Sunlight shining on its underside, the inverted suicide plane dove toward the flight deck of the USS Enterprise (CV-6) early on 14 May 1945. The pilot of the bomb-laden Japanese A6M5 Reisen Zeke had carefully used cloud cover and avoided 5-inch and 40-mm antiaircraft fire while approaching the carrier from her stern. Just before the Zeke passed the ship's fantail, he flipped it onto its back in a snap roll. An instant later, the kamikaze pilot steepened his plane's dive and crashed through the carrier's forward flight deck. The resulting explosion blasted most of the ship's forward elevator more than 400 feet into the air. While the Enterprise's casualties were relatively light—14 killed and 68 wounded—and she was able to maintain her place in the formation and fight off more attacks that day, "The Big E" was heavily damaged. On the 16th she set out for home, her combat career ended.
American histories of the Enterprise—most notably Navy Commander Edward P. Stafford's The Big E—identified the kamikaze pilot as "Chief Pilot Tomi Zai." Commander Stafford even titled a chapter in his book after him. But while conducting research in Japan, I found evidence that Tomi Zai was not the brave pilot's name. To the best of my knowledge, only a handful of the several thousand kamikaze pilots who died by crashing into enemy vessels have been identified, and usually only in Japanese-language books. I nevertheless set out on a journey to correctly identify the man who put the Enterprise out of the war.
Against the Backdrop of Okinawa
On 6 April 1945, in response to the recent U.S. landings on Okinawa, Japan launched the largest kamikaze, or Special Attack, offensive of World War II—Operation Kikusui (Floating Chrysanthemum). Its series of ten mass aerial attacks would stretch over 2?? months. On 11 May, about 240 Imperial Japanese Navy and Army planes participated in the sixth Kikusui attack, which severely damaged Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher's flagship, the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17).
After transferring his flag to the Enterprise, the Task Force 58 commander responded by ordering planes from Task Groups 58.1 and 58.3 to intensify their attacks on the Kikusui air bases on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. On the nights of 12-13 and 13-14 May, fighters and bombers from the Enterprise attacked the airfields using general-purpose bombs, incendiary clusters, and rockets.
Although Naval Air Station Kanoya was one of the bases hit, early on the morning of the 14th, 28 A6M5 Model 52C Zekes of the 6th Tsukuba, 11th Kenmu, and 8th Shichisho squadrons were able to take off. A group of 12 started lifting off at 0525, and the remainder began leaving at 0619. The pilots of the kamikaze planes had orders to attack targets of opportunity—namely ships in the task groups about 130 miles to the southeast—and each carried a 500-kg (1,100-pound) armor-piercing delay-action bomb. Forty escort fighters accompanied the planes.
Tomi Zai was the only one of the 28 kamikaze pilots who successfully completed his mission. He is generally credited as being an outstanding pilot for being able to roll his Zeke onto its back and then hit the Enterprise after it appeared that he would fly over and miss the turning carrier. The pilot's body, along with his plane's engine, was found in the bottom of the forward elevator well, and in The Big E, Commander Stafford implied that "Chief Pilot Tomi Zai" was printed on calling cards found in one of his pockets. However, when I checked the names of the kamikaze pilots who had been killed on 14 May 1945 in Combined Fleet records and other sources, I could not find a Tomi Zai. I did, however, find a Lieutenant (junior grade) Shunsuke Tomiyasu, but considered it premature to conclude that Tomi Zai was that pilot.
The Search Begins
Fortunately, I had gotten to know Joel Shepherd, secretary of the USS Enterprise CV-6 Association, through the Internet. According to his information, the pilot's proper name was Shusasuka Tomiyasa, which closely resembled Shunsuke Tomiyasu. An early and improper translation rendered it Tomi Zai. I asked Joel if any of the pilot's personal items besides the calling cards were recovered. About two weeks later I received an e-mailed reply in which Joel said he had a small rubber stamp that he had been told was found among the pilot's effects. He offered to send it to me.
