For nearly seventy years, Kazuo Odachi, a respected police officer, insurance investigator, and Kendo-sensei in Japan, kept secret that during the last months of World War II he was a young kamikaze pilot who flew eight suicide missions but miraculously survived. Odachi’s memoir was published in Japanese in 2016, and has now been translated into English. It is a remarkable story of youth, comradeship, courage, honor, despair, recovery, introspection, and closure.
The book, as Shigeru Ohta explains, is a transcript of Odachi’s recollections as told to Ohta, a lawyer and prosecutor, and Ohta’s collaborator Hiroyoshi Nishijima, a journalist. Both men marveled at Odachi’s lucid memory and vivid descriptions of long ago events. Odachi tells his story unfiltered by political correctness and in a no-nonsense, straightforward manner emblematic of the best policemen.
Odachi was 16-years-old in the spring of 1943, when he began training at the Iwakuni Naval Air Base in Tamaguchi Prefecture. Six months later, he relocated to the Nagoya air base near the town of Koromo, and a few months after that was sent to another base in Oita. His training was expedited because, as he later learned, “the war was not going well” for Japan. (Ohta and Nishijima helpfully use footnotes and “special columns” to provide historical context to Odachi’s text).
In February 1944, Odachi transferred to Kasanohara Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture, “where the real fighter pilot drills began.” The training there included taking off and landing on aircraft carriers, shooting exercises, chasing tactics, and flying in formation. From there he was transferred to Hsinchu Air Base on Taiwan, where he escorted convoys between Taiwan and mainland China, and in October 1944 engaged in air combat with American warplanes over the island. “The tactics drilled into us so thoroughly,” he lamented, “were hopeless against the overwhelming clout of American planes.”
Odachi’s squadron was moved to Clark Air Field in the Philippines, and it was there that Odachi and other pilots “volunteered” to fly Kamikaze missions. Odachi, then age 17, notes that he and the other pilots were invited by superior officers to volunteer for suicide missions. “None of us,” he recalled, “had the audacity to reject this ‘volunteer proposal’ even though we were told it was a “personal decision’.” He thereafter resented “the way we were petitioned by our commanding officers as if we had a choice.” “We were essentially cajoled into committing suicide,” Odachi concludes.
As US General Douglas MacArthur’s forces fought their way to Manila and farther north, Odachi’s squadron was evacuated to Taiwan and nearby smaller islands, where kamikaze bases were established at Taichung, Xinshe, Tainan, Hsinchu, Yilan, and Ishigakijima. Between 4 April 1945 and August 1945, Odachi flew eight kamikaze missions (with bombs strapped to his Zero fighters’ underbellies) but for a variety of reasons—including failure to locate targets and being chased away by American warplanes—he failed to successfully strike an American warship. Other pilots were not so fortunate, including several of his close friends and colleagues. The kamikaze pilots called their planes “our winged coffins”.
On August 15, 1945, after the atomic bombs had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Odachi was ordered to carry out a suicide attack on American warships near Okinawa. “The established objective,” he recalled, “was to pummel the US fleet, especially targeting big prizes like carriers.” As he throttled his Zero fighter forward on the runway, a vehicle drove toward him and he heard, “Abort attack.” Japan had surrendered. The war was over. To this day, Odachi wonders why this final mission was ordered. It was, he says, an “unconscionable directive”; the brass “cared little about our lives”.
After the war, Odachi became a police officer, steadily rose through the ranks, and ended his 36-year law enforcement career as a commander. He briefly mentions some of his more interesting criminal investigations. After that, he worked as an insurance investigator. He also took up Kendo (martial art swordsmanship) and has trained others in Kendo for more than 30 years. As of this writing, he has reached the age of 94.
Odachi proudly notes that his ancestors were samurai in the Nitta-Genji clan in the 12th century. He recalls that when he applied to become a fighter pilot he was “determined to follow the warrior ‘Way’.”
I was young and believed that fighting for one’s country, like the samurai of old fighting for their lords, was a righteous cause. I never regretted it, but after becoming a policeman and through teaching Kendo … I started to ruminate on whether my ‘Way’ was right or not.
Odachi and other kamikaze pilots were unquestionably courageous, loyal, and patriotic in their willingness to sacrifice their lives for their emperor and country. Wars bring out the best and worst in the mostly young men that fight in them. Japan was a militaristic, aggressive imperial power before and during World War II. Many of its soldiers committed unspeakable atrocities in China and the other lands Japan occupied. Japan’s treatment of prisoners of war was atrocious. Odachi and other kamikaze pilots fought courageously in a bad cause for an evil regime. It is an age-old conundrum.
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.