KAWASAKI – Takehiko Ena felt himself go pale when a comrade in a suicide attack unit of the Imperial Japanese Navy suddenly offered him congratulations in the closing months of World War II.
The greeting meant that the time had come.
By a twist of fate, however, Ena, now 91, survived his suicide mission, twice.
A student at Waseda University in Tokyo, Ena entered the navy’s Otake training camp in Hiroshima Prefecture in December 1943 under a student mobilization program to make up shortfalls in troop strength during the war.
After being trained as an airman, he was posted to the Oi air service unit in Shizu-oka Prefecture. As the tide turned against Japan, he was transferred to the Hyakurihara air service unit in Ibaraki Prefecture in March 1945.
On April 10 of that year, Ena joined a suicide attack corps as part of Operation Kikusui, a large-scale suicide bombing mission against the naval fleet of the Allied Forces in the Battle of Okinawa.
He had a portrait of himself taken for his family, and wrote a will on the eve of his departure.
“Thinking it would be read by someone else, I couldn’t write unmanly things, so it turned out a bland note,” Ena says.
He took off from the Kushira airfield in Kagoshima Prefecture on April 28, but the flight failed due to an engine malfunction.
On May 11 he received an order to make another sortie as part of a three-man carrier-based attack warplane loaded with a 1,763-pound (800-kg) bomb. Ena, then 21, was placed with a 20-year-old pilot and an 18-year-old telegraphic communication staffer.
“We’ll be together when we die,” Ena recalls the telegrapher saying, and he knew then he should prepare to meet his fate.
After takeoff, however, their aircraft suffered an engine failure near the Kagoshima island of Kuroshima and was forced to ditch in the sea. The three crew members swam to the island and spent 2½ months there until they were rescued by an Imperial Japanese Army submarine.
While on the island, they saw swarms of U.S. bombers pass overhead every day. But the only Japanese aircraft that came into sight were suicide bombers on solitary flights to Okinawa.
“I thought, ‘We’ve got no chance in this war,’ ” Ena recalls.
On his way from Kuroshima back to his unit in Ibaraki, Ena entered Hiroshima the day after the Aug. 6 atomic bombing and witnessed the devastation there.
“The roads were covered with corpses and there was no way to rescue the people who were badly injured,” he says. “It was living purgatory.”
Japan surrendered five days after Ena arrived at his Hyakurihara air service unit.
“All of them bravely fulfilled their suicide attack missions in the belief that the offensive was inevitable to save the nation,” Ena says. “Their sense of mission should be revered. Tears come to my eyes when I think about them.”
His fallen comrades who took off on missions of no return have remained seared in Ena’s memory.
“In the 70 years since the war, what pleases me most is that we’ve lived in peace,” Ena says. “I want policymakers to be determined that we will never again be involved in a war.”