From zero to hero

Courtesy of Sadamu Komachi

Sixty years after Pearl Harbor, 81-year-old Zero fighter pilot Sadamu Komachi looks back on a lifetime of war and peace. Chris Betros and Maki Nibayashi get the story

Sadamu Komachi doesn' need to go and see the movie Pearl Harbor. He has the real story of Dec 7, 1941 in his head. As a Zero fighter pilot on the aircraft carrier Shokaku, Komachi and his squadron were given the task of defending the attack fleet as it launched its raid on Pearl Harbor. It was his first taste of battle in a war that would send him into action in the skies over Papua New Guinea, India, Ceylon, the Solomon Islands, Australia, Guam and the Philippines.

Now 81 and in good health, Komachi spends his days commuting to his office at the Zero Fighter Pilots Association in Tokyo. There aren't many of the old aces left - three or four from his squadron and only two from the actual Pearl Harbor attack formation.

Komachi, slightly hard of hearing, is shy at first but gradually opens up as memories come flooding back. He has heard of the movie but is unsure about whether he would like to go and see it (the three hours might be a bit much for him). He prefers not to watch war movies in general.

Komachi, then and now
Courtesy of Sadamu Komachi, Chris Betros

From the front line
Polite and gracious, the ace doesn't think of the battle day at Pearl Harbor as the "date of infamy" it has become in the American vernacular. There were no enemies, no right and wrong. For him and his generation, war was an obligation drummed into them through years of indoctrination by a military government. "Nowadays you can't imagine what it was like back then," he said. "The military turned Japan upside down to protect their honor and power. As boys, we were told we should join the military when we grew up because that was the best way to bring honor to Japan. Once the war started, young people were told: 'Many people are dying for their country and you should be prepared to do likewise.'"

Komachi says he didn't think differently until after the war and still feels infuriated today when he recalls how a whole generation was kept in the grip of such a mentality for so long.

Nevertheless, Komachi wasn't totally brainwashed. Although he admits he didn't know anything about Americans and their culture, he knew enough to realize Japan might be biting off more than it could chew. "Even before we sailed for Pearl Harbor, I didn't think we could win the war," he said. "None of us had any confidence but we had no choice but to follow orders."

The attack on Pearl Harbor was such a success that Japan's military command began crowing back home how the nation was now a superpower which could attack and come out on top. So they stepped up their offensive, next sinking the HMS Prince of Wales, which was on its way to defend Singapore, on Dec 10, 1941. "Before Pearl Harbor, planes were not thought of as capable of winning a war," said Komachi. "The brass saw planes as only good for measuring distances for the navy. When our fighters sank the Prince of Wales, it changed the whole notion of warfare."

Komachi returned to Japan for a New Year holiday at Beppu Onsen, one of the few breaks he would get during the war. During the next few months he flew on bombing runs over New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and north of Australia, before returning to occupied China for his birthday on April 18.

Courtesy of Matt Wilce

But he got a shock when he learned that the Doolittle raids were taking place over Tokyo. It was the first time American bombs had been dropped on Japan. "Up until then, the fighting was something far away and it really hit home to the Japanese people," he said.

His next major campaign occurred near Port Moresby in New Guinea, which the Imperial Army wanted to capture to use a base to launch an all-out attack on Australia. "The Americans and Australians got wind of us, and it was our first real aerial dogfight of the war, and I think the first one over the ocean ever," said Komachi.

Time and time again during the war, Komachi emerged triumphant. Pressed to guess how many planes he shot down, he shrugs. "A lot, but it's hard to know how many were kills and how many were cripples. Often you'd see smoke coming form one as it went down, but you'd never know what happened to it. Other pilots might record it as their hit."

He doesn't dwell too much on what it "felt like" to shoot down enemy pilots. To him, they were just that, enemies, not people with faces and families, just as he would have been regarded by his opponents.

Nor does he think of himself as a particularly skillful pilot.

"In the end it comes down to luck," he said. "One time during the Mindanao campaign, our squadron was returning to Guam. We didn't think any enemy planes were in the area. We were getting ready to land, and I was third in formation, when suddenly out of nowhere an American plane came at me and fired. I was on fire, but somehow I landed. It was really miraculous because when Zeroes caught fire, they usually exploded. That's the closest I came to death and my most vivid memory of the war."

Courtesy of Matt Wilce

Flying high
Komachi's Zero served him well over the years. Before the war, he trained in a smaller plane called a 96 with two small guns. "We were given no training on how to fly the Zeroes. When the war started, they just taught us to learn everything about the engines and off we went," he said.

The Zeroes were very light and easy to maneuver. A typical flight would last about five to six hours, Komachi said. "At the outset of the war, our Zeroes were better than the American F4F Wildcats, no question about it," he said. "But within a year we were in trouble. They had captured some Zeroes and studied them in detail. They came out with the F6s, which were much better than anything we had. Then came the P-51 Mustangs, and we started getting our butts kicked."

When the Yamato class ship Musashi was sunk on Oct 24, 1944, Komachi and his colleagues knew the writing was on the wall. In that epic turkey shoot known to history as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, hundreds of planes from four US aircraft carriers pounded the Yamato with 20 torpedoes and 17 bombs, sending it and 1023 crew members to the bottom of the ocean. "They sank it in a matter of minutes," said Komachi. "We'd already seen from Pearl Harbor what planes could do, but our leaders just kept pinning their hopes on ships like the Musashi instead of making more planes."

On the day the war ended, Komachi was back in Japan at Yokosuka air base getting ready to protect Tokyo from an expected invasion. "We had always thought we would die in battle, either in the air or on the ground, so the cease-fire announcement by the emperor came as a shock," he said.

Did he ever think of becoming a kamikaze pilot in one last act of glory? "Never. It is an absurd idea," he said. "I was trained as a pilot. That's not flying. That's just carrying a bomb and crashing into some target."

After the war, Komachi found it hard to take up a profession and tried all sorts of jobs to support himself. Now he is a landlord and describes himself as a basically lazy guy. In the 56 years since the war ended, he has come to terms with that period in history even if successive Japanese governments haven't. He is aware of the fuss being made by Japan's Asian neighbors over the history textbooks but doesn't know the details of the texts. "It's all a thing of the past," he says.

On the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in 1995, he met some former enemies when 20 American pilots came to Japan. They had a big party at Atsugi and played golf. Some of the Americans wanted to go and pay their respects at Yasukuni Shrine, which enrages many people these days, so Komachi and his group obliged.

The hardest thing for him has been visiting Pearl Harbor. He finally went as a tourist in 1992. "I didn't go to the USS Arizona memorial, though, because some elderly Japanese-American woman started scolding me when I mentioned what I had done in the war. She told me how much misery we had caused them. I just found myself apologizing all the time," he said.



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