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The Enigmatic Colonel Tsuji Masanobu: Japan’s Fanatical Ideologue, Staff Officer and Cannibal

One of my patrons, Dan, recently asked me if I could write an article about Colonel Tsuji Masanobu. Professor John Dower describes him as a “fanatical ideologue and pathological brutal staff officer”. Others give him the dubious honour of being “rightly described as a maverick and a fanatic.” The ultranationalist officer indeed was a zealot, which gave him a near-perverted sense of courage. 

Col. Tsuji Masanobu (1901? – disappeared 1961?)

At the same time, he was referred to as the ‘God of Strategy’ for playing a vital role in the planning of Japan’s Malay campaign. He also authorised the offensive against Port Moresby along the Kokoda Trail. He didn’t just fight against opposing military, though – he was responsible for tens of thousands of civilian and prisoner casualties. Some historians write that if any Japanese officer should have been tried for war crimes, it was Tsuji. Yet he never stood trial. His entire wartime experience was tarnished and riddled with extreme excesses. 

And just when you think the mind-boggling activities came to an end after Japan’s defeat, Tsuji’s life arguably became even more hectic. The U.S. Military Intelligence Service recruited him as an asset, and he took part in organising a coup by the Chinese Nationalists against the Communists. Meanwhile, he played the role of a double-agent towards his U.S. handlers, having the rearmament of Japan as his concealed priority. Within this capacity, he was instrumental in organising an attempted coup and assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister in 1952, all the while becoming a best-selling author writing about his war experience.  

Oh, and to top it all off, in 1952, he was elected to Japan’s parliament, launching a dazzling political career. That was, until 1961, when he mysteriously disappeared. The circumstances around his vanishing are to this day unclear. Still, declassified CIA files reveal he might have died in the Laotian civil war, was executed by Chinese communists after illegally crossing the border, or continued his life under the radar in the employment of North Vietnam’s People’s Army. 

Now, because of certain restrictions on YouTube historical content, I will have to choose my words carefully when discussing some of Tsuji’s acts. Even then, videos such as this one are prone to be demonetised, occasionally happening to my channel. Not exactly ideal, since working on this channel is my full-time occupation. Frankly, a lot of time and work has gone into this video in terms of research. So if you enjoy House of History and want to support my work, consider supporting me via Patreon. For just one dollar a month, you will already receive access to one additional Patreon-exclusive video every month, including the entire Patreon-exclusive series so far.

Early Life (1900-1939)

Although the entire personality of Colonel Tsuji is an enigma, we’re already starting off with ambiguity looking at his birth and childhood. Tsuji was born somewhere between 1900 and 1903. In his own writings, Tsuji claims his date of birth was October 11, 1900, and on other occasions 1901. Other sources vary and dispute each other, some putting his date of birth as late as 1903. At any rate, born in the Ishikawa Prefecture located in the centre of Japan’s main island, he was a charcoal maker’s third son. 

He received education at a local preparatory military school. After graduating first of his class, he transferred to the Rikugun Shikan Gakko, Japan’s Military Academy. Here too he graduated top of his class. In 1931 he graduated third of his year from the Rikugun Daigakko, the Army War College in Tokyo. His own writings reveal he established somewhat of a core crew of friends and loyalists around him during his time in Tokyo. I suppose you could say an ‘old boys network’ developed, which would serve him nicely for the next three decades.

Being top of his class in the War College meant Tsuji became part of the Guntogumi, the “Military Sword Clique.” This clique, reserved for only a select few officers who excelled, meant fast-track promotions and recognition among all Japanese troops. Senior officers who had not attended the college even had to make way for these subordinates because of the prestige attached to their education. Minister of War in the late 1930s, Itagaki Seishiro, considered Tsuji his protégé, leading to the young officer gaining much influence early on. 

From 1937 onwards, he served as a staff officer in Japan’s Kwantung Army. This was the first time sources refer to his actions as Gekokujo. This concept became known in Japan around the 13th century. Without delving too much into it, it basically refers to lower-ranking officers, lords or soldiers overthrowing, disobeying or undermining their higher-ups. Other sources define it as ‘leading from below’ or ‘loyal insubordination.’ Tsuji was a leading proponent of it, but he certainly wasn’t alone in propagating it. 

As a staff officer, he saw his first action in Manchuria, northern China and the Mongolian border. There were several border clashes with the Soviets because Japanese officers like Tsuji refused higher-ups’ orders to withdraw. During one such incident, Tsuji led 40 Japanese officers into disputed territory guarded by Soviets, only to undo their trousers, urinate in plain sight, and retreat again.

At other times Tsuji issued orders which were the complete opposite to Tokyo’s policy regarding the Soviet border. In his own words, he wanted his troops to “annihilate the enemy if they crush the border.” He also told his soldiers they could cross into Soviet territory. Well, this policy directly led to the bloody Nomonhan incident, also known as the Battles of Khalkhin Gol, and the subsequent defeat of Japanese forces. When the Soviets repatriated Japanese POWs, Tsuji personally ordered them to take their own lives because of the dishonour capture brought them.