While awaiting the stamp's arrival, I asked three Japanese veterans for help gathering more information about the pilot. Takeharu Nozaki is a member of the Hakuo Bereaved Family Association, an organization of flight reserve officer veterans and relatives of those aviators who died during the war; Fujio Hayashi was a navy veteran who had prepared flight duty rosters at Kanoya in 1945; and Nobuya Kinase was Shunsuke Tomiyasu's comrade in the Tsukuba Air Group. Their search for relevant squadron after-action reports and action-progress summaries at the Japanese Institute for Defense Studies' Archives was unsuccessful; however, Takeharu was able to put me in touch with Lieutenant Tomiyasu's brother, Hideo Tomiyasu.
In the meantime, the long-awaited rubber stamp (hanko) arrived from the United States along with a note from Joel. He wrote: "I've been told it was found in the personal effects of the pilot who crashed Enterprise on May 14, 1945, but have no way of verifying that. Again, if it appears to belong to ?Tomi Zai,' I'd be happy to see it returned to his family." The stamp was about 2?? inches high, with a long, slender wooden handle and a 2-by-??-inch wooden base. A thin piece of rubber embossed with Chinese characters forming the words "Misc. building" was glued to the base.
Hoping direct evidence linking the Enterprise kamikaze to Lieutenant Tomiyasu had been discovered, I asked his brother if he had any information about the stamp. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about it.
Help from an Enterprise Sailor
Although some of my leads were drying up, an Enterprise veteran, as well as Joel, was able to provide background information about the 14 May kamikaze hit. I had gotten to know Norman L. Zafft several years earlier when I was researching Lieutenant Kazuo Nakai, who had attempted to crash into the Enterprise on 1 February 1942 off the Marshall Islands. Norman was then president of the Enterprise Association. He had come aboard the carrier at age 18 in October 1943, and in May 1945 was a shipfitter second class assigned to the ship's Construction and Repair Division.
Neither Norman nor Joel knew how I could obtain one of the pilot's calling cards or a copy of one of them, and Norman added that he had "no idea" where the cards ended up. The pilot's family and others in Japan were concerned about the disposition and burial of the pilot's remains. As it was a most delicate subject, I was prepared to keep the findings to myself or pass them along, depending on the answer. Joel referred me to the Enterprise's war diary, which stated, "At 1410 buried body of Japanese Naval Lieutenant whose plane crashed ship at 0657." According to Norman, "His body, as I recall, was placed in a mattress cover with a 5-inch shell and slid into the sea off the fantail, or stern, of our ship, as we buried our dead." Joel speculated that he was given a simple but respectful burial at sea, probably without much ceremony.
"I don't know how the pilot's name came out to be Tomi Zai," Norman wrote, "but my guess is, someone saw his name and couldn't pronounce it. [He] saw Tomiyasa and shortening it to Tomi Sa in English."
I had earlier determined that a Nisei officer who could translate Japanese was most likely on board the Enterprise at the time of the attack. He might have read one of the calling cards correctly but, either through mispronunciation or misspelling as the name was forwarded along, Shunsuke Tomiyasu became Shusasuka Tomiyasa and was finally shortened to Tomi Zai.
A Key Piece of Evidence Arrives
At this point, I wanted to report to Lieutenant Tomiyasu's brother, as well as Nobuya Kinase and Takeharu Nozaki, on my progress. Our first meeting took place at a restaurant near Yokohama Station. There, I was excited to receive a copy of "Declaration 113, Action Progress Summary Report" from Takeharu. Discovered in the office of the Hakuo Bereaved Families Association, this Imperial Japanese Navy handwritten document summarized information on 14 May 1945 flights out of Kanoya. It was the very report I had been looking for; I thought it would conclusively list the name of the pilot who crashed into the Enterprise. While I was disappointed to discover that was not the case, the report did contain key information that helped me shorten the list of possible pilots by process of elimination.
I had learned from the Senshi Sosho, the Japan Defense Agency's history of the war, that 28 bomb-laden Zekes took off from Kanoya shortly after dawn on 14 May. "Declaration 113" revealed that 22 pilots of those planes actually completed their missions. (Six of the aircraft probably suffered mechanical problems and returned to base.) Furthermore, the report listed the names and ranks of the 22 pilots broken down by squadrons. Four were lieutenants (junior grade), thirteen were ensigns, and five petty officers. According to the Enterprise war diary, the kamikaze pilot was a lieutenant, which left only four possibilities.
