CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Imperial Japanese Army Lt. Ryoji Uehara loved many things in his life — only to see them reduced to ashes during World War II.
His girlfriend Kyoko was married off to another man and died from tuberculosis six months later; his beloved older brother Tatsu died in the war. Uehara watched in horror as his country burned from the spreading embers of totalitarianism and authoritarianism — and knew he would soon be engulfed by that fire as well.
Uehara, 22, sortied from Chiran Air Base on the southern tip of the Japanese mainland island of Kyushu on May 11, 1945. He died later that day while attacking Allied forces near Kadena, Okinawa, as a kamikaze pilot.
More than a half century before al-Qaida and the Islamic State, the kamikazes were the suicide bombers of their time, young men trained for one-way missions to steer their bomb-laden aircraft into American warships in a desperate move to defend their homeland and stave off defeat.
Between October 1944 and August 1945, about 2,800 kamikaze pilots sank dozens of allied ships, damaged hundreds more and killed 4,900 American sailors — more than the U.S. military lost in the 2003-2011 Iraq War. Although the attacks failed to stem the American advance, they terrified Allied troops who faced a weapon they had not seen during the long years of war.
Uehara died in the Battle of Okinawa, one of World War II’s longest and bloodiest campaigns that claimed the lives of about 12,500 Americans, with nearly 50,000 casualties. More than 75,000 Japanese died, and nearly one-third of Okinawa’s civilian population — about 100,000 people — were killed.
Unlike most of his comrades, Uehara is widely known in Japan for the letters he left behind, one sent to his parents through military censors and another left with a trusted public affairs officer. The letters reveal a poet and an intellectual, not a mindless drone — as kamikaze pilots are often depicted — who disagreed with Japan’s direction but was willing to die because so much that he cherished was gone.
“Authoritarian and totalitarian nations may prosper temporarily, but in the end they always lose,” Uehara wrote in a May 10, 1945, letter known today as “My Thoughts.” The public affairs officer kept the letter hidden until after the war. “Nowadays, authoritarian nations are losing ground and falling one after another. The fact that my belief was correct may be horrifying to my country but it is a joy to me … People may call me a liberal, but it is clear that freedom will triumph. You cannot destroy freedom, the true nature of a human being.”
Kamikaze attacks, the brainchild of Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral Takijiro Onishi, were first used in October 1944 at the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines, according to officials from the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots on the site of Chiran Air Base in Minamikyushu, Kagoshima. They were named “divine wind” after two typhoons that defeated Mongolian fleets led by Kublai Khan that attempted to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281.
The U.S. naval bombardment of Okinawa began on March 25, 1945, and ground forces soon followed; however, the ships had to get within striking distance first.
"Authoritarian and totalitarian nations may prosper temporarily, but in the end they always lose." — Ryoji Uehara
The kamikaze were ordered to be the divine wind that would attempt to blow the invaders away from Japan’s shores — or at least buy Japanese ground forces on Okinawa time to inflict heavy losses.
There were fanatics among the kamikaze: older, hardened pilots who were proud to give their lives to defeat the “ugly Americans.” They likely pressured some of the younger men to follow the bushido code and die with honor for their emperor. However, many of these first suicide bombers were impressionable, frightened teenagers or college-age young men who joined as pilots but were then forced into the suicide corps.
Uehara was a student at Keio University, one of Japan’s most prestigious schools, in December 1943 when he was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army’s 150th Infantry Regiment, according to the Association to Preserve the Torch Lit by Ryoji Uehara, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving his memory.
He was sent to Kumagaya Army Aviation School as a special apprentice when he, along with hundreds of others, received orders in March 1945 for a special attack mission. In all, 1,036 army kamikaze pilots, 439 of whom took off from Chiran Air Base, died in the Battle of Okinawa.
Uehara left several letters for loved ones before he died. He couldn’t help but take a defiant tone in one sent through military censors; however, he also played the tune they wanted to hear.
“It will be clear to any human being who sees clearly and is willing to reflect on the very nature of his or her humanity that liberalism is the most logical ideology,” Uehara wrote. Then the tone shifted.
“And even if America and Great Britain turn out to be victorious against us, they will eventually learn that the day of their own defeat is imminent. It pleases me to think that, even if they are not to be defeated in the near future, they may be turned to dust anyway through an explosion of the globe itself.”
It was a far cry from a letter containing his true feelings that was drafted the night before his death that reveled in Japan’s inevitable defeat.
“When my girlfriend died, my spirit died with her,” he wrote. “If I think I can meet her in heaven, death is nothing since it’s just on the way to heaven. I fly out tomorrow. A liberal will vanish from this earth. I’m sad to go but I’m content.”
On May 10, 1945, Uehara and his fellow pilots likely walked to the Tomiya restaurant for their last meal, perhaps saying goodbye to proprietor and surrogate mother Tome Torihama, a beloved national figure in Japan. Some left letters to escape the censors, gifts and unneeded equipment such as parachutes; others scratched their names into the restaurant’s wooden beams.
They then left the air base for a log barracks in the woods so they wouldn’t be killed by American bombers the day before their final mission. Many of the boys wept that night, saying they didn’t want to die.
On the morning of their flight, they went to the nearby airfield, drank a glass of liquor and waved to locals who came to see them off. They got into their bombers — many with just enough fuel to reach their objective — with a bomb on one side of the plane and a fuel tank on the other.
The engines started, and the planes lurched forward for takeoff, soaring past Mount Kaimon, followed by two hours over the greenish blue of the open ocean.
When they reached the fleet, the pilots were told to look for carriers first, then try to get past the ships’ guns, which exploded all around them. Most were cut to pieces. Some found their mark when cloud cover masked their approach. It is unclear if Uehara hit his target, but it is unlikely.
The Kamikaze were viewed heroically at the time, just as every Japanese soldier was. However, after the war, they were vilified. They became almost a symbol of the war mongering that led Japan down the path to destruction. Today, thanks to the efforts of Torihama, they are viewed sympathetically for the most part.
The city of Minamikyushu submitted a proposal earlier this year to have 427 letters and farewell notes from the Chiran museum’s collection added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Memory of the World Register.
"My heart was in agony, but when I thought of your happiness, I decided not to whisper the words of love to you. All the same, however, I will always love you" — Ryoji Uehara
The city doesn’t intend to “praise, glorify or justify the kamikaze mission,” Minamikyushu Mayor Kanpei Shimoide told a May 13 news conference in Tokyo. “It has been 70 years since the end of World War II and those who experienced the war are aging, and the majority of people today have no war experience in Japan. However, we cannot let the memory of the war vanish. War is a cruel and senseless act. I believe that our efforts will contribute to the ability of human beings to make a step forward to build lasting world peace.”
Seventy years on, it is easy to malign the kamikaze pilots; however, many, like Uehara, were unable to outrun their fate. Many were just children, taken advantage of, who did not want to die.
Uehara left behind a copy of his favorite book, “(Benedetto) Croce” by Goro Hani, in which he circled letters with a red pen on some of the pages.
“My beloved Kyoko. Goodbye. I was in love with you but you were already engaged to marry someone else. My heart was in agony, but when I thought of your happiness, I decided not to whisper the words of love to you. All the same, however, I will always love you.”