Tsuji replied with a near-treacherous reply upon a reprimand from the General Staff for a raid deep into Soviet territory. Speaking in the name of the Kwantung Army, he replied: “There appear to be certain differences between Army General Staff and this Army in evaluating the battlefield situation and measures to be adopted. It is requested that the handling of trivial matters in border areas be entrusted to this Army.” The only reason Tsuji wasn’t fired was thanks to his patron, Minister of War Seishiro. 

Already during this time, Tsuji was considered a fanatical ideologue and unorthodox, even among Japanese ultra-nationalist circles. Ryukichi Tanaka, a major general, said Tsuji was the “most determined single protagonist of war with the United States.” He held beliefs in line with asceticism derived from Zen Buddhism, basically living in abstinence. He didn’t permit himself any luxuries, living a sober existence, withdrawn from his fellow officers.

Japanese politics during the 1930s are a bit hectic; a lot was happening in a short period. One of Tsuji’s main events must have been his role in averting a coup by a rivalling faction. Future wartime premier Tojo Hideki had to thank Tsuji, in-part, for creating the circumstances in which he could rise to power. 

As the war in the Pacific began escalating and Tsuji saw more battle, these beliefs simmered through in his actions. He upheld the same extreme standards for others as he did for himself. 

The War (1937-1945)

One element remained a constant in his career and even after the war: insubordination and being somewhat of a maverick. I use that word without any positive connotation. Although Gekokujo was relatively common within the Japanese military, Tsuji was an extreme example. He was transferred on more than one occasion because Generals simply could not put up with his insubordination. According to military historian Max Hastings, in his 2007 book Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, besides being repeatedly transferred, even his often ultranationalist superiors considered him a fanatic and zealot. An anecdote reveals he once burned down a “geisha house to highlight his disgust at the moral frailty of the officers inside it.” 

Tsuji took part in the Malayan campaign, serving under Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya, a nickname thanks to his successful campaign. Japanese commanders credit Tsuji with planning much of the campaign, leading to some officers referring to him as the ‘God of Strategy.’ By 1941 he was one of the most influential officers of Japan’s Taiwanese Army Research Department. Malaya served as a blueprint for changes and tweaks that improved Japan’s campaigns in a tropical climate. 

Yet on the campaign Tsuji’s temper showed, with him resigning in a fit of rage because Yamashita’s Chief of Staff ignored some of his recommendations. Within a week Tsuji returned to the headquarters and continued his duties as if he had never left. Besides military targets, Tsuji was responsible for the Alexandra Hospital massacre, one of his many atrocities. 

Thanks to the reputation he earned in this campaign, he was dispatched to many Japanese frontlines as a problem solver and a pair of fresh eyes. He was instrumental in organising the campaign against the British in Singapore, emerging victorious within ten weeks. At every front Tsuji served, his superiors attributed extreme excesses and brutalities against civilians and prisoners. 

After the British surrendered Singapore, CIA documents revealed Tsuji ordered and expanded the systemic purge of potentially hostile elements. The Sook Ching Massacre cost over 5000 Chinese and Chinese Malayans their lives, although some historians estimate the death toll to be up to 50.000.

In April 1942, Tsuji visited the Philippines. His superiors later attested he ordered the Bataan Death March, costing tens of thousands of Allied prisoners their lives. He also personally ordered the execution of the Philippines Supreme Court’s Chief Justice and acting President, José Santos. 

Next, he sailed to the Southern Pacific Area to assist the 17th Army in conquering Fiji and Samoa to break-off Allied supply lines. Disregarding their severe defeat at Midway, the Japanese continued to plan to conquer the islands and whether they could dispatch an infantry campaign on Port Moresby along the Kokoda Track. 

Arriving at 17th Army headquarters in Davao in July, Tsujii met a commander sceptical of his aggressive plans. Major General Horii Tomitaro didn’t think it would be possible to supply the Japanese infantry when pushing through all the way to Port Moresby. Outranking Tsuji, he contacted the Imperial Headquarters. They relayed they awaited an assessment by the commander of a reconnaissance mission before giving a final order. 

But Tsuji, in his insubordinate fashion, wanted to seize the initiative. He personally ordered the infantry to launch their trek and assault on Port Moresby, declaring Headquarters gave the green light. In reality, Headquarters had not decided, but after Tsuji launched the assault, the Imperial Command retroactively gave the order. The poor preparation and less than ideal circumstances led to a disastrous campaign. Within half a year, over 15.000 Japanese and 3.000 Allied soldiers met their end in the fighting. Without much success for the Japanese.

