A Day with a WWII Kamikaze Pilot

By | March 13, 2017

[March 13, 2017]  I know that it may seem an unlikely story, but it is true that I actually met a Japanese Kamikaze pilot from World War II.  Since their primary task was to attack Allied naval vessels by crashing their planes into ships, meeting one was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

McGuire Air Force Base hosts the Tuskegee Airman Chapter and often their luncheons locally.  A few years ago, I had been invited as a guest of the squadron commander and sat at his table with several WWII veterans.  One of those at his table was a Southern Baptist minister who was Japanese; Mr. Hiroto Tanaka (I think that’s right).  It surprised me to learn that he had trained as a Kamikaze pilot toward the end of WWII.

He had been raised in a traditional Japanese family in a small village on the northern island of, Hokkaidō.  He learned much from the elders (leaders) of the village; mostly he says that he learned “acute respect” [his term].  Respect was the basis of everything he did as a young boy to include working in the fields to harvest various crops and to carry water.

Like most folks I know, I grew up hearing about the stories of Kamikaze pilots from American veterans who had served in the Pacific Theater.  I learned from them that Japanese pilots were fanatical and maybe crazy to do such a thing.  That came from what they did by crashing their explosive-laden planes into navy ships but also much of it came from conjecture.

Decades later I would get the chance to ask a question that I hadn’t thought about since I was 10 years old; “why did they do it?”  Why did young men volunteer to kill themselves in their service to their Emperor and country?  I was told by this religious gentleman that military members in Japanese society occupy one of the most prestigious and honorable positions.

If asked to be a Kamikaze pilot meant nothing out of the ordinary.  Anyone asked to volunteer, of course, did so immediately and probably without reservation.  It didn’t take a leader of men to convince or encourage them to do so.  It didn’t take family members, a priest, or school teachers to persuade them to volunteer, but they did so anyway.  What it took was a life of learning to respect others and to value their countrymen over themselves.  This story is not that out of the ordinary.1

What I found particularly interesting was that he felt shame that he was never able to carry out his duty.  His view (at the time) was common.  Some say they were brainwashed into blind obedience to their Emperor.  I don’t think so.  Today, Mr. Tanaka has no misgivings, nor should he.

An important lesson here for leaders is to never underestimate the enemy or prejudice your thoughts about them; you may be wrong.

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  1. A few years ago I ran upon a BBC article on the Japanese Kamikaze pilots. The similarities between Mr. Hiroto Tanaka who I met at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey and Mr. Tadamasa Itatsu in the BBC article is startling.  It can be found here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26256048


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

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