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The Tragic Tale of Kamikaze Pilot Fujii and the Sinking of the USS Drexler

We’ve already talked about the first Japanese kamikaze pilots that Japan utilised during the Second World War. These, often young men, of course, had to be trained. One of their instructors was First Lieutenant Hajime Fujii. Now, throughout the war, Fujii requested the army high command for permission several times to join his students in kamikaze attacks. But he was refused time and time again because he was more useful as an instructor. Fujii could not help but feel that he was ‘betraying’ his students by sending them off to die while he remained on the mainland. Eventually, it led to Fujii’s family to take drastic action in order for him to be allowed to fulfil his perceived duty. The story of First Lieutenant Fujii’s is incredibly tragic and shows how rampant nationalism and total war leads to individuals taking radical action.

Hajime Fujii

Hajime Fujii was born on August 30th 1915. He grew up with six siblings on a farm in Eastern Japan. Although his parents wanted him to take over the family farm, Fujii volunteered for the army, joining as an infantryman and manning a machine-gun.  As a machine-gunner, he fought in China at the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war. During combat, a mortar shell blew his left hand to pieces and he was subsequently transported to a field hospital. In the field hospital, he met Fukuko, a Japanese nurse that treated him. They fell in love with each other and decided to marry. Against the wishes of both their families, after all, arranged marriages were the norm in Japan back then. The couple had two daughters, Kazuko and Chieko.

Fukuko and Kazuko

Now, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, war broke out between Japan and the United States. As Japanese men were sent to the frontlines, Fujii was actually in training. Regardless of his loss of hand, the army sent him to the Army Air Corps Academy. He graduated in the spring of 1943 and became a company commander at the Kumagaya Army Aviation School. Fujii was tasked with training character and mental fortitude among the pilots-in-training. Pilots in training were taught a sense of moral duty to the emperor and their fatherland. There are multiple anecdotes of students of Fujii that confirmed he would often state that if he could, he would die with them on the frontlines of battle. One of the grim realities of warfare was that pilots were trained to crash their aircraft into enemy ships or positions if they saw no other way out, even before kamikaze was officially adopted as a strategy. Still, during this time Fujii was convinced he too would eventually be called to battle, telling his students he “will not let only them die, but he as their company commander will also surely go.”

Another conviction of Fujii that returns in many sources is that he was convinced ‘words and deeds should be consistent.’ Now in October 1944 kamikaze pilots became an official strategy of the Japanese army in so-called tokkotai units. Fujii immediately volunteered for these kamikaze-squads, even though his rank was much higher than pilots that were in those squads, not to mention the fact he had a wife and 2 children. It goes to show, perhaps, how much Fujii either had a sense of duty or a sense of guilt about sending so many pilots to certain death while staying behind. Fujii submitted 2 or 3 written appeals to the army command for him to join a tokkotai squadron. All of them were rejected, however. His rank, his importance as a commander and instructor and his family were the causes listed as the reason for the army to reject him.

Hajime Fujii

There isn’t any direct information about how Fujii and Fukuko’s marriage functioned during this time. Still, it’s safe to say that the fact Fujii submitted three petitions to join a kamikaze squad made an impact on Fukuko. All that is known is that after the last rejection by the army command, on the morning of December 14th 1944, Fukuko dressed up in her most beautiful kimono, and dressed up their children Kazuko and Chieko as well. She then wrote a  letter to her husband, in which she wrote the following:  “Since you probably would be worried about us and not be able to carry out your duties because we are here freely, we go-ahead before you and will wait for you. Please fight without reserve.” She then walked to the Arakawa river near the aviation school Fujii taught at and jumped into the freezing water, with one daughter tied to her wrist and the other girl in a backpack strapped to her back.

It took a day for the bodies of the 24-year-old mother and her two small children to be found. After Fujii was informed and went to the harrowing scene, he went home to find the letter his wife had left him. Due to it being wartime the funeral was the next day, and that evening Fujii wrote a letter to his oldest daughter, the photograph you’re seeing is the original letter:

Fujii’s letter

A cold, blustery December day

Your life disappeared as dew on Arakawa River’s bank. It is painfully sad that together with your mother you sacrificed yourself ahead of your father because of his fervent desire to lay down his life for his country. However, I hope that you, who as a young girl vanished together with your mother, will be gladly smiling. Father also will soon be able to follow after you. At that time I’ll gladly hold you close to me as you sleep. If Chieko cries, please take good care of her. Well, goodbye for a short time. Daddy will perform a great feat on the battlefield and bring it as a present for you. Both you and Chieko, please wait for me until then.

Because the Japanese government didn’t want to bring any other families on any ideas the press was forbidden to publicize about the case. As if this entire case isn’t sad enough Fujii decided that his next petition had to be accepted by army command, so he cut off his pinky finger and signed his appeal with blood. Due to the exceptional circumstances, he was finally allowed to join a kamikaze squadron. On the 8th of February 1945 the 45th Shinbu Squadron, under the command of Fujii, was formed. Fujii’s squadron, nicknamed Kaishin which means cheerful spirit, consisted of 12 men with 9 Ki-45 type 2 Toryu fighters.


The squadron trained together until late May, when they were scheduled to be sent to Okinawa. Correspondence from that time shows that Fujii wrote his mother, whom he told he was happy to carry out his duties, and Fukuko’s father, who he told he was looking forward to seeing his family again in the afterlife.


The mission commenced at 5 am on May 28th. On their way to Okinawa one aircraft crashed in the sea. The 8 other planes reached the US destroyers USS Drexler and USS Lowry. Although 6 aircraft were shot out of the air, 2 planes crashed into the USS Drexler. Following multiple explosions, within minutes the USS Drexler had sunk, and 158 of its officers and crew died due to the kamikaze attack. As such the incredibly sad story of Fujii and his last act in life came to an end. It provides a very good idea of the war mentality of many Japanese, where dying whilst performing your duty was seen as the highest form of honour one could achieve. There is a family grave in Fujii’s hometown, where former students of Fujii used to come once a year to pay their respects. Now if you’re interested in more stories about Kamikaze pilots, there will be some end-cards on-screen about the story of both the last and the first Japanese kamikaze attacks during the Second World War.

Sources

https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/the-tragic-tale-of-hajime-fujii-a-kamikaze-fighter.html
https://wgordon.web.wesleyan.edu/kamikaze/stories/fujii/index.htm

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