“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, 1…What God was it then set them together in bitter collision?, 8” ~ The Iliad of Homer
October 21, 1944 — two cultures clashed in the sky over the Pacific Ocean sending a ripple of grief and emotional disruption down the generations of both a Japanese and an American family. Men fell to their deaths into the sea, and were thereafter, remembered as heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice for an ideal.
If you were willing to die for something, would you sacrifice yourself and die in a blaze of glory, or would you battle for survival in order to fight another day? Much would depend on what type of culture you grew up in and what that culture either dictates or expects. Men have gone to battle since the beginning of time for many reasons — culture and tradition have always played a role in how war was formally conducted.
World War II was no exception in that everyone wore a uniform that identified them as part of the group, ideals and country that they represented — and everyone had a flag.
In the East, the 13th Century Mongol invasions threatened Japan from the North in what is modern day Korea. When the Mongols finally invaded, the Samurai took a stand and held off the invaders until a fierce storm blew over the invaders, and about 15,000 Mongols drowned.
When the Mongols invaded again and it seemed that the Japanese could not stave them off, a huge typhoon came in, destroying over 4000 ships and 70,000 men. It was believed that these divine winds, or kamikaze, were called upon by the Emperor to save Japan.
When the Americans were gaining the upper hand in the Pacific against the Japanese, the kamikaze was reincarnated in the form of the Zero fighter.
Close to the end of WW II, Japanese Zero Fighters, in desperation, began attacking Allied ships and planes in suicide dives. Special squads dubbed Kamikaze, were formed to mimic the divine winds, attacking Allied ships in waves.
In the West, the rage of Achilles was a response to a provocation that wrought the destruction of Troy and its notable warrior Hector. Like the rage of Achilles, the West responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor from the East with a unified anger.
As history flows, one war or battle can change its course. It can change a cultural or religious course of action for better or worse as well — and one death can change the course of a single family.
October 25, 1944 was the official launch of the Japanese Kamikaze against the Allied Forces in the Pacific theater of World War II but on October 21, 1944, the crew of the Miss Fit, a B-24 Liberator, was felled from the sky by a Kamikaze off the coast of Iwo Jima. As they came in for a bombing run of the airstrips at the Japanese occupied island of Iwo Jima, a Zero fighter flew straight down from above and crashed into the B-24 Liberator, shearing off the tail. Both planes fell into the sea with no survivors.
“On Iwo, October 21 saw an American B-24 meet its match in a single Japanese fighter plane. The bomber had just moved in over the target when the fighter dived into its tail assembly, tearing it away. Both the fighter and the B-24 plunged into the sea, the bomber exploding on impact. The encounter left no survivors.” ~ Richard Wheeler, Iwo
According to Wheeler’s book, Japanese officers were reaching the brink of insanity as it became clear that they were losing the war. They worked their men to near death and starvation on the islands of Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima in an effort to hold off the Americans. Some Japanese pilots began ramming ships and planes earlier than the official launch of the Kamikaze forces.
In my search to identify the pilot who rammed the Miss Fit, I came across a Japanese pilot, Lt. Yoshiyasu Kuno, who departed but never returned on October 21, 1944. I suspected that he was the pilot who encountered the Miss Fit, but had to rule him out since he departed after the B-24 went down.
Kuno’s story however, and that of other kamikaze pilots did give me some insight into the motivations and feelings of these pilots — and humanized them. They sent letters home to their families before departing — Kuno sent a lock of his hair. Letters were left to their children and one expressed regret at not having fixed a draught in the house. Some left diaries, and many wrote haiku that almost always began with the Emperor’s name.
Eventually I found the name of Lt. Shigehiro Nakama. He departed Iwo Jima October 21, 1944 to intercept incoming B-24 bombers and never returned. He rammed a B-24 and both crashed into the sea.
My purpose in finding the kamikaze who downed the Miss Fit was not to figure out who was right or wrong, or who espoused the correct ideals, although there is no doubt in my mind as to which side I would have taken. I wanted to put all sides in perspective and come to a place of forgiveness, but most of all I wanted to know exactly what happened to S/Sgt. William F. Pluth, a gunner on the Miss Fit.
My Uncle Bill fell into the sea that day along with his crew members, leaving my father and the rest of his family heartbroken beyond belief. I heard what happened to him over and over growing up, but it always seemed to me like an unfinished story.
While it was impossible to fix what happened, I felt that by looking closely at the event that was at the source of my family’s pain and grief following the war, and by standing on the other side of the of the event, I could find some understanding, and hence some closure for my family since his remains were never found and returned.
