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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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The Battle of Castle Itter and Standoff at Niederhof between the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS

The last days of the Second World War were incredibly chaotic. To nearly every German soldier it became clear the war had been lost, both in the Wehrmacht and even among some ideological diehard Waffen-SS. Europe was filled with large groups of refugees, displaced persons and bands of soldiers that either were looking for another front to fight at or tried to reach the western allied powers before the Soviets caught them. A very curious event happened during this chaotic time: in Tyrol, Austria, a centuries-old castle housed prominent French political prisoners. When a fanatical SS division attempted to take the castle, a German Wehrmacht unit ended up fighting side-by-side with a United States army unit to defend these prisoners. It was the only time during the entire war that the Germans and Americans fought side-by-side, and it is often described as the ‘strangest battle of the entire war.’

Battle of Castle Itter

This castle, Schloss Itter, was used as a prison for French people of interest such as former French presidents, ministers and former commanders of the French army. These people had been seized from France following Germany’s rapid conquest of the country nearly five years earlier and were locked up as political prisoners, as a sort of bargaining chip if you will. Among the imprisoned were former prime ministers Eduard Daladier and Paul Reynaud. 

The entrance of Schloss Itter

Now the Itter Castle wasn’t a regular prison. The guest rooms of the castle had been converted to ‘prison cells’, but the ‘prisoners’ were free to move around. Furthermore, they had a full staff consisting of Dachau prisoners and there was ample food and water available. SS-Totenkopfverbände soldiers guarded them. In early May these men too realised the war was lost. Itter was a subunit of the Dachau concentration camp, and the fact the commandant of Dachau, Eduard Weiter, fled to Itter as the camp was liberated and then proceeded to take his own life was quite the big giveaway the war wasn’t going well for the Germans. Following this event Itter’s prisoner commander fled together with the guards, leaving the prisoners behind. 

Following their abandonment the prisoners armed themselves. They were aware of a hostile SS division in the vicinity and they weren’t too wrong about that. Closeby, the 17th Waffen SS Panzer-Grenadier Division, was preparing itself to recapture the castle. Knowing the allies were close by, the prisoners had already sent an arrested Yugoslavian communist resistance fighter that worked at the castle as a handyman to try and get the Americans to come to rescue them. When he didn’t return the group sent their cook to try and find Allies to rescue them as well.

Meanwhile, the handyman hadn’t disappeared or anything. He managed to reach Innsbruck where US troops were stationed. Innsbruck was over 14 hours of walking away, but roaming SS units occupied all nearby towns. Although the castle wasn’t in their military jurisdiction, the US commander, Major John T. Kramers assembled a small rescue troop to go with the handyman. 

As for the cook, he reached Wörgl, a small Austrian town. The Austrian resistance ruled over it and the cook was brought to its leader, Wehrmacht commander Major Sepp Gangl. Gangl was a highly decorated Wehrmacht officer that had refused official orders to retreat into Germany. Together with his unit, they were somewhat renegades that now occupied the Austrian town and led its anti-Nazi resistance. They realised defeat was imminent and tried to protect the town’s population against SS war crimes. Gangl commanded 20-odd men, not enough to protect the castle against a larger SS division. Realising this, he decided to call in the help of the Allied powers, rapidly advancing in the area. He took a white flag and managed to contact and surrender to a nearby US tank commander, Jack C. Lee junior and explain the situation. Lee agreed to assemble a rescue party, but not before scouting around the castle together with Gangl. It was one of the most curious alliances that were forged during the entire war. A United States tank commander taking a Wehrmacht commander on a reconnaissance mission. Upon return commander Lee assembled his own rescue party. The next morning, together with 14 US soldiers, Gangl, a tank, driver and truck with 10 former Wehrmacht soldiers they approached the castle.

Josef ‘Sepp’ Gangl and Jack C. Lee

But obviously, while all this was going on the situation at the castle wasn’t dormant. As a matter of fact, and this is just one of the many twists in this weird story, the prisoners requested an SS-Hauptsturmführer they befriended, Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, to take charge of its defence. So when Gangl and Lee arrived with their troops the situation must have been rather odd – French politicians and persons of interest, under the command of a SS officer, greeting US soldiers and a former Wehrmacht officer coming to their aid.

Nevertheless, the defence force was small. They were vastly outnumbered. Even with the prisoners taking up arms, they would be no match for the ‘black brigades’ of the elite SS division preparing the recapture. The US tank was placed at the castle’s entrance and the men took up defensive positions. 

On the morning of the 5th of May, the SS assault was launched. Around 150 Waffen-SS soldiers chipped down at the castle’s defences. Gangl was shot by a sniper trying to get former French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud to safety. Lee’s tank was destroyed, although everyone survived the blast that destroyed it, and the castle walls were heavily damaged. 

The battle went on for hours. As the ammunition of the defending force was about to run out at 4 PM that day the column of tanks under the command of Kramer, contacted by the Yugoslav handyman, arrived. Some SS soldiers fled, and approximately 100 were arrested and subsequently sent to prisoner of war camps. The French prisoners were brought to safety and arrived in France four days later.

For his exploits, Lee was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Gangl was the only fatal casualty of the assault and was posthumously declared an Austrian national hero. And, well, 2 days after this strange battle Germany signed its unconditional surrender officially bringing the second world war in Europe to an end.

Another Wehrmacht vs SS situation

Now, although this was the only time Americans fought side-by-side with the Germans, by the end of the war, it wasn’t too rare for Wehrmacht soldiers to counter the Waffen-SS actively. One such example is the story of Wichard von Alvensleben, a Wehrmacht officer. When the commanders of various concentration camps realised the war was over during the final weeks of the war, many set up transports of valuable, prominent prisoners to the Dachau concentration camp. In total, 139 prisoners were put on transport, including family members of Claus von Stauffenberg who led the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in the 20 July plot, Dr Hjalmar Schacht, co-conspirator of the plot and Sigismund Payne Best, the British SIS officer that was kidnapped during the Venlo incident preceding the invasion of the Netherlands. I made a video about both events. 

Wichard von Alvensleben (1902-1982)

At any rate, the evacuation of the prisoners was under the command of Obersturmführer Friedrich Bader and Edgar Stiller. Because the communication lines had broken, they only received orders to evacuate the prisoners, unsure what to do with them next. They received the order to execute all prisoners if they risked getting arrested by Allied troops. Waffen-SS and Sicherheitsdienst soldiers guarded the transport of prisoners. In buses and trucks the prisoners were transported, initially to Labourcamp Reichenau in Innsbruck, Austria. But this camp couldn’t house the prisoners so they were moved to the Hotel Pragser Wildsee, a municipality in South Tyrol, where they arrived on the 28th of April. This entire area saw fierce Nazi resistance against the rapidly advancing allied forces.

The hotel Pragser Wildsee was, to the surprise of the captors, occupied by Luftwaffe generals and their staff. The only option was to move the prisoners to the little town of Niederhof, 12 kilometres north of the hotel. In the town, accommodation was prepared for the prisoners, and the SS and SD men went on a drinking binge. Later that night one of the prisoners discovered a note in the wallets of a drunkenly passed-out SD officer that called for the execution of several prisoners. In addition, the drunk guards started to behave more aggressively towards the group of prisoners. 

