The road to understanding
I began to feel extremely uneasy as I walked up the steep hill's crude log steps, which had almost been entirely reclaimed by the rich, dark, earth. The canopy of trees and vines had blocked out the sunlight. There was no breeze. It was stifling, eerie, quiet.
I grasped the fragile wooden railing, dried out with time, but let go because I would feel like I had desecrated a grave if I had broken it -- this was hallowed ground.
In front of me was Akihisa Torihama, a Japanese man whose grandmother is famous and revered in Japan for serving as a mother away from home for the kamikaze pilots of World War II - and in some cases even serving them their last meals at her restaurant here in town.
We approached a small clearing. There, in the middle of the woods, a small stone marker and simple bench marked the spot where a log barracks once stood, where hundreds of kamikaze pilots had spent their last night on earth.
Torihama motioned a salute to commanding officers long gone as the pilots must have done on the morning of their final mission. After their salute, they would go to the nearby airfield, drink a final glass of liquor, and they were off. Then it was two hours, past Mount Kaimon, and out to sea to attack U.S. forces at Okinawa in the waning months of World War II. The pilots would try and get past the ship's guns and crash into them, looking for carriers first, carrying a fuel tank on one side of the plane and a bomb on the other.
A chill went up my spine. I had made it to my destination in Chiran, Japan, home of the old Chiran Air Base; I was walking in the footsteps of the kamikaze.
For some reason, the words of kamikaze Capt. Ryoji Uehara -- who died May 11, 1945, at age 22 -- played over and over in my head as we stood in solitude in the woods. I had heard them the day before at the former air base turned peace museum.
"Though we know that people must leave each other whenever we meet, why is the parting between us so sad?"
Chiran is a sleepy farming village in Minamikyushu City, encircled by lush mountains and crystal-clear ocean on the southern tip of Kyushu. The village is renowned for its green tea, sweet potatoes and its connection to the kamikaze pilots of World War II.
As you enter the village, you notice stone lanterns lining the streets. One by one, they whiz past. A closer examination reveals that they are numbered, one for each of the 1,036 army kamikaze to die in the battle for Okinawa at the end of the war. Sixty percent of these pilots were teens or college-aged boys - called "the young boy pilots." Just under half of these pilots flew out of Chiran. The lanterns are large, foreboding, and feature the relief of a pilot and words etched in Japanese.
I followed the stone lanterns up a huge winding hill. At the top, I found the old base, now called the Chiran Peace Museum for "Kamikaze" Pilots.
The base was set up in December 1941 as a branch of the Tachiarai Military Pilot School. In March of 1945 -- as U.S. forces bore down on Okinawa, finally threatening mainland Japan -- the base switched its focus to the kamikaze. Here the pilots were trained, lived, and spent their final days before their missions.
Kamikaze means divine wind, after the typhoon that defeated Kublai Khan as he attempted to invade Japan from the sea in 1281 with hordes of Mongolian warriors.
According to my new friends Takeshi Kawatoko, a retired Japanese Army Colonel turned museum official, and curator Noriaki Kaneda, the Battle of Leyte in October of 1944 was the first time Japanese forces employed the horrific tactics of the kamikaze.
They were to be that divine wind that would "save" Japan and were the brainchild of Japanese Imperial Navy Admiral Takijiro Onishi. The operation involving the Chiran pilots was done between March and July 1945. During this time period, 1,036 army kamikaze died, with 439 taking off from Chiran.
DISPLAYS AND FAMILY
The museum features 12,500 items related to Japan's army kamikaze pilots, 70 percent of which are on display. They have photos of each of the pilots who during the battle in the order in which they died.
To this day, more than 200 family members of the pilots come to the museum's memorial service on May 3. The Japanese are very protective of the pilots and their families, so don't try and take any photos at the museum. It is strictly forbidden. Even with a special press armband that gave me permission and identified me to museum-goers, I was scolded several times by older Japanese for doing so.
The museum also has 6,400 letters, personal belongings, and writings that the soldiers left behind in addition to many informative videos, displays, and exhibits to peruse. Most of these offer English translation.
The grounds are sprawling and feature shrines for the deceased pilots, more lanterns, monuments to Tome Torihama amongst others, and beautiful sculptures and landscaping. There are also statues, one of a kamikaze pilot about to get into his plane for takeoff, and another of his mother, solemnly watching him leave.
Some of my favorite exhibits included the large painting at the museum's entrance, depicting six heavenly maidens carrying a burning pilot from his falling plane, a piano on which two pilots played Beethoven's "Moonlight" the night before they sortied out, the actual wreckage from one of the kamikaze planes which was pulled from the sea floor, and their barracks, with mats and pillows, as if the pilots will be returning soon.
According to Takeshi, the museum was opened to "commemorate those pilots and to expose the tragic loss of their lives so that we all might better understand the need for everlasting peace and hopefully to ensure such tragedies are never repeated."
LETTERS FROM THE PAST
I was very conflicted as I looked at the items in the museum and I experienced a wide range of emotions. I was saddened to see the young boys who were sent to a certain death. They smiled in many pictures, seemingly happy to meet death, but Takeshi said the pilots wept in private over their service and short lives.
The exhibits were amazing, and their items were in excellent condition, from the pilot's boots to their letters, as if they were left just yesterday.
Some of their letters drew my anger, as they called Americans ugly, and also said that they could not wait to kill the enemy. As I read these, I shuddered with each loud explosion that shook the walls from adjoining rooms with televisions, and actual footage of the kamikaze striking U.S. warships.
I had to keep telling myself that they were brainwashed by the Japanese government and military officials at the time.
And there was also something very human contained in their words.
