish on the rich green grass of the field stood a man. The kaigun-dai’s, the lieutenant’s empty right sleeve of his uniform tunic pinned to his shoulder flapped in the wind. Despite the asymmetry of a missing arm, he was powerfully built. Solid chest and thick neck; a sturdy pillar for a head lacking an eye. Features stiff with pride, when he moved, you could see only part of the picture of the man he had once been. Shattered legs healed but never the same, he heaved one at a time in front of the other toward the five young men.
The kaigun-dai glared one-eyed into the sun, denying the need to shade it with his one hand, then glanced back at the line of pilots… ‘boys,’ he thought, ‘mere children.’ He turned to face them, the sun at his back, “Today you serve the Emperor. Today you become immortal!” ‘As do I,’ he thought. The words left his mouth with the taste of a false promise, but no matter… all was lost. With a final look, he willed them to raise their eyes to meet his before he lurched to the last plane in line.
The smallest and youngest boy stepped forward and marched quickly to meet the officer at the aircraft. Saluting the lieutenant, the boy climbed in and a mechanic locked the cockpit canopy in place on each side. It went quickly… three more boys, three more planes, then the last boy and second aircraft in line.
Striding to his plane, Isamu saluted. The shine of something on the officer’s hard face caught his eye for a second’s pause. Sweat or tears, he didn’t know. A blind eye still weeps… an uncaring soul still sweats. It didn’t matter which. He climbed into the cockpit and watched numbly as the sergeant secured the side closest to the officer. Not looking at him, the mechanic came around to the right and tried to seat the bolts, but that side had been repaired with wood already splintering, and the bolts no longer held. Not mentioning it to the officer, the sergeant returned to his place beside the building. Left-handed, the officer saluted the line of aircraft and shambled to the lead plane. Waving off help from the mechanic, he awkwardly one-arm pulled himself up the short ladder onto the wing and swung crooked legs into the cockpit. Unsealed, he would not have doubts or question duty.
The child-pilots’ three weeks of instruction had included no navigational training. They had barely absorbed basic instrument reading, power settings, and control movements. Hatchlings shoved too soon from the nest, today was their first solo flight. Lack of training would get them killed, but staying alive beyond today wasn’t the point.
At the side of the field, the sergeant waved a red flag. Isamu advanced his power setting three notches with the brakes on. He felt the shake of the increased RPMs. Not the shudder of power barely held in check, more the convulsing of a wounded animal forced to run when it wanted to lie down and die; a moan low in its throat. The green flag raised. Holding brakes, he went through what the kaigun-dai had drilled into them: Set power to half, watch the tail of the plane ahead and once it moved release brakes. When rolling, advance power to three quarters. Speed at 60; ease back on the stick; one more notch of power. Get wheels off the ground.
Airborne, the wind pushed him with the palm of its hand. A steady shove. In only a matter of minutes and a short distance from the field—geese once a hunter fires their first shot—they were scattered. The wind, the god’s breath moving clouds around a cerulean sky, startled them in all directions. Fighting it and trying to remember how to adjust trim to follow the lead plane; behind Isamu others less successful angled off as the wind took them. It was not far to fly. Each day the American ships drew closer; their pounding guns never-ceasing… the shells never-ending. Their submarines, sharks, severing the arteries of his country. Their planes, first buzzing insects, then crows devouring the fields, now buzzards. Carrion eaters circling with mouths agape over the dead and dying.
Isamu glanced at the control stick. His hands—artist’s hands his mother called them—gripped it. It shook and shivered in his grasp. The twitching of a dying animal. Soon he was over the Americans. So many ships! The sky became a garden of death flowers; black bursts of metal shards blossomed on their long smoke stalks and filled his view. Fireworks of the deadliest kind, each bloom sought his life.
Ahead, the kaigun-dai’s plane pitched down and dropped on the gray ships below. Explosions flailed the sky around him as Isamu pushed into a following dive. Fire and smoke ahead and below, suddenly the lead plane spun off to the right. One wing gone, its tail blown off… a discarded carcass, now it—and the kaigun-dai—nothing but food for the fish. A ship filled his windscreen; its bridge and forward gun, the flakes of fresh paint and new rust in exquisite clarity. The gun centered, and he stared down the black maw of his death. A flash as he flinched, yanking the stick to the right and the ship slid to the left. Ahead—for him—only gray-green churning water.
Slammed into the water, a rattle-shock of a can full of rocks dropped from a tall building onto the pavement, the cockpit canopy gave away. The taste of bright coppery blood and bits of teeth in a ruined mouth, Isamu’s hands still gripped the stick. It was quiet, then his mother’s voice whispered, ‘beautiful hands, artists’ hands.’ All Isamu saw before him were a weakling’s as the waves took him under.