The next day one of the prisoners, Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, who was imprisoned after allowing a retreat from Warsaw following the Soviet Vistula-Oder offensive, asked the local Wehrmacht liaison office to get in touch with an old friend. He ringed General Hans Röttinger, who had his headquarters closeby in Bolanzo. He identified the high-profile prisoners and communicated the incredibly dangerous situation the prisoners were in and the fear they were to be executed. In response, Röttinger’s superior Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff decided to send a Wehrmacht unit to Niederhof to ensure safe supervision of the prisoners and make sure no laws were broken.

Wehrmacht captain Wichard von Alvensleben was tasked with the protection of the prisoners. Together with two men he went to Niederhof where he ran into Friedrich Bader. Von Alvensleben said he was a representative from generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff and that Bader’s mission to transport the prisoners was completed. As a Wehrmacht Captain he had no authority to give orders to the SS, however, and indeed, Bader refused to accept the order. In a precarious position and heavily outnumbered Von Alvensleben left the town and called for a Wehrmacht group to be dispatched to Niederhof. 

Pragser Wildsee Hotel

Forty-five minutes later 15 Wehrmacht officers arrived, which still was not enough in case chaos would break out. As such a larger army unit was requested, and 150 extra Wehrmacht soldiers arrived 2 hours later. The group then re-entered the town, positioned themselves in the town square and von Alvensleben once again negotiated with Bader and Stiller about the release of prisoners. A tense situation developed where a firefight between the SS-troops and Wehrmacht unit was a genuine possibility. Only after a near-standoff and the realisation among the captors they were heavily outgunned, did they concede. The prisoners were handed over to the Wehrmacht unit that was to protect them from now on, and Bader and Stiller’s men retreated.

They moved inland and the Wehrmacht moved the prisoners back to the Pragser Wildsee Hotel. There they resided with the Wehrmacht protecting them until the Allied forces finally rescued them four days later and the Wehrmacht soldiers, including von Alvensleben, voluntarily surrendered. The soldiers were released from US custody later that year. Both the story of Castle Itter and the stand-off between the Wehrmacht and SS in Niederhof are curious tales from those final days of the second world war, where the line between ally and foe was very blurred, leading to very strange situations.

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Japanese Hold-outs after WW2 from 1961 to 1972

Japanese hold-outs after the second world war are quite the never-ending source of interesting stories. Japanese soldiers were known for their resilience, dedication to the Emperor and often preference to death over surrender. On this channel, I have already discussed the last missing Japanese soldier that was found 63 years after he was sent off to war, in 2006. Another curious tale is that of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese lieutenant that waged guerilla warfare on an island of the Philippines until nearly 30 years after the war had ended. But besides these 2 cases, several other Japanese hold-outs didn’t quite hold out 30 years but nevertheless refused to surrender for an incredibly long time.

Masashi Ito and Bunzo Minagawa

Right, so the first case wasn’t just one soldier, but two. Sergeant Masashi Ito and private Bunzo Minakawa both served in the Japanese army during the second world war. They remained together, becoming one of the last Japanese hold-outs after the war had ended.

Ito was a machine gunner in the army and was stationed on the island of Guam. When the Americans invaded the island in summer 1944 Ito, together with Minagawa and another soldier got separated from their unit. Most of the defenders on the island were killed, and Minagawa and Ito were some of the few survivors and retreated into the jungle in order to continue their fight.

Mashashi Ito and Bunzo Minagawa

Just like many Japanese soldiers, the two learned how to survive in the jungle, foraging for food and living in makeshift huts. But in August 1945 Japan surrendered after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following Japan’s defeat plans were made to rebuild the country and prosecute those responsible for the war. One issue that kind of faded to the background was the Japanese guerillas that were scattered over hundreds of islands in the pacific. All of them received the explicit command to fight until the bitter end, Ito and Minagawa had as well. 

Following the end of the war, it was known many guerillas were hiding in the jungle on small islands. Authorities on Guam launched a campaign to try and convince missing Japanese soldiers the war was over by dropping leaflets and newspapers on the island. Men like Ito and Bunzo refused to believe they were real, convinced by their superiors that the US would wage psychological warfare on them and would use tricks such as these. For another 16 years, Ito and Minagawa were in a pretty uninhabited situation. Minagawa later described to a journalist: “We ate roots, worms and grasshoppers. It’s no use telling because you wouldn’t believe it. You can’t imagine such a life. We were sleeping every night in the rain on the ground.”

They lasted for years, but in May 1960 Ito and Minagawa had a crucial encounter with locals. A confused and weakened Minagawa was captured. This prompted Ito to surrender two days later. He was treated at a nearby American military base, and he then realized the war was over, and he wouldn’t be tortured or killed by the US soldiers. Eventually, Ito and Minakawa spent over 15 years in the jungle of Guam. When they returned to the Japanese mainland and visited their home towns, both men had the bewildering experience of reading their own gravestones. Their mothers had commissioned them, convinced the men had died during the war.

Ito and Minagawa

After the war ended Ito tried to reintegrate into Japanese society. He married, had children and even a movie was made about his life. He also published a relatively successful autobiography, the Emperor’s Last Soldiers, published in 1967. What he didn’t know was that he and Minagawa weren’t actually the last Japanese soldiers still out there. As the book was published, there were multiple other Japanese soldiers still holding out, convinced the Second World War wasn’t over yet. There even was another soldier on the small island Ito and Minawake resided on, Guam.

Shoichi Yokoi 

Remaining on the small island of Guam, after Ito and Minawake surrendered, was a Japanese sergeant Shoichi Yokoi. He arrived on Guam during the war in February 1943, and, just like the Ito and Minagawa, he went into hiding when the United States attacked the island. Together with 9 other soldiers he foraged in the jungle and lived from nature for years. They didn’t necessarily stick together, as Yokoi later reminisced, but did know of each other’s existence. Yokoi lived in a cave he dug himself, using his surroundings to create shelter and clothing. Overtime 6 soldiers moved away leaving Yokoi with 2 others. That was, until 1964, when the other 2 soldiers died during a flood. For the next 8 years, Yokoi lived on his own. 

Shoichi Yokoi

So what’s interesting is that Ito and Minagawa knew Yokoi from meeting him on the island in 1944, during the war. And they knew it was possible that Yokoi still lived in the wilderness on the island. They actively tried to get him out of the jungle. Multiple times they broadcast to the jungle that the war was over, but Yokoi never revealed himself. Eventually Yokoi was legally declared dead by Japanese authorities, since there was no success in getting him out by dropping letters and newspapers, nor did the broadcasts work. 

Eventually, in January 1972 Yokoi ran into two local men on the island of Guam. The men were catching shrimp when they ran into Yokoi, who perceived them as a threat and attacked them. Because of his life in the jungle and poor diet, the men could easily overpower the weakened Yokoi. The story goes that Yokoi was afraid he would be tortured and killed after capture, but the men carried him to their village, stopped at their house for some hot soup, and then delivered Yokoi to the local commissioner’s office. When the commissioner discovered Yokoi’s true identity, Japanese authorities were informed and the process was set in motion to get Yokoi to return to Japan. And once he arrived, Yokoi revealed his motives to stay in the jungle that long: he said “it is with much embarrassment that I return.”