According to a notation in the margin of the report: "At/about 0718, position 130?? bearing (true), 140 nautical miles from Miyazaki, ten escort fighters sighted two groups of the enemy task forces. One carrier [the Enterprise] appeared to be a CVE and was sending up a pillar of flames."
Because Lieutenants Keijiro Hiura and Takuro Fujita transmitted their last communications after 0657—the time the Enterprise was hit—they can be eliminated. For the remaining two lieutenants, Shunsuke Tomiyasu and Fumio Kusumoto, the flight times from takeoff to 0657 was approximately 90 minutes, which is the time required for a Zeke laden with a 500-kg bomb to fly from Kanoya to the carrier's location. The known facts about their flights could make either one Tomi Zai. However, I concluded Shunsuke Tomiyasu was the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Enterprise based on the similarity of his name to Shusasuka Tomiyasa, the surname of which closely resembled Tomi Zai.
Recovering a Piece of the Plane
Having completed my research, I next hoped, with the help of Norman Zafft, to bring some comfort and closure to the family and friends of Lieutenant Tomiyasu. On board the Enterprise on 14 May 1945, Norman had the watch from 0400 to 0800. He and three of his shipmates—nicknamed the "Fresh-Water Kings"—took turns caring for the fresh-water tanks and pumps near the Enterprise's forward elevator. Just before 0700, one of the shipmates, George Barker, came down and said, "Zafft, if you want to go and eat chow, I will relieve you early, as I feel safer down here." Norman went to the crew's mess, and while he was in the chow line, general quarters sounded. Immediately afterward, Tomiyasu's plane crashed near the forward elevator. George Barker was one of the Sailors killed, and Norman had the terrible experience of knowing that his friend had died in his place.
As a member of the Construction and Repair Division, Norman had access to the bottom of the elevator well, where he ventured after the crash and explosion. He told me he picked up a souvenir there, a small piece of the Zeke's fuselage. Another shipfitter got part of the plane's propeller blade, a small piece of which Norman later sawed off. He polished one side and engraved on it USS Enterprise—May 14, 1945.
In replying to my request years earlier for information about the Japanese plane that nearly hit the Enterprise in 1942, Norman had begun his letter by writing that he had been bitter toward and prejudiced against the Japanese people, but after 50 years, he knew it was time to forgive. The Japanese had fought the war for their country, as the Americans had for their country. Maybe hearing from me had helped change his attitude.
When I told Hideo Tomiyasu and the members of the Tsukuba Air Group Association that Norman had two pieces of Lieutenant Tomiyasu's plane, which he had carefully preserved for nearly 60 years, opinions were divided between aggressively seeking the return of one of the pieces, and gently urging Norman to part with one of the mementoes. I strongly believed that he would not part with the engraved piece of the prop blade but might return the piece of fuselage. Hideo and members of the Tsukuba Air Group Association decided to entrust me with writing an e-mail asking Norman for one of the pieces. Although I knew his attitudes toward the Japanese had changed considerably in the past couple of years, I carefully chose my words, stating in the message that we would appreciate his considering giving us one of the pieces.
Several days after I sent the e-mail, I received a response from Norman saying, after informing his family of our request, he had decided to send us the piece of the plane's fuselage. He wrote that he could not part with the piece of the prop blade, as it represented a day he would always remember, and his son would have it someday. The other piece of the plane would mean more to the Tomiyasu family than to his family, he said. About a week later I was excited to receive a manila envelope from Norman. A piece of an Imperial Japanese Navy Zeke kamikaze plane had returned to Japan after 58 years!
A Final Resolution
A few weeks later, in early July 2003, I attended a gathering to celebrate the life of Lieutenant (junior grade) Shunsuke Tomiyasu and reach a definitive conclusion about his fate. Held in a hotel room near Yokohama Station, the attendees included Hideo Tomiyasu; the three Japanese veterans I had worked with—Fujio Hayashi, Nobuya Kinase, and Takeharu Nozaki; and Tetsuo Terao, another veteran who had been a middle-school classmate of Lieutenant Tomiyasu's.
Fujio, who had been one of the lieutenant's commanding officers, recounted many episodes from the young aviator's life. I followed by reporting on my research and explaining it was next to impossible to expect further developments. All the attendees then agreed that although the evidence was circumstantial, the kamikaze pilot who had been known as Tomi Zai must have been Lieutenant (junior grade) Shunsuke Tomiyasu.