* * *
July 4, 2012
‘… with the greatest respect, we offer our congratulations on your retirement after a long and honorable career in government.’
The hands holding the paper were knotted and gnarled; crooked fingers turned in, the roots of a plant confined in a too small pot. “Coward’s hands,” Isamu murmured. The reflection in the plexiglass displayed a scarred face and gaunt features eroded by life. Never married, he had served his country for many years, but once—when it needed him most—he’d turned from duty… from honor. Only to be pulled from the water, saved by those he hated. That still haunted him, his mother’s spirit would not let him forget… or forgive. Perhaps today he could put it—and her—to rest as should have been done decades ago.
But even for cowards, life is precious. He put the paper down on the right-hand seat of the Cessna. Sitting on the runway of the small airfield near Yokosuka, the late afternoon sunlight slanted onto his face through the windscreen and caught each line and the scars that marked it. Twenty years after the war he had become a real pilot. When he flew, it was always with the failure of what should have been his first and only solo flight in 1946. Five years ago, he’d bought this small airplane and kept it at a private airfield close to the coast. Paying extra to the owner so he’d not question whether an old, frail skeletal man should even fly.
It was time. Isamu did not think he could wait longer. The doctors had used the phrase, ‘on borrowed time,’ an Americanism he did not care for. He had paid for it over the years, in pain, blood and sleepless nights. The old wounds on his face and those ever-new hidden inside, his receipt. Tired of idling, the engine called him back. He must start. Advance the throttle three notches, holding the brakes. Release slowly, advancing the throttle to half and then three quarters. Ground speed 60 and pull back firmly. Add power. Get wheels off the ground. Isamu’s hands gripped the control column; not a stick but like driving a car. As he climbed, he noted, ‘no wind today,’ and turned to the east, the setting sun at his back. Bloody clouds bunched behind him; he flew out to sea three miles, turned north and then west again to approach Yokosuka harbor and the U.S. Naval Base from sea.
The port looked quiet from above. The ships below lined at the piers and docks. Over the port, at 200 feet he slowed and turned to choose his target.
* * *
Onboard the USS Montgomery, the ship’s quarterdeck and fantail were crowded with people; the spillover from the American-style cook-out on the helo deck a level above. The deck watch busy keeping an eye on the visiting kids and their parents did not see the plane until it was over the middle of the turning basin. Petty Officer of the Watch, OS2 John Morgan called to the Officer of the Deck, “Mr. Walker, you see that plane?”
“Yes, now I do… what in the hell is he doing… trying to spot something?”
“He’s made two turns and slowed; he’s gonna stall and go for a swim if he isn’t careful. Duffy bring me those binoculars.” Morgan took them from the Messenger of the Watch and focused on the airplane as it arced toward them.
“Mr. Walker that asshole has banked straight for us; crazy shit happens, sir, I’d clear the deck and call security alert.”
Still studying the approaching plane, the officer didn’t reply.
“Sir, what are your orders?”
“Shit,” Morgan muttered as the ensign seemed undecided. The plane had dropped further and picked up speed, he ran to the 1MC… “Security alert, security alert, all hands man their security alert stations. Security alert team and back-up alert force to the quarterdeck, port side.”
Turning from the 1MC, Morgan snapped out, “Duffy clear the deck and get these kids off the fantail and onto the pier.” Stepping to the port side, he took a clip out for his Beretta M9 sidearm. “Mr. Walker, I’m loading my weapon and chambering a round.” Slingshotting the first bullet, he stepped to the rail and faced the aircraft, now maybe 100 feet off and plummeting on them. Ready to shoot and run like hell, he lined up on the windscreen where the pilot would be sitting. It kept coming. Not waiting for the SAT and BAF teams, he exhaled and squeezed the trigger….
* * *
The dying sun in his face, Isamu thought, ‘I will not disgrace myself.’ He studied the ship growing larger before him; startled, he could now see people on the deck. There were Japanese children on the ship running to the gangplank and onto the pier. A jolt and a loud crack and the windscreen starred with a spider web of cracks and blew in. Blood flowed from where part of his forehead had been blown away. He pitched down and pushed right. Seconds later he slammed into the water beside the ship; the gray-green water remembered from so long ago. As the water surged through the shattered windscreen and over his head, he held his hands to his face, ‘Artists hands, hands to create, not destroy,’ he felt her ghost finally leave him, “I am sorry mother.”
As the plane settled, so did his soul. There was quiet and peace as the cool waters washed his torn face, easing old pain, as the sea took him, never to let go.
As it should have long ago.
“But seek only to preserve life, your own and those of others. Life alone is sacred.”―Yasuo Kuwahara