So why didn’t Yokoi simply give in when letters about the war being over were dropped, or when his former brothers-in-arms Minagawa and Ito asked him to? In his own words, from his autobiography: “I didn’t come out because I was afraid. The spirit of Japan is to die the way the cherry blossoms go: without shame. I was afraid I wouldn’t go that way.” Yokoi even revealed he knew the war had been over since 1952 but refused to surrender out of shame. When he returned to Japan, just like Ito and Minagawa, he was able to return to his village where he was born to read his own gravestone. When Yokoi finally passed away in 1997 at the age of 82, he was buried with the same gravestone that his mother had commissioned for him over 40 years earlier, after he was legally declared dead.

Now after Yokoi was discovered, there was another Japanese soldier holding out on an island in the Philippines. Hiroo Odona would not surrender for another 2 years, and his tale to is quite the extraordinary one. Hiroo Odona would not surrender for another 2 years, and his tale is quite the extraordinary one. If you want to know more about that, make sure you check out my article about him.

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The Last Nazi to Stand Trial: Bruno Dey (July, 2020)

Following the Second World War, many Nazis fled to Latin America or were recruited by foreign powers. Throughout the post-war decades, the media would occasionally explode with a captivating and exciting story of Israeli special forces tracking down and killing or abducting Nazis that had managed to evade capture. The recent years these stories have subsided quite a bit. After all, the Second World War ended over 75 years ago, and the war criminals that served the regime have mostly passed away. Only the youngest generation of the Nazis are still alive, and even they are in their 90s, close to death. Nevertheless, recently, in July this year, there was a verdict about one of the oldest Nazis ever to stand trial. It is an exceptional trial because if it isn’t the last, it certainly is one of the last.

Now the entire case against this man is both very curious and very recent. The last man that stood trial for Nazi war crimes was the former SS concentration camp guard, 93-year-old Bruno Dey. In October 2019 he was charged with complicity to the murder of 5232 people in concentration camp Stutthof, closeby the Polish city Gdansk. 

Dey had been a camp guard since summer 1944. He was 17-years-old and due to the shortage of able-bodied men, he was placed in the camp as a guard. He had a heart-deficiency which is why he wasn’t drafted as a soldier on the eastern front, like so many boys his age were. The camp, Stutthoff, was a place of nightmares. A typhoid epidemic raged through the camp in 1942 and 1944 and the prisoners that were too weak to work were sent off to the gas chambers. Those that weren’t killed suffered incredible hardship as forced labourers. Until the end of the war tens-of-thousands of Jews and Poles ended up in the camp and over 60.000 were killed. 

Survivors were allowed to make statements during the case. They talked about daily life in the camp and the crimes committed by the SS. They said they were “beaten, spit on, had to spend hours in scorching heat performing hard labour without any shade or water, there were random executions and during the last year of the war, a typhoid epidemic killed off many inmates.” In his verdict, the Judge asked Dey how he “could get used to the horror of the camp?”

Because of Dey standing guard on the watchtowers, the judge considered him complicit to the murder of at least 5232 inmates. What’s so curious is that because Dey was 17 during his service, as a 93-year-old, a juvenile judge tried him. During his confession, Dey confirmed he saw the way inmates were treated. He heard the screaming from the gas chambers and saw the way bodies were burned. According to him, he had no other option than to stay in the camp, after all, the punishment for desertion was certain death. 

Last July, Dey was sentenced to two years of probation by the juvenile judge. The verdict took into account Dey’s young age when he was a guard and his current age and health conditions. It might not seem like a satisfying sentence, but the 35 survivors and five relatives of people that were involved in the case simply wanted him to be sentenced. The judicial system had to recognise Dey was guilty of committing these crimes, and that happened. Some survivors even went as far as to publicly acknowledge they didn’t want Dey to be sent to prison after he was found guilty, and one of them made the case to forgive Dey’s crimes.

In his closing statement, Dey offered his apologies to the survivors and relatives of those killed. He stated that these crimes ‘must never be repeated’. A bit of a turnaround because when the case started, he said he didn’t understand why, after 74 years, he still had to stand trial for what happened back then. Dey’s apology is very rare though – it barely happens that former Nazis apologise for their crimes. Take Adolf Eichmann, who said he did not feel guilty about his instrumental role in organising the holocaust.

Prisoner barracks at Stutthof

The trial of Bruno Dey may very well be the last one since most former Nazis still alive are approaching 100 years of age. Nevertheless, several instances are continuing the hunt for former Nazis. Thomas Will, a public prosecutor in Ludwigsburg, stands at the head of the Zentrale Stelle zur Aufklärung nationalsozialistischer Verbrechen, commonly called the Nazi Hunters. They have been operating for over 60 years. The organisation was created in 1958 to prosecute Nazis that were acquitted during earlier trials. As of today, August 2020, they are preparing 14 cases against former Nazis. Considering these men are all approaching 100 years of age, it isn’t likely they will actually end up standing trial. 

There are many other interesting stories and cases of Nazi war criminals that fled after the Second World War and were hunted down by, for example, the Israeli Mossad. If there’s a specific case you’d like to know more about, make sure you let me know in the comments!

I would also like to thank all my Patrons for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. If there is a person or event from the Second World War you would like to know more about, let me know your thoughts in a comment. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time! 

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The Wehrmacht encircled in Ukraine: the Cherkassy Break-out

At the beginning of 1944 six divisions of the German Army Group South, some 56.000 men, were encircled by the Russian Army. They were stuck in a pocket of around 48 kilometres wide and 20 kilometres deep around the Ukrainian town of Korsun, in the South-West. What followed was a desperate fight of the Germans, fighting against the encirclement of Soviet forces outnumbering them. Eventually, the situation got so bad German General Wilhelm Stemmermann decided to group all the German combat troops inside the pocket, arrange them into two columns, and force a break-out of the Cherkassy pocket, straight through the surrounding Soviet lines.

Red Army assault force on T-26 light tank in Korsun-Shevchenkovski region.

The Soviets Attack

Once the German forces under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South had retreated back into Ukraine from Russia in late 1943, the Soviet Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov realized the potential a certain strategy had. He planned to encircle the German army, just as the Soviets had done at Stalingrad against General Paulus’s army, in order to crush the Germans. With diligent planning and quick mobilisation, the Soviets rushed their troops, some 80.000 men, to encircle the German pocket located near the city of Cherkassy. Commander of the German forces inside the Cherkassy pocket was General Wilhelm Stemmermann. German forces inside the pocket consisted of 56.000 troops, 30 operational tanks and over 200 artillery pieces.

On January 24th, at dawn, the Red Army launched their attack against the German troops. Thing is, the encirclement of the Germans, as was planned, wasn’t yet complete. Nevertheless, Soviet General Ivan Konev lead the attack with his 2nd Ukrainian Front. 