I then presented the envelope I had received from Norman Zafft to Hideo Tomiyasu. He withdrew from it a small, about 1??-by-3??-inch, slightly bent piece of Duralumin. On the outer surface, part of the dark olive drab paint of the imperial navy's planes had peeled off due to exposure to high temperatures, and a strip of metal about 2??5 an inch wide that seemed to be a stringer was riveted on the back of the piece.
Without saying a word, Hideo Tomiyasu stared fixedly at the piece of the plane in which his beloved brother flew to his death. He, as well as the veterans present, must have felt a thousand emotions as they gazed at it.
According to Hideo, the only official word he had received about his brother's death was that "Lieutenant Tomiyasu was killed in action on May 14, 1945." About ten years ago, he had learned by hearsay that Shunsuke might have crashed into the Enterprise. Having just learned in detail about his brother's final moments, Hideo thought Shunsuke must have been satisfied to have successfully completed his mission. In those days, when a kamikaze pilot left on a sortie, he was determined to hit the target. Hideo calmly said that he wanted all to know that, although people think Shunsuke was the only pilot who distinguished himself in the battle, all the other pilots who took off from Kanoya that morning shared in the success by having cooperated with and supported his brother.
In accordance with Hideo's wishes, the piece of his brother's plane is now displayed at the Kanoya Naval Air Station Museum. The description accompanying the exhibit explains that, more than 60 years before, 22-year-old Lieutenant (junior grade) Shunsuke Tomiyasu, with a high spirit of patriotism, followed the extraordinary command to die for his country and crashed into the USS Enterprise, successfully accomplishing his sure-death, one-way mission. The names of the 14 American officers and men of the Enterprise killed by the crash—including Seaman Second Class George Barker—are also included in the exhibit for the repose of their souls. Moreover, in return for his kindness and generosity, a description is included to the effect that, despite old, hard feelings against the Japanese, Norman L. Zafft gave the relatives and comrades of Lieutenant Tomiyasu a piece of the plane on board which the young pilot died.
Hideo Tomiyasu told me he donated the piece of his brother's kamikaze plane to the museum because he wants present-day young people to know that in the past many young Japanese had willingly sacrificed their lives for the sake of their country. He also wants today's youth to realize how primitive, brutal, and violent war can be. He hopes this small but significant historic artifact is a symbol of the reality of war in hopes that subsequent generations might avoid conflict.
Mr. Sugahara, a retired airline employee, is a translator and World War II historian who attended the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy at Etajima, Hiroshima, during the war. He is also a coauthor, along with Ichiro Matsunaga and Gordon J. Van Wylen, of Encounter at Sea and a Heroic Lifeboat Journey (Troy, MI: Sabre Press, 1994). Mr. Sugahara would like to express his heartfelt appreciation to Joel Shepherd, secretary of the USS Enterprise CV-6 Association, and Norman Zafft, a former president of the organization, for their kind cooperation and assistance in writing this article.
The Real Tomi ZaiImperial Japanese Navy Lieutenant (junior grade) Shunsuke Tomiyasu was born in 1922 to a Nagasaki family. According to his brother Hideo, he had large eyes and was called "Medama" ("Big Eyes") in his primary and middle-school days. A good harmonica player, he was a member of his school band. He was also accomplished at judo.
After Shunsuke graduated from Waseda University in March 1943 with a degree in politics and economics, he worked for the Nichiman Trading Company in Shinkyo (Changchun), Manchuria. That September he joined the Imperial Japanese Navy in the 13th Class of Reserve Students and received intensive Zeke flight training at Tsukuba Air Base. In May 1944 he was commissioned an ensign. After several transfers and a promotion to lieutenant (junior grade), Shunsuke was assigned to Tsukuba Naval Air Group on 1 March 1945 as an instructor for the 14th Class of Reserve Students. On 28 March, however, Tsukuba Air Group organized a Zeke Special Attack (Kamikaze) Corps, which Lieutenant Tomiyasu joined. Leading the corps' 6th Tsukuba Squadron, he took off from Naval Air Station Kanoya on his final mission early on 14 May.
In his final letter to his family, Shunsuke wrote:
Dear Father, Mother, and Sister,