When Japan’s fighter plane—the Zero—first appeared, it could outmaneuver any aircraft it encountered. It ruled the skies. Uncontested design. The allies found themselves at a loss to deal with it.
Yet, Japan did not prepare for a long war.
Shirua picked up an antique teapot, careful not to burn his hands. He poured out two cups. Steam rose from the water; sweet and floral. He placed the cups and teapot on a tray, then walked to the living room, sitting down on a cushion across from his grandfather.
He handed him a cup. His grandfather sipped. Sunlight broke through the windows, birds chirping in the early dawn. Shirua brought out his laptop from his bag and plugged in a charger, then launched a word program.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” his grandfather said. He held onto the teacup with his right hand, his left missing its fingers. His grip shook, and he breathed in to steady himself.
“I first learnt of my death on a beige slip of paper…”
Shirua began typing.
- - -
The Zero fighter plane swerved through the air.
Heiji pulled back on the centre stick, raising the fighter’s wings, and pressed his foot on the left pedal. The Zero rotated in the ocean blue skies, turning on its side. His target came up ahead. Heiji readied his hand on the trigger and lined up his sights.
Speeding by, he fired the twin machine guns, bullets striking the funnel-shaped cloth used as a training target. He pushed the centre stick forward, his foot pressing the right pedal. The dial on the turn-and-bank indicator swayed to the left—his plane evening out.
He lowered speed over an Okinawa runway, altitude dropping low, landing gear extending. The Zero hit the tarmac, its propeller coming to a stop. The engine slowed. Heiji slid back the canopy—the other university students standing on the runway cheered. He stood up, stepped onto the Zero’s wing, then jumped to the ground.
Heiji raised his goggles, imprints left over his eyes. He turned back to the Zero to marvel at its engineering. Sharp turns and high speeds. Light armour, but what need is there for plating when you’re not getting hit? A verdant-green paint job with a crimson Hinomaru disc over each wing, and one on the hull.
A terror to the skies.
He first engaged the enemy in the Philippines. Clouds above, mountains below. He sped over forestry, an American fighter on his tail. Machine guns fired behind him. Heiji slammed his foot down on the right pedal, leaning to the side, pulling the centre stick. The Zero twisted in the air, avoiding the attack.
He gained altitude, flying through clouds. Droplets of water formed on the glass. The American plane, a shark’s jaw painted below the propeller, lagged behind, unable to keep up with the Zero’s speed. Heiji cried out. He brought his fighter around in a loop. He dove, pulling back on the trigger.
The Zero’s twin 20-millimetre cannons fired. The rounds punctured the hull of the American aircraft. Its pilot lost control—a bullet struck the fuel tank, setting the wings ablaze. The plane descended in a ball of flame and crashed into the forest.
An aerial victory over the Philippine sea.
Yet, as the war progressed, Japan’s air superiority degraded.
The allies advanced their technology to take back the skies. Zero’s were shot down by the hundreds—their weaknesses exposed. An officer handed out beige slips of paper to the remaining university pilots. The Americans advanced on Okinawa, and every plane that could still fly would be made useful.
Heiji read the slip over. An assignment to the Special Attack Force.
He would give his life for the emperor, dive-bombing a Zero into a battleship. A suicidal crash with a plane fuelled up just enough for a one-way trip.
In a moment of respite, he sat by a stream, golden leaves drifting down around him. Sunlight reflected off the water, orange and white koi fish swimming by. He wrapped his arms around his legs and stared at his reflection. An attempt to come to terms with death.
After an hour had passed, he penned his final letter.
I will not be returning home as promised. There has been a sudden change of plans, and we’ve all been transferred into the special attack unit. I have no say in the matter.
I’m terrified by how it will end. I will perform my patriotic duty in high spirits.
Please forgive me.
My thoughts continually return to you and our soon-to-be-born child. I wish only for your happiness in the times to come. Please be cheerful and fight off all the pain and sadness. I desire that you live with a strong heart.
Burn on through death, Rina, and animate in my shade.
The following day, a battle raged over Okinawa. American warships bombarded the shores—kamikaze planes took off in waves. Heiji stood alongside a group of pilots at base, each given a ceramic bowl filled with saké. An officer stepped forward.
“At the very moment of impact,” he yelled, “do your best! Every deity and the spirits of your dead comrades are watching you. Before collision, it is essential that you do not shut your eyes for a moment so as to not miss your target. Many have crashed into their targets with wide-open eyes. They will tell you what fun they had.
“Each of you will follow in their lead. You will tolerate the intolerable, bear the unbearable, for the sake of eternity.
The pilots shouted it back. Each drank their bowl of saké, then smashed the ceramic at their feet. They turned in unison and marched to their fighter planes. Heiji lowered his goggles, breathed in, and stepped into the Zero. He affixed a picture of his wife to the centre console.
Men and women cheered on the runway, waving the Imperial Flag. Heiji took off into the rose-coloured sky, surrounding clouds as light as tendrils of smoke. Grass and ground miles below turned to water. The blue of the ocean. He looked to his right. A pilot in a nearby fighter turned to him, smiling, and saluted. He saluted back.
They broke off, separating from one another, prowling across the sky. He watched as an ally performed their duty, being shot down by a battleship’s anti-air before reaching their target.
His fuel ran low. A warning light blinked on his left. He steeled himself, prepared to destroy the ship while it recovered.
His wife would regard him as a hero.
Heiji pulled back on the centre stick and cried out.
He dove at a sharp angle. A flak cannon clipped his right wing. He spiralled, altitude plummeting, losing control. The cannon fired. It missed. The fierce winds and the drone of his engine disoriented him. The picture of his wife remained steady on the console.
Within a breath from becoming unwound, a second from terminal speed, he found a moment of clarity.
He could live.
Heiji pulled away from the ship with what control he had left. He forced himself into a landing and crashed into the ocean. The glass of his canopy exploded, shards slicing the fingers on his left hand. A fragment of steel lodged itself in his goggles. Water struck him in the face like wet concrete. He bit his tongue to the point of bleeding and feared he’d slit it in two.
Panicking, water filling his lungs, he punched at his buckle, his vision a blur. His aircraft sank deeper into the ocean. The buckle came undone. He swam up from his broken Zero, lungs burning, and choked on the air above.
- - -
“I never thought I’d have such luck,” Heiji said. Shirua continued to type out his grandfather’s story. Crickets buzzed outside, moonlight shining through the windows. “I swam for hours, resting to float and breathe every few minutes. I was afraid of Americans shooting me from atop their carriers, but mostly of sharks. There was a trail of blood for them to follow.”
Shirua nodded, tapping on his laptop keyboard.
“An American submarine found me. I’d been swimming away from Okinawa—right into their operating zone. They took me as prisoner. Since that day,” Heiji said, “I have never asked for anything more in life.”
Shirua typed out the last words and closed his laptop. He packed it in his bag, stood up, and bowed as deep as he could. His grandfather raised a hand.
“Shirua,” he said. “Thank you for listening to me. In the years to come, my generation will no longer be around, and while I have no pride in how my country acted, I’m happy I could tell somebody my story.”
“It deserves to be told.”
He bowed once more, and Heiji smiled.