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Interview with a Zero pilot (part 3)

continued from part 2

"On practice flights we could pick this up easily. Like for example, the stick precision might be off by 3cm. But this was the experienced pilots. In combat, these small differences were unimportant. In other words, when we were already fully occupied shoving the stick from one extreme to the other continuously we had no time to notice the little differences in comfort (laughter)."

If we look again at Mr. Komachi's war history as a Reisen pilot from Pearl Harbor until the conclusion of the war, it really is overwhelming. Just taking major attack operations into account, he took part in more than ten such, while the number of air combats, including during escort missions, is beyond count.

Each day imposed physical dangers, but during his service there were two occasions when Mr. Komachi was just a hairbreadth away from death. One of those was in June 1944, when he was surprised by an F6F while on his final approach to Guam airfield. The aircraft riddled and in flames, he crashlanded and suffered large-scale burns. The other time was about two years previously, during the Battle of the South Pacific in October 1942 (Note: the Japanese name for the Battle of Santa Cruz).

"I was a member of the Reisen group that took off from Shokaku and Zuikaku, our job to attain air superiority in the attack on the US task force. On that day, the enemy's fleet air cover met our incoming attack about 30 or 40 miles distant from their task force and began their attacks.

The Grummans that we encountered here were truly tenacious and dogged. Attacking us in waves of multiple aircraft, I was ultimately chased up to arond 8000m altitude. Looking at it from another side, I managed to divert quite a number of enemy fighters and thus help in protecting out own strike force. Actually, at that time I could see very clearly the blazing carrier Hornet on the surface of the sea far below.

My job done, I went into a sudden spin and left the area post-haste, but when I reached the rendezvous area, there was nobody there!"

He could not get any use out of the radio. No friendly aircraft around. While tring to figure out what to do, more Grummans arrived and attacked him. And he did not know which direction was home... Under those circumstances, Mr. Komachi spent approximately another three hours flying over the ocean.

"In that situation, the only thing I could do was trust my vague instincts like an animal. Finally I made the judgment that if I flew directly south I would meet up with my side. Despite that, the only thing I saw was the the empty horizon in all directions. There was not a single solid object to see anywhere on the ocean surface. This is it, this is going to be the end, I concluded.

Dusk began to fall. Fuel too was getting low. My time is up I thought, and unconsciously turned my gaze to the sinking sun. At that moment, silhouetted in the sinking orb of the sun I could see two or three tiny bean-like objects. Those were ships!

With my last strength I slung the aircraft in that direction and true enough, they turned out ot members of a destroyer flotilla. A cruiser and two or three destroyers. It would have been awful if they had taken my fast-approaching fighter for an enemy, so I screamed silently to myself, I'm a Reisen, don't shoot, I beg you! and banked next to the cruiser, landing on the water."

Seeing this, the cruiser stopped at once, but immediately started up again and sailed on. From one predicament into the next! There was nothing for Mr. Komachi but to step out of the cockpit and trust his life jacket as he stepped into the sea.

Finally, several hours later, a destroyer returned, searchlights on, and rescued him. When he was pulled from the ocean, Mr. Komachi was mentally and physically so exhausted that he could not stand on his own.

"Yes, it was a feeling like coming across an oasis in the middle of the desert. Nevertheless, you know, I cannot recall even the name of the destroyer, let alone the name and face of those who pulled me out of the water. I think the severity of the shock to find myself saved after already having thought I was going to die just evaporated all those memories."

Like this, he took part in many many operations from the start of the war. With death ever near and making use of the Reisen to the degree that it became like an extension of his own body in the process, Mr. Komachi survived throughout the war to take part in his Final Combat in a most unlikely place, at a most unlikely time and flying a most unlikely fighter.

That was on 17th August 1945, at Yokosuka.

Two days previously he too had listened to the broadcast voice of the emperor and heard that the war was over, but at the Yokosuka Naval Arsenal air wing there had been no communication from the Navy HQ. Therefore, they waited fully prepared as usual to fulfill our role of Defence of the Imperial Capital, without disarming.

At 1pm that afternoon, they were informed that a Boeing B-32, the newest US bomber, was crossing Tokyo Bay en route to Kanto on a low-level recconnaissance mission.

"I scrambled at once in response. You know, for years now in the south we had been receiving large aerial attacks from 50 to 100 bombers, and with escorting fighters included sometimes 200 two 300 enemy planes regular as clockwork like the morning post every morning, as we gulped down our breakfast. Probably it was this ingrained habit of scrambling immediately on hearing the air raid siren."

With any luck, Mr. Komachi would have time to prepare a deadly attack against bombers, perfected at the front in the Pacific war theatre, the vertical dive.

"You would climb steeply high above the enemy, advance parallel wuth them for a short distance, and then throw the fighter on its back into inverted flight, and then go instantly into vertical descent passing the enemy aircraft at 90 degrees, like a cross. Passing like this, firing guns and releasing air-to-air bombs, to strike the enemy, this was the vertical dive."

This time too Mr. Komachi executed a perfect vertical dive. The B-32 spewed smoke and looking a sorry state broke off and headed back towards Iwo Jima. But Mr. Komachi, in the middle of his vertical dive, shouted out "Damn!"(Note: shimatta!).

Certainly, his attack had had effect. But at the same time, Mr. Komachi became acutely aware that the aircraft he was flying was not his trusted Reisen, but was instead a Shiden-kai.

"After all, it was one of the newest aircraft, and its engine was much more powerful than that of the Reisen. Also the speed was different. And in the vertical dive, not only the engine power but also the weight of the aircraft combined to give a total speed more than double that of horizontal flight, so it seemed that in an instant I would hit the ground.

I pulled on the stick with all my might to go from dive to climb, with no effect. My body too was gripped by G-forces much greater than those I experienced with the Reisen. The edges of my vision went black. Oh no, I've screwed up! (Note: shippai shita!) I thought."

Finally though, pulling on the stick three times what would have been needed in the Reisen he managed to pull out by a whisker, just above the sea surface.

The result of Mr. Komachi's exploit was that the high Navy staff went pale. Leaving pilots at their bases there was no way of telling what they might do, so the next morning Mr. Komachi and his comrades were awoken and sent back to their hometowns.

"I heard that the propellers were removed from all fighters at Yokosuka that same night.

Really, while we risked our lives fighting for so long, to be like thrown out and sent home packing at the end and thereafter hear absolutely nothing, you know, at the time it made me unbelievably angry.

But, regarding those B-32 crew members, even today I feel that what I did was really awful."

Happily, no downed aircraft was reported from the GHQ (Note: the Allied GHQ). However, there was another pilot at Yokosuka who scrambled with Mr. Komachi, but because his timing was late he were not able to launch an attack and instead watched Mr. Komachi's vertical dive from the air. On landing he came over and said the following to Mr. Komachi.

"That vertical dive just now, that was you, right? I could have guessed. When I saw that, I thought that must be Komachi-san, I was very impressed."

17th August 1945, and renowned Reisen pilot Komachi Sadamu's last air combat was over all too soon. At the same time, this was quite possibly the very last aerial action in the history of the Pacific war.

PROFILE:

Komachi Sadamu, former Imperial Japanese Navy Hiko Heisocho [Flight Warrant Officer]

1920 born in Ishikawa prefecture
1939 gradated 49th pilot class
1940, October, joined Akagi air group
1941, May, joined Shokaku air group

From that time on, as a Reisen pilot, participated in the air battles over Hawaii, Rabaul, New Guinea, Indian Ocean, Coral Sea, Solomons, Truk, Guam and so on.

Currently manages his own company Grande Town in Kamata, Ota ward, Tokyo.