 At first, a massive artillery barrage lasted for several hours. The battalions of 4th Guards and 53rd armies followed up and throughout the day they broke through into the German forward positions. Up to 5 kilometres of depth was won. 

The next day Konev’s troops launched infantry attacks at dawn. Later that day, the fifth guards tank army, an elite tank division under the command of the highly capable general Pavel Rotmistrov, launched an attack at the base of the Cherkassy pocket. 

The Germans managed to halt Rotmisov’s advancement with heavy anti-tank fire, but the next day the northern line of the Cherkassy pocket was breached by General Nikolai Vatutin’s First Ukrainan Front. Here too a tank division took the lead role, namely the Sixth Guards Tank Army under General Andrey Kravchenko. The Germans managed to hold the breaches by the Soviets and fought for their dear lives. All the while, the Soviets managed to establish several strong points around the German troops.

By the end of January, the Soviets managed to establish both an outer and inner encirclement of the Cherkassy pocket. The Fifth Guards and Sixth tank armies, reinforced with rifle divisions, stood ready to fight the tanks of two German Panzer Corps from the outside. They were desperately trying to break through the Soviet lines to come to the aid of the Germans trapped in the pocket.

Next stage of battle

The relief attempt begins. Tanks and halftracks of 1st Panzer Division begin movements towards the pocket, early February 1944.

The conditions inside the pocket started to deteriorate rapidly. Now, the Germans were trapped in an area that housed several villages and forests, yet the area also had many ravines, marshland and streams of the Dnieper. Although it was still winter in Ukraine, a sudden thaw turned large parts of the area into a muddy mess. The Germans were rather immobile within their pocket. Landing zones washed away due to the thaw, and as such air support was impossible. Then again, the Soviets surrounding the pocket would fire at any aircraft approaching the area anyway. Ammunition and petrol supplies ran low, unable to be restocked. Germans guarding the frontlines of their pocket were subject to a near 24 hour a day broadcast of Soviet propaganda, urging the Germans to surrender. It wasn’t just Red Army commanders and soldiers that delivered the propaganda, though. German generals that were captured often were made to broadcast appeals to German soldiers to surrender.

Considering the situation the Germans found themselves in, when the Soviet forces began to launch direct attacks against certain weak points at the pockets defences, the Germans were quickly pushed back. When a scattered Belgian SS formation, the Wallonian Brigade, approached the small settlement of Moshny, they witnessed from closeby German artillery firing point-blank at waves of Red Army soldiers throwing themselves onto their position. Everyone in the village was fighting for their lives: from mud-clogged anti-aircraft guns to drivers, cooks, radio operators and quarter-masters. Abandoned trucks and field kitchens scattered around the area.

February 12th, 2 weeks after the Soviets initial attack on the Cherkassy pocket. At this point four German panzer divisions stationed outside the pocket wanted to breach through the Soviet lines, including the Sixth Tank Army, that surrounded the pocket. The divisions in the south-west of the pocket, near Odessa, desperately attempted to break out of the pocket to join forces with the German panzer units. The columns of German trucks, soldiers and armoured vehicles were subjected to merciless bombing by the Red Air Force. But a blizzard later on the day forced the Soviet aircraft to abandon its bomber missions for now. It didn’t matter though. Within three days the pocket was reduced to around 90 square kilometres with its frontline rapidly decreasing, German forces desperately holding the lines were pushed back by the vast amount of Red Army soldiers throwing themselves at them.

Of the Germans still inside the pocket, only ⅓ were soldiers. There was barely any shelter and aside from the psychological torment the men must have gone through, I mean, constant shelling, bombarding, red army infantry on a suicide mission and German generals broadcasting their pleas for you to surrender… but the physical conditions were horrible as well. It was cold, mud caked to the soldiers and wherever you’d look, there were at least several bodies lying around. 

General Stemmermann, who had been trying to get relief forces to come to the aid of his troops since the beginning, now frantically tried to organise his best fighting units. The SS Panzer Division Wiking was among them. He rounded up his forces and did what he thought was their only option left: breakout to the west, through Lysyanka, towards the German 3rd Panzer Corps. 

The Cherkassy Break-out

General Stemmermann ordered the destruction of all vehicles except for tanks, self-propelled guns, tracked vehicles and enough horse-drawn wagons to carry the wounded. Though over 1000 wounded were left behind as there simply was no capacity to bring them along. The breakout was organised in two columns and by the night of the 16th of February the 3rd Panzer Corps managed to come closer from outside the pocket, towards the point where Stemmermann and his units were going to break out. Just before midnight, February 16th, the breakout was launched and as snowstorms raged over the troops, Stemmermann’s columns started to move. 

Two soviet armies, the 27th and 4th guards, were waiting for the Germans. Due to miscommunication Stemmermann wasn’t informed about the fact the hill they had to pass was occupied by the Soviets. At first the Germans seemed to be doing well, but it soon deteriorated into complete chaos.

The SS Wiking Division panzergrenadier regiment came under fire and was forced south, to the 15 meter wide river, the Gniloy Tikich. Under pressure from the barrage of fire by Soviet artillery, many saw the river as their only means of escape. Panicking, some men ran into the ice-cold water, others used tree trunks as makeshift rafts. Hundreds of Germans died, whether they were swept away by the stream or by hypothermia. That wasn’t the end of it though.

As the rest of the German columns emerged into open country, the columns behind the Wiking Division were flanked by Cossack cavalry and Tanks. Both the rear and flanks of the columns breaking out of the pocket were set upon by both. Those that raised their hands in surrender to the Cossacks were cut down by their sabres. On the banks of the Gniloy Tikich, troops were struggling to cross the river. They were bombarded by Soviet artillery, while Soviet tanks flanked them on both sides and rear. The SS Wiking Division had fallen apart and for most Germans 

During the breakout, the car of General Stemmermann was hit by a Soviet anti tank gun. With him, around 28.000 German soldiers died, were wounded or captured during the siege of the pocket. Some 30.000 German soldiers managed to break out, of whom 6.000 men were of the SS Panzer Division Wiking. Lieutenant General Theobald Lieb assumed command after Stemmermann’s death, though the SS divisions had disintegrated to the degree that most soldiers had left behind their weapons and simply tried to get away from the battlefield as fast as they could. On screen is footage from a German newsreel from 1944, where Theobald Lieb is given a medal by Hitler for his role in the Cherkassy breakout.

The Soviets suffered over 75 thousand casualties, of whom around one-third were killed. The Red Army commanders received a personal congratulations from Joseph Stalin and Konev was appointed as Marshal of the Soviet Union for his role during the siege. Nikolai Vatutin would be killed within 2 months by Ukranian nationalists and it would take a little more than a year for Hitler to take his own life and the Second World War to come to an end. This is an interesting tale of the horrors from the Eastern Front, especially because so much effort was put in avoiding this to become a second Stalingrad. Nevertheless, it turned out horrible for the Germans, and it would take little more than a year for General Alfred Jodl to sign the unconditional surrender of Germany. 

