“Excellent short story. Your writing style reminds me of my favorite short story author–O’Henry!” – James G. Zumwalt
“It has an F. Scott Fitzgerald feel to it…. Irony. How wonderful. I love this story.” – Vicky Kline
“Be resolved that honor is heavier than the mountains
and death lighter than the feather.” ―Yasuo Kuwahara
July 4th, 1945
The sun broke through the clouds and spilled shafts of light across the field. Beams fell across the line of aircraft, engines idling, revealing 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 the movie’s re-showing for his birthday in San Francisco. She exclaimed, “Isamu, why do you like these awful movies? They are not suitable for you.” Still, she had taken him.
His mother had been an appreciated, if not respected, cleaning woman in America for six years. After December 7th of 1941, that changed to loathing and abuse. Just before internment, she and Isamu had fled to her family in Nippon.
Nearly four years later, on March 9th of 1945, she died hating the Americans. That first night of the firebombing of Tokyo killed over 100,000 others and left a million homeless.
Today was her birthday and his; an irony that it was also one of great celebration by Americans. For him, it had become a day of no meaning, ‘yet one that now meant everything,’ he thought as he stood at rigid attention. Slender, tall for his age, and fine-featured, Isamu 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.
A man stood near a small building, an impermanent wooden blemish on the verdant field. 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 burn-scarred head that lacked an eye. Face stiff with pride, when he moved, you could see a vestige of the man—the ferocious carrier pilot—he had once been. Shattered legs healed but never the same, he heaved them, haltingly one in front of the other, toward the five young men.
The kaigun-dai glared one-eyed into the sun, refusing to yield and use his one hand to shade it. After a defiant moment, he glanced back at the line of pilots. ‘Boys,’ he thought, ‘mere children.’ He turned to face them, putting the sun behind him. “Today, you serve the emperor as do I. Today, we become immortal!” The words from his mouth were bitter, false. But no matter… all was lost. With a fierce scowl, he willed them to raise their eyes to meet his before he lurched to the last airplane 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 on each side. It went quickly… three more boys, three more airplanes, then the last boy and second aircraft in line.
Striding to his aircraft, Isamu saluted. The shine 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… a hardhearted soul still sweats. It didn’t matter which. Isamu climbed into the cockpit and watched numbly as the sergeant secured the side closest to the kaigun-dai. 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 kaigun-dai, the sergeant returned to stand by the building.
Left-handed, the kaigun-dai saluted the line and shambled to the lead airplane, the only genuinely worthy aircraft for a warrior, a tired, worn, but still deadly Mitsubishi A6M, Type Zero. 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, study the aircraft’s tail ahead, and release brakes once it moved. 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, 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 aircraft; behind Isamu, others failed and angled off as the wind took them.
It was not far to fly. The American ships drew closer each day, their pounding guns never-ceasing… the shells never-ending. Their submarines, sharks, severing the arteries of his country. Their airplanes, first buzzing insects, then ravening 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. Each bloom sought his life. Fireworks of the deadliest kind.
Ahead, the kaigun-dai’s Zero pitched down and dropped on a gray ship below. Explosions flailed the sky as Isamu pushed into a following dive. Fire and smoke ahead and below. Suddenly, the lead aircraft 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.
The ship filled Isamu’s windscreen. Its bridge and forward gun showed broad swaths 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, and the cockpit canopy gave way. 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 those of a weakling as the waves took him under.
* * *
July 7th, 2012
‘… with the greatest respect, we congratulate you on your retirement after a long and honorable career in government.’
The quaking hands holding the creased paper Isamu read from were knotted, and gnarled fingers twisted like 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 and 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. It caught each line and the scars that marked it. Twenty years after the war, Isamu had become a proper pilot. When he flew, it was always with the failure of what should have been his first and only solo flight in July 1945. 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 fly alone.
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 in pain, blood, and decades of near-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 three miles, turned north, and then west again to approach Yokosuka harbor and the U.S. Naval Base from the sea.
The port was quiet this late Saturday afternoon. The ships below lined 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 4th of July celebration cook-out ending on the helo deck a level above. The deck watch monitored the visiting school kids and their chaperones. They did not see the aircraft until it was nearly over the middle of the turning basin. Petty Officer OS2 Morgan Behrry called to the Officer of the Deck, “Mr. Walker, you see that airplane?”
“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 seaman Messenger 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 aircraft, the officer didn’t reply.
“Sir, what are your orders?” Morgan asked and waited. “Fuck,” Morgan muttered as the ensign seemed undecided. The airplane 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. “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 plummeting on them. Ready to shoot and run like hell, he sighted on the windscreen where the pilot would sit. It kept coming. Not waiting for the SAT and BAF teams, he exhaled and squeezed the trigger….
* * *
With 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. Japanese children were on the ship running to crowd the gangplank onto the pier.
With a jolt and a loud crack, the windscreen starred with a spider web of cracks and blew in. Blood flowed from where part of his forehead had been blown away and gashes from the shards of the windshield’s stretched acrylic glass. Isamu pitched down and pushed right. Seconds later, he slammed into the water beside the ship; the gray-green water welcomed him as it had so long ago.
As the water surged through the shattered windscreen and over his head, Isamu held his hands to his face, ‘artist’s hands, to create, not destroy.’ “I am sorry, Mother,” he cried as her ghost finally released him.
As the aircraft settled, so did his soul. There was quiet and peace as the soothing 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