"Dear Mother," wrote 2nd Lt. Haruo Ohhashi, who died at the age of 27 on April 1, 1945. "How have you been? I feel that my 28 years of life was like a dream. I thank you for your effort and love for me during these 28 years. So I will go today with bravery. As for my wife Ayako, please take care of her. We did not have a formal wedding ceremony yet. And we wanted to go home for once. However, we could not until now."
Other pilots wrote notes that they wanted to attack in top-of-the-line aircraft and not the obsolete models they were using. Takeshi said that they must have felt very lonely and sad on their way out to sea.
After I read as many letters as I could, I sat down in a quiet corner of the museum and began to write in a museum reflection book. I wrote that my grandfather was a U.S. Marine on a ship in the Pacific during the war and had heard tales of the kamikaze. I continued: If the pilots had helped to inspire Japan to a more peaceful future, then maybe they hadn't died in vain. As I wrote in solitude, a small, old, Japanese woman approached me smiling.
"Peace is so important," she said in near-perfect English. I tried to talk more to her, but found that we couldn't communicate very well. We smiled at one another and she made her way off. Perhaps the kamikaze, by exposing war's true ugliness to its people, had helped save Japan even though they lost the war?
As a Stripes reporter covering the U.S. military and as a history buff, I really wanted to see the Hotaru-kan or "Firefly House," and the Tomiya Inn, about a 20-minute walk from the museum.
The inn housed Tome's restaurant -- the Tomiya eatery. This is where the pilots confided their fears in her and cried about their short lives. It was here that they called her Mom, ate their last meals, wrote letters to family that she agreed to sneak out past the military censors, and got their final hugs before taking their fateful flights.
I met Akihisa -- who would be my guide up the mountain later in the day -- next door, at the Firefly House, which he had built as an exact replica of his grandmother's restaurant.
Inside, he had put together a very impressive museum. This included Tome's items and relics from the restaurant, from its old radio to her one-of-a-kind pilot school photo albums. She also had a collection of their letters, photos and belongings.
Akihisa said that they would leave the items with her because she had been like a mother to them, and because they didn't want their treasures to be burned up in the plane with them. There was a bamboo flute that belonged to one, another's military jacket, and the parachute of another. As that pilot left, he handed the parachute to Tome and said that he wouldn't need it, Akihisa explained.
After the war, the Japanese were ashamed of the kamikaze and their nation's destructive ambitions, but Tome continued to champion the memory of the pilots for the remainder of her 89 years. She became famous in Japan as a symbol for not only their memory, but also for world peace. She has monuments to her erected around town and even was the subject of several popular Japanese films.
To her, the pilots were kids who didn't want to do what they were being forced into doing, not the fanatics they were later vilified as. Akihisa, who lived with her for 31 years, said that she talked about the pilots whenever she could to keep their memory alive.
This museum was very important to complete the picture of the kamikaze in my mind. In the letters at the museum, the official letters, the pilots extolled the emperor, and said that they were eager to die as kamikaze. In photos, they smiled in the moments before they sortied.
According to Akihisa, this was all propaganda.
The letters contained in his museum -- Tome's letters -- don't really mention the emperor. Some lament that Japan is losing the war, while others even hope for Japan to lose. No one is smiling in Tome's photographs, and the pilot's send their true goodbyes, thoughts of love, longing, and sadness to family members they will never see again.
"My grandmother said that the kamikaze pilots were always with her," Akihisa said. "[She] said no one was laughing before takeoff [unlike in the pictures in the newspapers]."
There was the one 20-year-old pilot, Saburo Miyakawa, who came to see Tome before his final mission. He told her he would see her the next evening, Akihisa said. The young pilot smiled at his "Mom's" puzzled look. "I will come back as a firefly," he reportedly said. Sure enough, the next night, a firefly dipped into the restaurant. Tome began to cry that he had kept his promise.
GOODBYE MY FRIENDS
Before we departed to walk in the kamikaze's footsteps, Akihisa also told me about how one pilot circled some letters in a book as a final message to be passed along to his love. "Kyoko-chan, goodbye," the words said. "I love you."
Unbeknownst to me at the time, these were once again the words of the poetic Ryoji Uehara. His words had stuck in my head the day before at the peace museum and were in my head as Akihisa took me from his museum to some of the lesser known sites in town.
I did not know I had been drawn to his final message until I got home and read about the words circled in the book in an old newspaper article.
Akihisa and I went to the airfield, now farmland, covered by budding sweet potatoes. Then we went to the gun batteries on a hill overlooking the airfield. It was here where they shot down a pair of U.S. B-29s, he said. We then climbed the hill up to the old barracks.
These places are all difficult to find. They all have markers, which are simple and easy to miss.
Chiran was very beautiful, yet an all-encompassing sadness seemed to hang in the air about its serene fields and dark, quiet, forests. However, for some reason, I didn't want to leave. When Akihisa dropped me off at my car back at his museum, I told him I would return one day to say hello. He said that they would be there waiting for me. I also wanted to return to visit my friends at the Peace Museum. But I had a six-hour drive ahead of me, so off I went, lead out of town by the stone lanterns -- just as I had entered -- as if the pilots were seeing me off.
The words of Capt. Uehara once again seemed to fit.
"Though we know that people must leave each other whenever we meet, why is the parting between us so sad?"
Elena Sugiyama contributed to this story.
KNOW & GO Address: 17881 Kori Chiran-cho, Minamikyushu-city, Kagoshima prefecture, 897-0302 Japan Phone: 0993-83-1277 Hours: Open every day, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. English-language friendly?: The museum is, Firefl y House is not Admission: 500 yen for adults, 300 yen for children Website: (with English-language info): tinyurl.com/minamikyushu