Seventy years after Japan formed its first kamikaze unit in the Philippines, one local resident remains adamant that the suicide pilots were noble warriors who should be honored in the nation their military occupied.

Daniel Dizon, 84, is co-founder of the Kamikaze Memorial Society of the Philippines and a driving force behind several memorials erected in the pilots’ honor in Pampanga, north of Manila.

He noted that many people disagree with him, but said he believes his achievements will linger beyond his lifetime.

“I have already passed it on to my children,” Dizon said of the kamikaze museum he has set up at his home in Angeles City, Pampanga.

He was speaking as a reporter toured the displays of military memorabilia, some of which was left in the area by Japanese troops.

“My main purpose is to memorialize the kamikazes” in life, before they took off from airstrips for the final time, he said. “At least there I succeeded, and of course in explaining to students who come here that we can learn a lesson or two from the loyalty of the kamikaze.”

Dizon remembers seeing Japanese soldiers stationed in Pampanga when he was a child. However, it was not until the mid-1960s that he came to study the history of Japan’s kamikaze force, and his curiosity grew into a passion. It stemmed from the time he read “The Divine Wind,” a book by two former officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

In 1941, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines, which was then a commonwealth under the protection of the United States. Japanese troops occupied the nation until their defeat by U.S.-led Allied forces in 1945.

When the U.S. forces returned to the Philippines in October 1944, the Imperial Japanese Navy organized the very first kamikaze unit in Mabalacat, a town near Angeles, to attack the U.S. Navy.

The first kamikaze sortie took off from the Mabalacat West Airfield on Oct. 21, 1944, but failed to locate targets. Four days later, a mission from the Mabalacat East Airfield, led by Lt. Yukio Seki, hit U.S. targets in Leyte Gulf in the central Philippines.

“I have experienced the war. I have seen a lot of atrocities and the inhuman behavior of many Japanese soldiers. But when I read ‘The Divine Wind,’ it’s so different. It is something that is deep, very deep,” Dizon said.

“It kept me awake nights after reading the book until, finally, I decided to do something for the memory of the kamikaze pilots.”

He cites their discipline and self-sacrifice as the embodiment of nobility.

“I saw them as personifications of the ancient samurai warriors of Japan, and not the ordinary soldiers who committed atrocities here. That alone prodded me to memorialize them . . . in the area where they were organized, which is Mabalacat.”

Having read the book, Dizon set about collecting memorabilia. His artifacts now include a kamikaze pilot’s uniform, an anti-aircraft cannon, a machine gun, Japan’s wartime flag and other items recovered from former airfields in Mabalacat and from houses that had been occupied by Japanese soldiers.

The makeshift museum at his home also includes sketches he has made of some known kamikaze pilots, and the text of letter a kamikaze pilot wrote to his daughter.

In 1974, Dizon’s activism bore fruit with the erection of the first kamikaze monument in the Philippines, at the former site of the Mabalacat East Airfield.

In 1991, when nearby Mount Pinatubo erupted, the monument was buried in ash. It was replaced in 2000 by a wall engraving featuring the Philippine and Japanese flags.

Four years later, to mark the 60th anniversary of the organization of the kamikaze unit, a statue of a kamikaze pilot was placed before the wall.

At the Mabalacat West Airfield site, where a kamikaze tunnel that was used as an air raid bunker has been preserved, Dizon’s efforts resulted in the creation of another memorial in 2004.

Dizon said a majority of local people opposed his efforts, particularly because his activism began at a time when the nation was still broadly anti-Japanese, smarting at the memory of soldiers’ abuses during the occupation.

Moreover, he himself had initial misgivings because suicide is against the teachings of his Catholic faith.

He said he accepts the criticism, but hopes that one day more Filipinos will come to appreciate the central quality of the kamikaze fighters: loyalty to their country.

When students come to see the exhibits he lectures them on patriotism. He said he understands why few Filipinos share his views and why some even condemn him for his actions, but said they would not if they knew the “whole story” of the pilots. He vows to “continue this endeavor because it’s part of the history of this place.”

Ricardo Jose, a professor of history at the University of the Philippines who specializes in Japan-Philippine relations, disagrees with Dizon’s views.

“Well, they can be considered noble, but only from the Japanese perspective. In this particular case, if we see it from Filipino eyes, they were fighting for their country. And at that time, we were fighting against Japan,” Jose said. “It has that kind of inconsistent ring to it, in the sense that, firstly, we don’t even know who our heroes of the war are, and we hardly memorialize them.”

Jose believes it’s wrong to try to convince Filipinos of the nobility of the kamikaze, although he said there is little risk of most Filipinos believing it.

But there is one message from the kamikaze period that people should appreciate, he said.

“If they were willing to die for their country we should be willing to die for ours in the same way. But the Filipino mentality is not that kind of thing . . . we never really close our door on survival. So I don’t think that phenomenon strikes a common chord in the Philippines,” Jose said.

“We can understand them, yes. Maybe, we can appreciate them a little better. But to say that that’s something to be inculcated in Filipinos, I don’t think so,” he said.

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