Standing at the edge of the flight deck, the shimbu-tai, or Special Attack Unit insignia on my arm listened against the rising sun as the cool morning breeze almost swept away my side cap. Frantic in motion, I stopped it from flying into the sunrise; losing it was a sign of death at the hands of the enemy. This every sailor knew, and today we couldn’t afford to die in the hands of the enemy, even if we were to die anyway. In the distance, one could see our objective – the Midway Islands. It was a breathtaking sight, the Islands rising above the horizon, as the glinting rays of the morning sun fell on the mortar-hit terrain.
Yet where the sun rays didn’t fall, smoke rose from the armor-clad bellowing beasts of the USN Pacific Fleet. 80,000 tons of state-of-the-art weaponry, and here we were – 300 men. That was our objective, to win the Islands back, with a meager strength of 300 planes against their whole advancing fleet. Praise be to the divine stars above if the Americans hadn’t launched their planes already. I looked around me and at that moment, I realized that every little thing was having a battle of its own. The Islands stood arrogantly against the onslaught of the attackers, the Corps of Engineers worked round-the-clock to have every aircraft in pristine condition, even the rough ocean currents splashed angrily against the metal hull of the Akagi as we sailed forward.
It felt bizarre, what we were doing, but as my feet absorbed the deep hum of our engines below, as propellers roared to life behind me, and as our flag fluttered beside me, it felt beautiful at the same time. This short-lived beauty was what every Japanese citizen aspired to achieve – to feel honorable. We were the divine wind the empire so dearly needed, and to bless it the Emperor himself came and saw us off into battle. Well, the reality sure was grim if the Emperor himself descended to our messy quarters drenched in sweat and soiled with blood. I turned around and saw the mess I was standing amidst. No matter how beautiful propaganda portrayed it to be, it still was propaganda, and the reality was far from being beautiful.
Overnight citizens ‘voluntarily’ drafted to serve. Without any liberty to disclose any information to their loved ones, they were sent off hundreds of kilometers away into the high seas. Sickness and unfamiliarity weren’t the only things they had to ward off – there was grueling training present for them as well. Step by step they were instructed on achieving their fate, and deviating from it meant high treason. They were all exercises in futility, for our forces were of no match to the Americans. Yet handing down a manual and forty hours of training was what every twenty-year-old held on to as they marched towards their planes. One close observation and you could see their reluctance to sit in that leather seat of doom; their steps taken slowly and their bodies showing signs of despair, it felt as if we had already given up on our mission. We hadn’t, for only if we had common sense we would’ve realized plunging into thick armor while yelling is just a waste of precious life. We would’ve realized the war had ended for us sooner than we all thought, and we should’ve surrendered. But bless our willpower for till the time we held on to our side caps, no enemy could kill us.
It is in this thought of sadness that a frenzied idea came over me – to let go. How hard would it be, to simply plunge into the ocean? The pain would be momentary, even if excruciating, thrashing against the metal of the hull. At least I wouldn’t have to bear the pain of being burnt, exploded, or charred to death, if not being riddled with bullets. I hovered my left leg in the air, swinging it above the choppy waves crashing against the ship as my eyes penetrated the blue of the ocean.
“It is time, Katsumi-san.”
The voice of my engineer made me reel back into reality as I turned towards him. His furrows were of stress and tire, yet he stood tall and proud as he handed me the ceremonial robes and sake to drink. We both looked at each other, and he could see the tears welled up in my eyes, just wanting to end this pain. He bowed down humbly as he extended the tray of contents. Ignoring the sake and robes, I kept a letter there and walked towards my plane, my eyes filled with tears. “Long live the Emperor”, I murmured to myself.
Dear honorable Mother and Father My time has come, yet I do not feel the slightest of regret for my actions. I have grown intimate with death, knowing that it shan’t befall you when I would do my duty to the fullest. It is with a burdened heart that I leave you, yet there is only pride in myself as I take my aircraft to the skies. I promised our Emperor of a Japanese victory, and that is one I shall provide with all my will. My belongings shall reach you in a little while, and I only pray that I was a good son. Do not be sad about my fate, for there is nothing better I would want to do than serve my country with pride and loyalty. Take care of yourself in the coming winter.
Your proud and loving son, Katsumi.
I kept the letter down and saluted Katsumi-san’s plane whizzing by, as a side cap swept under the blow of wind towards the sea.