“14 A6Ms of S317, 252 Ku, then moved to the island on 10 October to defend it from attacks by B-24s. Led by Lt Shigehiro Nakama, this unit mainly used the the 3-go phosphorous bombs. Nakama personally damaged one bomber on 11th and shared in damaging another on 15th. On 21st ten Zeros intercepted 28 B-24s, one of which Nakama rammed, both aircraft falling into the sea. Lt. Nakama was posthumously promoted two ranks and notice of this was made to the whole IJN.” ~ Japanese Naval Fighter Aces: 1932–45
My grandmother always pulled out her memorabilia when I came to visit her and we would sit on the couch together looking at newspaper clippings and the telegram she received about my uncle’s death. She talked of his childhood and his relationship with my father, who was a happy, laughing guy, always making jokes and playing tricks, according to her, but when he returned from the war without his brother, he became a very quiet person prone to a melancholy and depression that never left him.
Bill worked as a roofer before the war. He was a small guy suited to maneuvering about a roof and so he was equally suited to sit inside a gun turret at the tail of a B-24 or in any other part of a bomber. Like many boys, he had his share of mischief and fistfights at school and around his neighborhood — my father, being a big and tall boy, though younger than Bill, was usually there to finish a fight or protect his smaller brother and bring him home safely.
His parents were from a small town in Metlika, Slovenia, a town raided and burned down 11 times by the Ottomans. His mother waited out WW I in Metlika until his father could return for her, and Bill’s sister Mary. Bill’s family were no strangers to war, but they had put all of that behind them in America and it was natural that Bill would want to protect the home that his parents chose in the United States — the threat of their home being overtaken by invaders from the outside was a reality that they had experienced first hand.
Bill enlisted early on and my father followed later. He became a gunner on a B-24 in various positions on the bomber and experienced heavy combat, going through two other planes before the fatal flight of the Miss Fit. They met in Hawaii when Bill received leave with just a few more missions to go before he could return home. My father was stationed there before being sent to the Pacific to be a part of the planned invasion of Japan.
Bill insisted that my father go to church with him in Hawaii before he returned to battle and it would be one of the last hours they shared before Bill’s death.
When my father returned home, he lingered on the front steps of the house for hours before finally entering to face his mother. While returning from the war was a happy occasion for some families, for many it was bittersweet, with some sons returning and some not. To come home without the brother that you were always expected to protect, and face your mother for the first time, was as difficult as getting on a troop ship en route to a battle zone.
My grandmother carried a framed photo of Bill around with her for a year.
What would Bill have done with his life after the war? Perhaps he would have gone back to his job as a roofer, married and had a family, like my father, or struggled with PTSD, which was then known commonly as “shell shock”. Maybe he would have realized his dream of becoming a pilot.
What would Nakama have done? He may have had a family, but believing that the emperor was divine, his choice was to protect them as a god rather than as a father. If he had made a different choice, perhaps putting his aerial skills to use as an airline pilot or becoming an executive or worker for Mitsubishi, the company that manufactured the Zero fighter, he could have done as much for his family after the war.
Bill prayed before death — he surely prayed that he would return home safely to continue his life. His god didn’t create the war, nor did He order Bill’s death.
It’s likely that Shirego thought Hirohito to be the divine one and that dying for him would bring him a memorial full of glory here and in the afterlife and bring honor to his family.
Who’s god prevailed? There existed two young men embarking on the journey of life and manhood in their own ways, only to be waylaid by a call to protect an ideal that would preserve a course — and two broken families — two spiritual, ideological and political journeys created by man, intersecting and clashing at one point in the sky, forever altering the flow and course of many individuals who had to adjust their own personal journeys, and move on from the grief of that single instant in time.
Can a man be a god? Certainly not. The bomb was dropped and the divine wind never blew — even the emperor could not stop it — science prevailed and the rage of Achilles wrought destruction and havoc on a culture, and the most ancient beliefs about the power of man-as-god were laid to rest for good.
Rest in peace —
~S/Sgt. William F. Plut and the crew of the Miss Fit
~Lt. Shigehiro Nakama, Zero Fighter, S317, 252 Ku
Copyright V. Plut — the appearance of this story and images on any other website or print publication other than Medium without the permission of V. Plut constitutes a violation of copyright as well as an admission of said violation.
Sources and further reading:
~Center For Naval Analyses, Operations Evaluations Group, Study 741: Defense Against Kamikaze Attacks in WW II and its Relevance To Anti-ship Missile Defense by Nicolai Timenes, Jr
~Divine Wind: Japan’s Kamikaze Force in World War II by Rikihei Inoguchi and Roger Pineau
~History of the Kamikaze (Color Documentary) ( Leyte, Iwo Jima, Okinawa), available to watch on Youtube
~Iwo by Richard Wheeler
~ Japanese Naval Fighter Aces: 1932–45, Ikuhiko Haka, Yashuho Izawa, Christoper Shores
~The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore
~Who Became Kamikaze Pilots, And How Did They Feel Towards Their Suicide Missions by Mako Sasaki, The Concord Review, (Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize 1997)