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The Flying Tigers: American Pilots in China

The Second Sino-Japanese war, that waged over China from 1937 to 1945, was the gruesome climax of Sino-Japanese hostilities that persisted over decades. In China, serving under Chiang Kai-shek, an American volunteer took it upon himself to establish his own volunteer air force to fight against the Japanese. Throughout the war, the record of these volunteers was remarkable, to put it mildly: they destroyed 297 enemy aircraft while losing only 14 of their own planes in combat. This is the remarkable story of the First American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers.

Background of the Tigers

In winter 1941, the frozen airfield of Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province, harboured a little over 50 American Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters. They were marked with the blue-white Kuomintang flag, the Chinese nationalists that had fought against the Communists. The Kuomintang had now taken up arms against the Japanese invaders, however, agreeing to a temporary ceasefire with the Communists. On the planes were painted snow-white teeth, some planes even had extra large fangs painted on them. Barracks stood near the Tomahawks. In them, the American pilots of the First and Second squadron of the American Volunteer Group in China (the AVG) resided. The squadron was under the command of the American Claire Chennault, who was nicknamed ‘old leatherface’. He had been the aviation adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, the successor of Sun Yat-sen and leader of the nationalist Kuomintang. As Chiang’s adviser, Chennault felt he too had been at war with the Japanese for over 4 years by now.

Claire Lee Chennault

Initially Chennault had retired from the American Air Corps in 1937. It didn’t take more than a few months for him to turn up in China, however. The Chinese air force was small, badly equipped and poorly trained. They were unable to resist the military machine of Japan. Chennault was tasked with organising and overseeing the construction of airfields in remote areas where the Japanese wouldn’t be able to reach them, establishing radio net so others could be warned when a bombing raid by the Japanese took place and he introduced western battle tactics. It is safe to say that Chennault wasted no time and his projects were incredibly successful. Within several days of his battle tactics to be implemented, 54 Japanese aircraft had been shot down. Before this, the Japanese let bombers fly over China unescorted as the Chinese posed no threat. Now they had to revise their tactics and have bombers escorted, at least.

As for Chennault, well aside from his management on the ground he flew several missions as well. He did so in his trusted aircraft, a curtiss hawk 75 Special, bought for him by Madame Chiang Kai-shek. That reminds me, I promised to make a video about the Soong sisters over 2 months ago… it’ll come, eventually! Now, as the war lasted on, developments in aircraft became the focus on both sides. On the Japanese side the Mitsubishi Zero came into service. It was Japan’s main fighter plane for the first three years of the second world war. The plane had its upsides and downsides. To begin with, it was heavily armed with two 20mm cannons, two 7.7mm machine guns and two 130 pound bombs. Its top speed was 300 miles per hour (which is around 480 kilometres per hour). Due to this, and its ability to easily perform agile moves and climb, it was an ideal dueller. The Tomahawks certainly were up for a challenge. 

While the Flying Tigers are the main focus in this video, politics too continued during the war. In the summer of 1937 a non-aggression pact had been signed between China and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union supplied China with military material, but by the end of 1940 this stream of supplies started to dry up. They became occupied with their own German problem all the way in Europe, the other side of the world. Chennault was quick to realize China could only last against Japan if they received American aid. The United States wasn’t too eager as they stuck to their neutrality, which caused serious diplomatic problems. Direct intervention wasn’t likely. But by February 1941 a persistent Chinese lobby managed to persuade the US government and military to agree to the formation of an American aerial foreign legion. 190 ground personnel and 109 former army, navy and marine corps pilots would serve in this legion. A private company, the central aircraft manufacturing company would employ them, and in June 1941 the first US volunteer group set sail from San Francisco to China.

The Flying Tigers

The American volunteers were to fly the Curtiss Wright P-40 Tomahawk. It wasn’t one of the greatest fighter planes but it certainly stood the test of time and was able to do the job. It had a self-sealing fuel tank and its two wing mounted .303 browning machine guns and .5 browning AN/M2 light barrel pair of synchronised guns that fired through the propellor certainly packed a punch. Thanks to its weight in armor and guns, the Tomahawk was able to outdive the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero. But dueling up in the sky… well the Tomahawk certainly had a hard time against its nimble adversary. 

The American volunteers first were based in Toungoo, in Burma. Surrounded by a malarial jungle, the airfield was leased by the Chinese government from the British RAF, as long as the area was only used for training. Chennault enjoyed much freedom training the volunteers at their Burma base. Some of the men had never even flown an airplane and Chennault now took on the task to mould this group of pilots into a disciplined fighter force. Placing emphasis on tactics, gunnery and outsmarting the Japanese Zero’s that most likely wanted to duel with Tomahawks, the tension between the United States and Japan kept increasing.

By December 1941 Chennault had trained 82 pilots and had 62 aircraft in commission. That month, on the 7th of December, the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. The following day the US declared war on Japan. Chennault was ready to go on the offensive. It is what he had trained his men for. Ironically, he initially was ordered to remain in Burma to cooperate with the British RAF. A week after Pearl Harbor he received orders to maintain one squadron in Burma, and move his other two towards Kunming in China. The idea behind this was that 2 squadrons would fight in the violent and chaotic months ahead, whilst one stood on standby in Burma. As such, two volunteer units moved to Kunming and one stood in standby.

Action

Right before Christmas day in 1941 the volunteers saw their first combat. Monsoon season was over and the Japanese made eager use of the calmer weather to increase the volume of bombers flying over China. Over the city of Kunming, 10 Japanese planes were intercepted by the Flying Tigers. 6 of the Japanese were downed, while the Flying Tigers lost none. It was the first time the Japanese experienced serious resistance in China’s sky, and thus the sudden appearance of the Flying Tigers was a real blow to the Japanese morale. 

Three days later the Third Squadron that was held back at Rangoon fought their first battle. They were utterly outmatched. 54 Japanese bombers that flew from their air base in Bangkok were escorted by 20 fighter planes, including eight Mitsubishi Zeros. 14 Flying Tiger Tomahawks and 23 Buffalo fighters from the RAF faced the Japanese. 32 Mitshubishis were shot down, while between the Tigers and RAF 14 aircraft and 7 crewmen were lost. 

Something else happened during this battle. Tigers’ Bob ‘duke’ Hedman and R.T. ‘Tadpole’ Smith both shot down 5 Japanese aircraft, making both of them the first Americans ever to become aces in a single encounter. The Tigers became a force to be reckoned with and caught the attention of the press, not to mention the US military high command.

As Christmass passed savage fighting in the air over Rangoon continued. Heavily outnumbered, the Flying Tigers managed to stay on par with the superior Japanese airforce. Changing tactics after several humiliating defeats, the Japanese now tried a new tactic: luring the Tigers up as other Japanese Mitshubishis hid among the bright rays of the sun. The Japanese amped up their bombing volume of airfields in the area as well. But the Tigers had a nice little deception in store for them. They’d build dozens of dummy Tomahawks, stuffed them with combustible rice straw only to line them up on the runway. As such, the real Tomahawks often evaded the attention from the Japanese bombers(they would be stored under mango and banyan trees next to the airfield). The Japanese thought they destroyed countless aircraft, when in fact most Tomahawks evaded being destroyed. The Tigers’ deception paid off very well during the war.

