On final: My weekend with a Kamikaze Pilot
By Erika Armstrong |
Masijiro Kawato, who flew an AM6 Zero, visits Flying Cloud Airport
By Erika Armstrong |
My dad had made friends with Masijiro “Mike” Kawato, during his research into recovering old war birds in the Guadalcanal area. Mike and my dad, both pilots, hit it off and became lifelong friends. Mike was a WWII Japanese airman – flying the AM6 Zero – speculated to be the pilot who shot down Pappy Boyington.
I was a 20-year old pilot the day I picked Mike up at the airport and, because my dad was stuck in a snowstorm, began my mission as Entertainment Director for what I thought would be a crazy Kamikaze Pilot. Instead I found a demure, hysterically deadpan, polite and reserved gentleman.Thirty years later, I have learned the difference between Kamikaze and fighter pilots, Shinto beliefs and war from my Marine dad. I have also learned, on my own, about being a pilot, human nature, integrity and honour.
At the time of meeting Mike, I naturally wondered about enemies becoming friends. I just didn’t realize the treasure that was sitting beside me while I groaned about what to do with him.
What do you do to entertain any pilot? Bring them to an air museum, of course. I worked and flew out of Flying Cloud Airport near Minneapolis, MN, which held the Planes of Fame East museum (gone now). War birds routinely flew in and out of the field. I made about $5/hour working at Elliott Beechcraft and could hardly afford to pay for our admission into the museum. I named-dropped Mike Kawato, but the guy at the ticket counter couldn’t care less about who either of us were – “$18 for two adults, please.” I rolled my eyes and took him in.
We strolled through the main hangar, oohing and awing at gorgeous airplanes. As we turned a corner, there, in full-glass display, was an exhibit about Masijiro “Mike” Kawato. Mike got there before me and said, “Oh, look! Me! That’s me!” Inside was a photo of an 18-year-old Japanese kid with a leather helmet and deer-in-headlights expression. The top of the display read: “WWII Japanese fighter ace, Masijiro Kawato”. The display held images, a kamikaze headband and a flight suit. A museum volunteer overheard our conversation and made the connection with the case – we have an actual enemy pilot in our presence.
Phone calls were made and soon Bob Pond, avid collector and owner of the museum, walked in and asked Mike to sit with him for a few minutes. When any two pilots tell stories it tends to draw in more fliers and within moments there were at least a dozen pilots (many veterans) sitting at the table with Mike.
With broken English, he answered their questions in his own manner, with a twinkle in his eye. I learned Mike had 17 bullet wounds in his body; that he was downed five times; and that his fifth was meant to be a suicide crash into an American destroyer. Instead, he was steered off course from return fire, which ripped a wing and cartwheeled him into the ocean. With a disabled pistol, he drifted in the ocean for three days and finally hid out on a nearby island for three months. He was eventually picked up by Americans and taken to a P.O.W. hospital in Australia. He was declared dead in Japan and a funeral was held in his honour. Three and a half years later, Mike went home.
Since he was talking to war bird enthusiasts that day, Mike didn’t mention that in 1976 he had flown his single-engine Piper Comanche nonstop from Tokyo to California – more than 5,000 miles in 35 hours and 15 minutes.
Instead, he gave them riveting accounts of aerial combat between his Japanese Zero and American F4U Corsairs. He recounted watching an unusual sight of an F4U Corsair chasing a Zero and right behind him, another F4U being chased by a Zero. The lead Zero burst into flames and then moments later, the F4U went down in flames. Watching this from 6,000 feet above the ocean, Kawato dove and joined the battle by lining up behind the second F4U that was chasing a Zero. At 1,000 feet above the ocean, Kawato hit his target. The American pilot was forced to bail out of his disabled aircraft. It was later confirmed/rumored that the American pilot was Pappy Boyington. Yes, there has been debate about this, but we will let the story ride as told.
My dad eventually made it through the snowstorm and met us for dinner on day two. They teased each other and unintentially discussed a passion for flying. Mike passed away in 2008, but watching them that night taught me a valuable lesson that enemies are often in that position by circumstance and that our enemies often bring out the best in us.
Erika Armstrong is the author of A Chick in the Cockpit.