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‘The greatest fighting spirit’ :: Memories of a WWII Japanese pilot

Dr Peter Williams is a military historian and author of The Kokoda Campaign 1942: Myth and Reality. Here, Peter talks about the experience of a Japanese pilot in New Guinea during World War II.

For my books about World War II in New Guinea, I’ve always felt it was important to present both sides of the story. For this reason I have made a point of interviewing as many veterans as I can, though sadly this is a more difficult task as the years go by.

One of my most interesting interviews was with Imperial Japanese Navy fighter ace Kazuo Tsunoda, who shot down six Australian and American aircraft in New Guinea in 1942-43. Some Japanese veterans are not very complimentary about the ‘fighting spirit’ of their enemies, but Tsunoda is not one of them. He believes that of all his aerial opponents during World War II, it was the Australians who showed the greatest fighting spirit.

I interviewed Tsunoda at his home north of Tokyo. Now over 90 years of age, he lives in a house among rice fields and bamboo thickets, where he is taken care of by his granddaughter. Not that Tsunoda seems to need any help. He has something tough, even intimidating, about him. It was immediately apparent that if I failed to show respect in the Japanese manner, the interview would go nowhere.

Rarely taking his eyes from me, Tsunoda considered every question, then spoke clearly, slowly and thoughtfully. This is what he told me.

“I flew a Zero in the Imperial Japanese Navy. My first air battle against the Australians was when our army landed at Milne Bay in August 1942. My squadron sortied there to support and encourage our lads fighting on the ground. Six of us flying Zeros dropped through the cloud intending to strafe the airfield and we bounced 10 Australian P-40 fighters.

Kazuo Tsunoda in Rabaul in September 1942. Courtesy Peter Williams.
Kazuo Tsunoda in Rabaul in September 1942. Courtesy Peter Williams.

“Upon returning to base in Rabaul we discussed the fight. We agreed the battles in New Guinea were much more serious than those we had previously fought against Chinese biplanes. The general opinion was if this kept up we would probably not live to return to Japan. So we mentally prepared ourselves for death sometime soon. I wore a parachute when I left our airfield but, from this time on, I took it off when in enemy territory. Every fighter pilot did the same thing. We were convinced it was better to die than be captured.”

Tsunoda explained that he was not scared of death. He believed in Bushido, the Japanese code of the warrior, so was quite prepared to give his life for his emperor. He stated this in a matter of fact way, and continued with his story.

“Our squadron was soon moved to the newly constructed airfield at Buna. On the morning following our arrival nine planes were taxiing to take off for another raid on Milne Bay. Our first aircraft was ready to go when the lookout reported the enemy. P-40s appeared out of nowhere. The strip was narrow so only one plane at a time could take off. Our first three Zeros off the ground were immediately shot down, two becoming fireballs when barely a few metres up.

“I was next off. I stayed close to the edge of the jungle to avoid being spotted. Once airborne it took some time to get the plane into fighting condition. I had to adjust the flaps, prime the guns and drop my long range fuel tank. I was attacked before I was ready. I could hear the bullets hitting my plane.

“I looked down and saw another Zero falling into the jungle, a mass of flames. But I was not deterred and turned to attack them… By this time the enemy were departing. I caught one, diving down on him and shooting with all my guns. I am fairly sure I shot him down. I came back to the airfield to land. This was difficult as the aircraft was badly damaged but on my second try I managed it.

“In September my squadron escorted our bombers to attack the Americans at Guadalcanal. After this fight I was passing Savo Island when I saw three of my comrades in a mix-up with Grummans [a type of fighter plane] and rushed to help them. I regret now I was concentrating too much on shooting down enemy planes and not protecting our bombers. I came close to one of our bombers after it had been attacked. It was trailing thick black smoke and the pilot waved to me in a calm way. The bomber crew knew they were going to die.”

After a formal, though not unfriendly beginning, Tsunoda warmed to his theme. He admired the Australians he fought against.

“I recall one occasion when I led 16 Zeros and the Australian formation of P-40s had seven aircraft, less than half our strength, yet they attacked us. It was so brave. The Australians were a worthy enemy.

A P-40 Kittyhawk at Milne Bay in September 1942. Courtesy Australian War Memorial
A P-40 Kittyhawk at Milne Bay in September 1942. Courtesy Australian War Memorial

“In late November 1942 our squadron was moved to Lae where the fighting was fierce. We often took off three times a day. As we did not have any advanced warning the enemy could easily make a sudden attack on our airfield. We tried to do the same thing to them, but the Australians had commandos hidden in the hills reporting when we took off.

“My last assignment of the war was with a kamikaze unit. My job was to lead the kamikaze to the target, as they did not know how to navigate, protect them from enemy fighters and report on the ships they sank. I believe the kamikaze system was the only way left for us to fight as things had become progressively worse. I was in China for 10 months and my squadron lost no pilots killed in combat.

Then in Rabaul we lost almost every pilot and at Iwo Jima 50 pilots were killed in three days, so I knew there was simply no other way to fight by then. Having said that, it was also the saddest thing to see the young kamikaze pilots die. I watched them for their last minutes on earth.”

The Kokoda Campaign 1942

Read more about Peter Williams’ work in our Author Q&A with him here.

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