The Tigers’ Stagnate

Due to the Tigers’ continued success over the Japanese, even though they were outnumbered and out armed, there were calls to change tactics on the Japanese side. Daylight raids, bombings and firefights were canceled. From now on, the Japanese Mitsubishis would engage in night bombings. While the Tigers enjoyed success over the Japanese near Rangoon, the Japanese managed to extend their control over the Pacific islands. They invaded lower Burma as well and by March 1942 they were directly threatening the Tiger base in Rangoon.  

The Japanese weren’t the only persistent threat however. The United States Army Air Force had been operating, ever since Pearl Harbor, to try and get the Tigers back under the American flag. Chennault was opposed to this – he saw the benefits of an independent force. It was flexible, could strike whenever time allowed it without waiting for agreement from higher up and the damage it did to the Japanese far outsized the benefits the US would enjoy by integrating them into their own air force.

As Chennault was discussing this behind the scenes, on the battlefield the Japanese advanced onto Rangoon. In march the Tiger base was abandoned. It was the Tigers that protected the fleeing columns of military personnel, mechanics, civilians and what not from Japanese air attacks. The Tigers settled in Magwe, deeper in-land of Burma. The lack of resources and continual trekking from airbase to airbase, meant infantry opposition to the Japanese became more prioritized. Now, during this time a third problem arose for Chennault. The new US military commander of China, Lieutenant-General Joseph Stilwell, arrived. His nickname, ‘Vinegar Joe’, gives an idea about his personality and tact. Stilwell was an infantryman and as soon as he was appointed a discussion between prioritizing airforce over infantry emerged. This debate would not be settled for several years.

Recalled

Chennault wasn’t going to win the two battles outside of the battlefield. In April 1942 he was recalled to active duty by the US air force. Promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General, he became the commander of the China Air Task Force. It was basically the Flying Tigers squad, except they were now officially serving under the US flag. On July 10th they formally joined the US air force. At their disposal they had 34 Tomahawks and 7 B-25 bombers. Within a year Chennault was promoted to Major-General and the China Air Task Force was redesignated as the 14th Air Force. During this time Chennault had managed to get the Air Force command to agree to let his squadron serve independently once again. Oh, and he was still engaged in a bitter battle for power against Stillwell. 

On the battlefield against the ever advancing Japanese, heavy fighting continued.  As the Japanese overtook Burma, Chennault’s forces had to relocate in Baoshan, far west in China. The fact the Flying Tigers were no more in name due to Chennault being drafted for active duty in 1942 left them an incredible legacy. At the time of disbandment they officially destroyed 297 Japanese aircraft, merely losing 14 of their own. They not only ensured the safe evacuation of Rangoon as the Japanese advanced on the stronghold, but they also played a crucial role in defending the Burma Road as the Japanese were advancing onto it. The road itself wasn’t saved eventually, and the Japanese cemented their power base in the area. As for the feuding with Stillwell, in 1944 Chennault managed to convince Chiang Kai-shek to plead with President Roosevelt to send home Stilwell. Stilwell was subsequently recalled.

This fascinating story about the Flying Tigers, the American volunteers that fought in China’s skies, is one of the many incredible stories from the second world war in that region. Now, in 1944 the Japanese met a disastrous fate during their U-go offensive, namely the Battle of Kohima and Imphal. The Battle of Kohima is also referred to as the ‘Stalingrad of the East’, just to give you an idea of the horrors. That’s the battle I’ll cover next week.

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Japan’s First Kamikaze Pilots during the Second World War

During the Second World War, the Japanese had quite a different war ethos than the Allied powers and even their own allies such as the Germans and Italians. During the later stages of the war, they deployed so-called kamikaze pilots: pilots that mobilised their aircraft as a weapon and crashed into enemy ships. So where exactly did the term kamikaze come from and what is the story behind these pilots?

As for the origins of the word kamikaze, there actually is a very long historical tradition of the word. It refers to a mythical divine wind that supposedly blew over Japan centuries ago. According to this tale, this divine wind protected the island when during the 13th century the Mongols tried to invade it with boats. The grandson of Ghengis Khan, Kublai Khan, attempted to invade the island twice with a massive fleet. These invasions failed because a typhoon destroyed the majority of the Mongol fleet. These storms were called kamikaze and served an important role in later history when explaining the failed Mongol invasion. During the Second World War the Japanese army command reasoned that just like the divine wind that repelled the Mongols, the Japanese kamikaze pilots would fight the US ships. 

Now using kamikaze pilots wasn’t a familiar tactic at the beginning of the war. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until late 1944 that the Japanese high command considered the idea of utilising kamikaze pilots. This idea of sacrificing oneself in such a way for the emperor and empire wasn’t completely new though. Before the first kamikaze attack the second world war had already seen Banzai-charges: Japanese soldiers, and sometimes even civilians, that charged at their enemy, sometimes with bombs strapped to their body, sometimes without. They preferred death over capture by US troops. Japanese propaganda played an important role as well: Japanese soldiers were told horror stories about the treatment of POWs by US soldiers, which led them to think death was the least painful and most honourable way out. 

Yet as the war progressed, Japan suffered material and resource shortages. By late 1944 the Japanese high command considered an American invasion on the mainland to be a serious threat, if not inevitable. By October 1944 the recently appointed commander of the 1st Air Fleet Takijiro Onishi started to test the waters with other commanders about a new strategy. In his opinion, it was the only strategy that could win Japan the war, or at least prolong it: use pilots that would suicidally charge into US ships with their specifically designed aircraft, including attached bombs. 

Now initially while some commanders accepted his plan, there was some resistance among both the top Navy and army commanders. As internal discussions went on, several high-ranking officers felt there was no time to waste, however. Disregarding the fact kamikaze was not yet an official strategy, rear admiral Masafumi Arima decided to organise his own kamikaze mission.

And on the 15th of October 1944, he became Japan’s first kamikaze pilot. He used his Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine bomber and supposedly flew into the aircraft carrier, USS Franklin. Although sources are conflicting on whether Masafumi actually reached the USS Franklin or he crashed beforehand, what is certain is that the carrier suffered considerable damage. Regardless of whether the kamikaze attack was succesful – it became a massive propaganda-tool for Japanese media and the military and Masafumi was credited with being Japan’s first kamikaze pilot. Following this attack Onishi established the first suicide brigade, the tokkotai, an abbreviation of the Japanese term of special attack unit. It earned Onishi the dubious nickname the “father of the kamikaze”. But the term kamikaze was only used informally, and only after the term gained popularity abroad did it become a commonly accepted term in Japan.

Takijiro Onishi (1891-1945)

The brigades were formed on the Malabaca Air Base in the Philippines. When the concept was relayed to the local squadron commanders it is said they received it in ‘a frenzy of enthusiasm and happiness’. In short: Japanese soldiers received the order to die for their fatherland. That goes for all those Japanese soldiers that literally fought to the last man: there are so many accounts of battles for islands in the pacific where thousands of Japanese soldiers were killed and only a dozen captured. One of the reasons was the military code from 1872, stating that soldiers that surrendered or fled should be killed. But there is a deeper, collective psychological reason for this notion as well. It was the heritage of the feudal samurai culture and the tradition of bushido and harakiri: committing suicide was seen as a sign of personal courage. 

