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About 230 family members of the deceased kamikaze pilots visit the museum?s memorial service each May 3 to look at the photos of their relatives and to connect to them. In some instances the pilots would send dolls home to family members to keep as them. Here someone has left such a doll on one of the stone lanterns along the main strip in Chiran.

About 230 family members of the deceased kamikaze pilots visit the museum?s memorial service each May 3 to look at the photos of their relatives and to connect to them. In some instances the pilots would send dolls home to family members to keep as them. Here someone has left such a doll on one of the stone lanterns along the main strip in Chiran. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

About 230 family members of the deceased kamikaze pilots visit the museum?s memorial service each May 3 to look at the photos of their relatives and to connect to them. In some instances the pilots would send dolls home to family members to keep as them. Here someone has left such a doll on one of the stone lanterns along the main strip in Chiran.

About 230 family members of the deceased kamikaze pilots visit the museum?s memorial service each May 3 to look at the photos of their relatives and to connect to them. In some instances the pilots would send dolls home to family members to keep as them. Here someone has left such a doll on one of the stone lanterns along the main strip in Chiran. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Chiran Air Base was established in 1941 as a branch of the Tachiarai Military Pilot School. As U.S. forces bore down on Okinawa at the end of the war, the base became a center for kamikaze operations. Today, the base is the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots and features 12,500 items related to Japan's 1,036 army kamikaze pilots. The main room features photos of each pilot who died in the fighting in the order of their deaths, letters home, personal effects and replica aircraft.

Chiran Air Base was established in 1941 as a branch of the Tachiarai Military Pilot School. As U.S. forces bore down on Okinawa at the end of the war, the base became a center for kamikaze operations. Today, the base is the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots and features 12,500 items related to Japan's 1,036 army kamikaze pilots. The main room features photos of each pilot who died in the fighting in the order of their deaths, letters home, personal effects and replica aircraft. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Stone lanterns ? one for each pilot who died - lead the way from the center of town in Chiran to the Tokko Kannon Do (also called the Kamikaze Temple), a temple for the Goddess of Mercy, which sits on the museum?s grounds. Visitors can pray for the pilots before a statue of the goddess, called Tokko Kannon Zo. The names of each pilot who perished are written on a piece of paper contained inside the womb of the almost two foot tall statue.

Stone lanterns ? one for each pilot who died - lead the way from the center of town in Chiran to the Tokko Kannon Do (also called the Kamikaze Temple), a temple for the Goddess of Mercy, which sits on the museum?s grounds. Visitors can pray for the pilots before a statue of the goddess, called Tokko Kannon Zo. The names of each pilot who perished are written on a piece of paper contained inside the womb of the almost two foot tall statue. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The Monument of Pledge and Lamentation sits outside the museum, explaining to visitors the views of Japanese people. Following the tragedies they caused and endured during the war, they made a vow for eternal peace, and tolerance toward all.

The Monument of Pledge and Lamentation sits outside the museum, explaining to visitors the views of Japanese people. Following the tragedies they caused and endured during the war, they made a vow for eternal peace, and tolerance toward all. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Stone lanterns ? one for each pilot who died ? stretch endlessly from the center of town in Chiran to the museum and to the Tokko Kannon Do (also called the Kamikaze Temple).

Stone lanterns ? one for each pilot who died ? stretch endlessly from the center of town in Chiran to the museum and to the Tokko Kannon Do (also called the Kamikaze Temple). (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Akihisa Torihama, whose grandmother became 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 in town, points to a marker for their concealed woodland barracks. At the barracks, the pilots spent their last night?s on earth, hidden from American bombing runs. The site is located on a desolate stretch of road, deep in the woods, not far from the center of town. It is difficult to find, but residents in Chiran are eager to assist Americans tracing the final steps of the kamikaze.

Akihisa Torihama, whose grandmother became 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 in town, points to a marker for their concealed woodland barracks. At the barracks, the pilots spent their last night?s on earth, hidden from American bombing runs. The site is located on a desolate stretch of road, deep in the woods, not far from the center of town. It is difficult to find, but residents in Chiran are eager to assist Americans tracing the final steps of the kamikaze. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The concealed woodland barracks might be gone, but a simple stone marker, bench and stone lantern mark the spot where nearly half of the 1,036 army kamikaze pilots who perished in defense of Okinawa and the Japanese mainland at the tail end of World War II spent their last nights on earth.

The concealed woodland barracks might be gone, but a simple stone marker, bench and stone lantern mark the spot where nearly half of the 1,036 army kamikaze pilots who perished in defense of Okinawa and the Japanese mainland at the tail end of World War II spent their last nights on earth. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The Army Type 3 Hien Fighter was the masterpiece of Japan's army technology during World War II. Built in 1943, it was the only model with a water-cooling system. The museum has the only aircraft, codename "Tony" to the allies, on display in Japan, located in its main room.

The Army Type 3 Hien Fighter was the masterpiece of Japan's army technology during World War II. Built in 1943, it was the only model with a water-cooling system. The museum has the only aircraft, codename "Tony" to the allies, on display in Japan, located in its main room. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Here, at Tokko Kannon Do (also called the Kamikaze Temple), two Japanese visitors pray before the 1.8 foot-tall statue of the Tokko Kannon Zo, or Goddess of Mercy, for the pilots who perished at the end of the war. The names of each of the 1,036 army kamikaze pilots are written on a piece of paper contained inside her womb.