During those last couple of months of the war, Japanese Kamikaze pilots managed to sink 34 United States ships and aircraft carriers, and seriously damage hundreds of others. A common myth is that these kamikaze pilots willingly carried out their missions. While some pilots certainly jumped at the opportunity to sacrifice their life for the emperor, anthropologists and historians dispute this claim. The social pressure these pilots suffered was very extreme. Japanese anthropologist Ohnuki-Tierney refutes the myth of voluntary sacrifice among pilots. One of the key differences was that traditional harakiri was an individual decision. At the same time, kamikaze pilots were selected in groups and if you didn’t want to go on the mission, you’d have to withdraw in front of your peers. As you can imagine, the peer pressure was immense, and those that did refuse their assignments were sent to the deadliest fronts, where one would near certainly perish in the last stand. 

Now, I mentioned the first unofficial kamikaze mission, but the first official kamikaze attack is much better documented. This photograph shows the men of the first of three kamikaze units having a ceremonial toast of water as a farewell. 23-year-old Lieutenant Yukio Seki led the squadron. It consisted of 5 Mitshubishi Zero’s each carrying a 250 kg bomb with the mission to fly it into US aircraft carriers during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The goal of the mission was to paralyse the US fleet for at least a week, for the Japanese fleet to prevent a US landing on the mainland. The mission, however, wasn’t a success. It wasn’t, like the earlier mission, because the pilots missed their targets. All five planes crashed into US carriers and even sank the USS St. Lo, killing 143 of its crew. But the damage on other US carriers didn’t cause too much disruption and at most delayed the US fleet for several days. 

Yukio Seki (1921-1944)

Even though the mission cannot be considered the staggering success the Japanese military command hoped for, vice-admiral Onishi and the Japanese propaganda machine welcomed it as if it was an unprecedented victory. They broadly publicized about the courage of the kamikaze pilots. Due to this propaganda-storm, both the military and the Japanese public started to see kamikaze missions as a necessity for the war effort.

The initial kamikaze missions were carried out with Japanese Mitsubishi fighter planes. But soon the Japanese developed the Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka, a human-guided kamikaze attack aircraft. On it the cherry blossom was painted, a symbol used to stoke militarism and nationalism among the populace. These aircraft were specifically designed for suicide attack missions. 

And as for the composition of Kamikaze units, well it had some very telling statistics. Over 75 per cent were young men, most of them in their late teens and early 20s. In total well over 3800 Japanese pilots ended up dying in kamikaze attacks. Around 1000 of these were young men that had just graduated university and were promptly selected to join a kamikaze unit. No high-ranking officers were recruited, and no descendants of prominent Japanese families either. That is not to say high-ranking Japanese officers didn’t join kamikaze missions – the first unofficial mission was carried out by a rear admiral and the last attack, which I made a separate video of, was carried out by another admiral. Kamikaze missions initially remained small in scale. The Battle of Okinawa in June 1945 saw the first large-scale use of kamikaze pilots. During this battle, one of the bloodiest of the entire war in the Pacific, over 1500 Kamikaze attacks were registered. The incredibly bloody battle led to between 77 and 110.000 killed Japanese soldiers and Okinawan conscripts. Yet it was not for another two months, until the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski, that Japan finally surrendered.

Kamikaze pilots

The day after Japan surrendered Takijiro Onishi committed ritual suicide, seppuku, and wrote a letter in which he apologised for the deaths of around 4000 pilots he had sent on kamikaze missions. He included a poem that read “Refreshed / I feel like the clear moon / after a storm”. He then slit his abdomen with his sword and stabbed himself in the chest. After the war one of Onishi’s subordinates wrote a classic book called ‘the Divine Wind’ in which he called the use of kamikaze pilots unforgivable. In 1975 the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots was built. It is built on the site of the airbase at Chiran, where hundreds of kamikaze pilots took off for their final flight during the last stages of the war. 

Now if you’re interested in more stories about Kamikaze pilots, there will be some end-cards on-screen about both the story of the last Japanese kamikaze attacks and the incredibly tragic story of First Lieutenant Hajime Fuji, a man whose family sacrificed themselves so he would not be held back in performing his perceived duty of carrying out a kamikaze attack. 

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The British-Jewish Pilot that accidentally made a 4300-strong Italian garrison surrender their island

In July 1943 the fascist regime in Italy fell. It ended Benito Mussolini’s 21 year-long fascist regime. The crucial external element in the toppling of Mussolini had been the allied landings in North Africa in November the year before. Besides the landings in North Africa, the allied powers also emerged victorious in their siege of Malta, an island to the south of Italy. They established a base there from which they used to dispatch Royal Air Force fighter planes over Italy and bombing raids over Axis-controlled territories.

Sydney Cohen

During such a flight mission on June 12th 1943, 22-year-old sergeant Sydney Cohen, a young Jewish RAF pilot from London, flew his Swordfish bi-plane back to the base in Malta. He had looked for, but failed to locate a supposedly crashed German aircraft in the Mediterranean sea. On his way back, Cohen got lost due to problems with his compass, however, and flew past Malta towards the North African coast. In Cohen’s words: ‘the compass had a fit of the gremlins.’ Realising his aircraft didn’t have enough fuel to return to Malta, it was necessary to find a landing base to refuel. As such, he made the emergency landing on an island much smaller and much further south than Malta: Lampedusa. 

 The island he stumbled upon had a large landing strip, and he managed to reach the ground safely. Now, Cohen didn’t yet know it, but the fact he ran out of fuel seemed to become the least of his worries. The thing with Lampedusa was that it wasn’t yet under allied control. A garrison of around 4300 Italians held the island despite constant allied bombings. Cohen made the emergency landing on Lampedusa, between “burnt-out aircraft everwhere.” He recounted there were big holes in the field, as a result from the constant bombing by allied aircraft. But as he got out of his plane, he was immediately approached by Italian soldiers, wearing a “Tyrolean hat, with long plumed feathers, a leather jacket, khaki shorts and high boots”, as Cohen recalled.

Cohen put his hands up in surrender. However, the Italians didn’t accept it. Instead, the Italian soldiers exclaimed, “no, no – we surrender!” A little bit baffled, Cohen was then led to the commander of the island. When Cohen arrived at the island’s headquarters, a dozen Lockheed P-38 Lightning came over for another bombing raid over the island. During that bombing raid, the harbour was destroyed, and Cohen could see why the Italians wanted to surrender: they were sitting ducks. The commander then confirmed the surrender by signing a scrap of paper, which he gave to Cohen. As Cohen refilled his Swordfish bi-plane another pattern bombing occurred, and four fighter-bombers zoomed over the island, saw the markings on Cohen’s aircraft and turned around. Eventually, Cohen managed to refuel his plane and take off. He didn’t fly to Malta, but to a United States base in Tunisia to officially deliver the document of surrender to Allied command.

When news reached the United Kingdom of this pilot that managed to force an island with 4300 Italian soldiers to surrender, the propaganda value obviously knew no bounds. Mainly because this happened during a time when morale was low. The News Chronicle, a British newspaper, titled Cohen the ‘King of Lampedusa’. The Sunday Pictorial ran the front-page headline “Lampedusa Gives in to Sgt. Cohen!” Basically, this mass surrender was one of the first victories in a much larger operation that would eventually lead to the demise of the Axis powers.

The joy of this event didn’t just remain in newspapers. Within the Jewish community, Cohen quickly became a well-known hero. S.J. Charendorf, a playwright, actually wrote a Yiddish play about Cohen’s story. Due to legal issues, the main character was named Sam Kagan, but the narrative was based on Cohen. The play, titled the King of Lampedusa, was one of the most successful Yiddish productions ever. There were 200 non-stop performances and was broadcast by the BBC, boosting British morale. The play didn’t go unnoticed in Germany either, and Lord Haw-Haw, the British Nazi propaganda broadcaster to the United Kingdom, even threatened the theatre in East End with Luftwaffe bombings if they continued to stage the play. Even Cohen himself saw the play in 1944 while on leave in Haifa. 

The film rights to this play were sold to director Walter Sistrom. Unfortunately, he died due to a burst appendix on a plane to Hollywood, and nobody knows what happened to the film rights he bought. As such, a film about Cohen’s adventure was never made. An article from 2001 reveals that director Arnold Schwartzman has been interested in the story of Cohen and wants to create both a documentary and a feature film about his story. According to his filmography, Schwartzman released the documentary “Anna and the King of Lampedusa” in 2006, 3 years after he initially planned it. As for the feature film, I cannot find anything on it. Schwartzman has done interviews with still-living people that knew Cohen and used newspaper articles for his story. It tracks Cohen, who was an orphan and became a tailor’s cutter, working in the sweatshops of the East End until he joined the RAF.

Unfortunately, Sidney Cohen himself couldn’t enjoy his new-found fame for too long. In August 1946, following the second world war, he disappeared over the straits of Dover. He most likely crashed because he was notorious for flying low and recklessly. And, well, that is the tale of the RAF soldier that, on his own, managed to force an entire Italian garrison to surrender and become somewhat of a war-hero in the process.

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The Last Missing Japanese Soldier to be found after World War 2

Welcome to House of History. Today I want to talk about one of the longest missing, presumed dead, Japanese soldiers that turned up alive. Now the aftermath of the Second World War was incredibly chaotic and missing Japanese soldiers that turned up years later weren’t that rare initially. One of the most curious cases must have been that of Hiroo Onoda, one of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender after the Second World War. He held out for close to another 30 years after the war ended and astonished the world by emerging in 1974, still wearing the uniform he wore during the war. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t worry: I’ll link my video about him in the description.

Ishinosuke Uwano

But today I want to talk about another bizarre case, one that arguably is more bizarre than Onoda’s case. Ishinosuke Uwano was last seen by his family when he went off to fight in the Second World War. Uwano was drafted to the Imperial Japanese Army as a teenager and in 1943 he was sent to Sakhalin Island, to the north of Japan. The northern part was occupied by the Soviets, with the Japanese on the south. When in august 1945 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, they rapidly invaded and seized the remaining half of the island. All Japanese soldiers that surrendered were forced into a prisoner of war camps, frequently spending decades in these gulags.

And as for Uwano, well, after the Second World War ended, he didn’t come home. Now, it wasn’t rare for the Soviet Union to send captured Japanese off to labour camps which was assumed had happened to him. And Uwano wasn’t a rare case of a missing soldier either; there were thousands of Japanese that were either left stranded on islands in the pacific, perished in gulags or were never found again and probably killed in action. The last part did not happen to Uwano for sure because the last confirmed sighting of him was on the Sakhalin island in 1958. Other sources state that year was the last time he had been in touch with his family. Either way: it was certain he was alive by 1958. One theory goes that once he found himself behind enemy lines on the island, he tried to survive in the wilderness of Sakhalin. After realising Japan had lost the war he must have surrendered himself to the Soviet Union. Even today the Sakhalin island remains Russian territory, so it isn’t too odd for Uwano to surrender himself after realising there would be no Japanese counter-offensive.

Uwano during the Second World War, ca. 1943

Now it is certain Uwano was put in a forced labour camp for several years, if not decades after the war. But it is blurry what exactly happened after 1945 and after 1958. What is certain is that in 1965 Uwano somehow ended up in Ukraine, probably after he was allowed to resettle by the former Soviet government. He moved to Zhytomyr, a city in central Ukraine. Over there, he married a local woman and raised three children, living his life closed-off from his past for multiple decades. Considering the last sighting was in 1958, his family tried their best to locate him in the following decades, but without any success. In 2000 they gave up hope of ever finding him alive, assuming he probably perished in a forced labour camp. Even the Japanese health ministry, which was tasked with finding missing overseas veterans, said they believed Uwano had died. So imagine the surprise when the Japanese embassy in Ukraine contacted them in 2006 saying that Uwano came to them and asked them to locate his surviving family in Japan.

So why didn’t he reach out to them earlier? According to Uwano, the Soviet government prevented him from contacting his family and considering the circumstances that is very likely. The Soviet Union was notorious for being secretive. Since Uwano seems to have been both captured and moved to Ukraine at the height of the Cold War, it is understandable the Soviet Union didn’t feel like informing the Japanese government, let alone Uwano’s family. When the Japanese embassy of Ukraine reached out to the family, the Japanese government prepared for Uwano to come over to Japan. It finally happened in 2006, when Uwano was 83 years old, as he arrived at Tokyo airport to meet his family he hadn’t seen in over 60 years. His Japanese was rusty, which is understandable, after all, he hadn’t spoken Japanese in 6 decades. Because he was declared legally dead in 2000, he could only visit Japan as a Ukrainian tourist instead of an actual citizen, something the Japanese government promised to resolve. 

I wish I could tell you more about Uwano, but literally all sources are of his visit from 2006, which lasted for 9 days. I don’t think there has been an English news-outlet that has done a follow-up article. It is curious, because even today, 14 years later, Uwano is still alive. He is currently 97 years old and although the Japanese government said that they would try to give him back his Japanese citizenship, I assume he is still living in Ukraine. 

Although Uwano is the last missing Japanese soldier to turn up, the year previous to his discovery there was another fascinating case. In 2005 a media-craze erupted about supposedly missing Japanese soldiers. On the island of Mindanao two men, Yashio Yamawa who was  87 years old and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, who was 85 years old, claimed they had been Japanese soldiers during the second world war. It seems these men knew the war was over but decided to remain on the island to start a new life. Not quite for any easy reasons though: according to the men they had stayed on the island for 60 years because they feared returning home. It was because of their fear of being court-martialed for getting lost from their division during the fighting. Now, if you’re interested in Hidoo Orona, the soldier that emerged from the jungle in 1974 to surrender his weapons finally, then make sure you watch that video after this one. I’ll link it here.