Here, at Tokko Kannon Do (also called the Kamikaze Temple), two Japanese visitors pray before the 1.8 foot-tall statue of the Tokko Kannon Zo, or Goddess of Mercy, for the pilots who perished at the end of the war. The names of each of the 1,036 army kamikaze pilots are written on a piece of paper contained inside her womb. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The museum features 6,400 letters.

The museum features 6,400 letters. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

 Japanese visitors peruse and watch video displays.

Japanese visitors peruse and watch video displays. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

One of the displays in the main room of the museum shows an enlarged photograph of eight of the pilots shortly before they sortied to their deaths. Nearly 60 percent of the pilots were high school or college age which earned them the moniker "young boy pilots."

One of the displays in the main room of the museum shows an enlarged photograph of eight of the pilots shortly before they sortied to their deaths. Nearly 60 percent of the pilots were high school or college age which earned them the moniker "young boy pilots." (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

An enlarged photograph at the entrance to the museum's main room shows just what kind of terror American servicemembers were up against as they approached Okinawa and mainland Japan. Here, a kamikaze fighter bears down before impact.

An enlarged photograph at the entrance to the museum's main room shows just what kind of terror American servicemembers were up against as they approached Okinawa and mainland Japan. Here, a kamikaze fighter bears down before impact. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

A display in the museum's main room depicts the Japanese defense of Okinawa and of mainland Japan. The red arrows show the path of the 1,036 army kamikaze pilots during the waning months of World War II. About half flew southwest from Chiran, and the rest flew northeast from Taiwan, to attack U.S. forces.

A display in the museum's main room depicts the Japanese defense of Okinawa and of mainland Japan. The red arrows show the path of the 1,036 army kamikaze pilots during the waning months of World War II. About half flew southwest from Chiran, and the rest flew northeast from Taiwan, to attack U.S. forces. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The museum has clothing and flight gear of Japan's 1,036 army kamikaze pilots, on display. The majority of the items are in pristine condition and appear as if they were left just yesterday.

The museum has clothing and flight gear of Japan's 1,036 army kamikaze pilots, on display. The majority of the items are in pristine condition and appear as if they were left just yesterday. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

An old Japanese man looks at the weapons used by Japanese soldiers during the war.

An old Japanese man looks at the weapons used by Japanese soldiers during the war. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The Chiran Chinkon no Fu, or the Chiran Requiem, is a tall, Shigaraki pottery-tile mural that welcomes visitors into the peace museum. The mural depicts six heavenly maidens helping a kamikaze pilot escape the bowels of his burning plane and bring him to a safe destination in the sky. The mural was originally painted by Japanese artist Katsuyoshi Nakaya.

The Chiran Chinkon no Fu, or the Chiran Requiem, is a tall, Shigaraki pottery-tile mural that welcomes visitors into the peace museum. The mural depicts six heavenly maidens helping a kamikaze pilot escape the bowels of his burning plane and bring him to a safe destination in the sky. The mural was originally painted by Japanese artist Katsuyoshi Nakaya. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Mats, blankets and pillows, made as if the pilots are expected to return soon, adorn the pilot's barracks on the grounds of the museum - not to be confused with the site of the concealed woodland barracks. These barracks also feature photos of the pilots inside and even include artifacts from planes and ordnance.

Mats, blankets and pillows, made as if the pilots are expected to return soon, adorn the pilot's barracks on the grounds of the museum - not to be confused with the site of the concealed woodland barracks. These barracks also feature photos of the pilots inside and even include artifacts from planes and ordnance. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

A flap on the entrance of the Tomiya Inn depicts an elderly Tome Torihama, signaling the site of her restaurant, the Tomiya eatery. This is where the pilots confided their fears and true feelings about being a kamikaze and ate their last meals. Next door, Tome?s grandson, Akihisa Torihama, built a replica of the eatery ? called the Hotaru-kan or 'Firefly House' - as it appeared in 1945 and made it into a museum for his grandmother and the pilots.

A flap on the entrance of the Tomiya Inn depicts an elderly Tome Torihama, signaling the site of her restaurant, the Tomiya eatery. This is where the pilots confided their fears and true feelings about being a kamikaze and ate their last meals. Next door, Tome?s grandson, Akihisa Torihama, built a replica of the eatery ? called the Hotaru-kan or 'Firefly House' - as it appeared in 1945 and made it into a museum for his grandmother and the pilots. (Matthew Burke/Stars and Stripes)

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 to get past the ship’s guns, then 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?”

DIVINE WINDChiran 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, 439 of whom took off from Chiran.

DISPLAYS AND FAMILYThe 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 to 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 PASTI 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 photos of the young men 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?

FIREFLY HOUSEAs 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 weren’t fanatics; they were kids who didn’t want to do what they were being forced into doing. Akihisa, who lived with Tome for 31 years, said 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 pilots 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 a 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 FRIENDSBefore 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.”

I didn’t know then, but these were once again the words of Ryoji Uehara. His words had stayed 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 difficult to find. They all have markers that 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, led 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?”

Know & goAddress: 17881 Kori Chiran-cho, Minamikyushu-city, Kagoshima prefecture, 897-0302 JapanPhone: 0993-83-1277 Hours: Open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.English-language friendly?: The museum is, Firefly House is notAdmission: 500 yen for adults, 300 yen for children

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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