Tsuji wasn’t there to see the results, though. Together with other officers, he sailed aboard the destroyer Asangi to Cape Killerton to prepare the campaign. En-route, the Asangi was attacked by a squadron of Allied B-17 and B-26 aircraft. They bombed the Asangi, and Tsuji suffered critical throat injuries due to shrapnel and was urgently evacuated to Tokyo to recuperate. Some Japanese generals later said the injuries weren’t that severe, but they ordered him away from the frontline anyway before he could cause any more trouble.

Just three months later, he travelled to Guadalcanal. Hastings writes that Tsuji was personally responsible for some of Japan’s most severe strategic blunders in Guadalcanal. They suffered an obliterating defeat attempting to capture Henderson airfield, with over 20 Japanese casualties for every American. Tsuji once again offered his resignation, which once again didn’t lead to anything. He was subsequently transferred to Burma to coordinate the battle against the British.

Sources vary whether it was in Burma or Singapore, but at one point Tsuji consumed the liver of a dead Allied pilot, denouncing troops that refused to join him. It shows that Tsuji crossed any acceptable boundary of human behaviour and morality. Some accounts dispute it taking place, but even if it didn’t, the fact Tsuji dining on the liver of a dead pilot is plausible is rather telling already. 

In October 1944 the Battle of Leyte commenced with an amphibious invasion of the island by the United States. Besides Yamashita as commanding officer, General Sosaku Suzuki too commanded Japanese troops. And Suzuki did not just have direct contact with Tsuji, but he wrote about his conduct in a very revealing way. According to him, it was the “Ishiwara-Tsuji clique – the personification of Gekokujo – that has brought the Japanese army to its present deplorable situation. So long as they exert influence, it can only lead to ruin.” Besides Tsuji, he referred to Kanji Ishiwara, a general of the Imperial Army. This goes to show the extent of influence superiors considered Tsuji, a Lieutenant Colonel, to have. Tanaka Shinichi, himself known for a brutal attitude, criticised Tsuji for the treatment of troops under his command

There are other accounts as well. Remember Major General Horii, who opposed Tsuji’s aggressive campaign against Port Moresby. Even though he was Tsuji’s superior, Tsuji was able to influence and dominate his campaign. In part, this was thanks to his insubordinate personality and Gekokujo. But also because Tsuji was part of the Guntogumi, the Military Sword Clique. Horii wasn’t part of it. In the eyes of many, his orders carried less weight than that of Tsuji, even though he outranked the Lieutenant Colonel.  

Post-war (1945-1950)

In late summer 1945, Japan surrendered. At the time, Tsuji served on the staff of the 18th Area Army in Thailand. He was aware he’d probably end up standing trial for war crimes if he returned to Japan. Not too wrong an assumption, as mainly the British considered him a person of interest. Instead, he took on the role of a Japanese monk in a Bangkok Buddhist temple, together with seven comrades. 

During the Tokyo trials, Japan’s Chief of Intelligence, Seizo Arisue, implicated Tsuji with instigating the infamous Bataan Death March. Yet thanks to his unknown whereabouts, perhaps still surprisingly, he avoided being indicted in absentia. Still, the United States marked him as an alleged war criminal. After Tsuji’s stay in Bangkok, he travelled through Laos and Vietnam to reach the Chinese nationalist forces fighting their civil war against the communists. Here, he briefly served as a military advisor to China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. 

Around late 1948 he quietly returned to Japan under the radar. He briefly lived a withdrawn life in residences owned by his wartime friend, crime lord and ultranationalist Yoshio Kodama. One of his friends from the war, Hattori Takushiro, made sure Tsuji wouldn’t pop up on any lists until in 1950 the United States revoked his status as an alleged war criminal. He became one of many that got away with heinous crimes committed during the war. 

During this time, Tsuji wrote his memoirs: ‘Senko sanzenri.’ With Kodama’s instrumental help publishing and promoting his book, it became a bestseller. Soon after, Tsuji published his second book about how he managed to evade capture after the war, becoming his second bestseller. 

The American Asset (1950-1952)

So why were war crime charges against Tsuji dropped? Well, declassified CIA Name Files reveal how Tsuji Masanobu and the aforementioned crime lord Kodama Yoshio were employed as agents by the U.S. Military Intelligence Service under Charles A. Willoughby. There were multiple occasions where the Americans funded operations carried out by men with tarnished records, if not outright war criminals such as Tsuji. 

Documents indicate Tsuji was employed by U.S. authorities even before the U.S. rescinded his status as a war criminal. One such covert operation was recruiting Japanese soldiers to serve in Taiwan against a possible Communist invasion from China. CIA documents reveal Tsuji dispatched former Japanese Army troops to the island to serve in the Kuomintang, China’s nationalist army. Hattori too served the Americans, although both he and Tsuji often embezzled funds they received from the CIA for their own hidden agenda: rearming the Japanese Army. 

Through Hattori and other former officer friends, Tsuji took part in one of Willoughby’s most ambitious secret operations. He was planning an invasion of mainland China by the Kuomintang, exiled to Taiwan. Together with Takushiro Hattori, Tsuji received permission to take charge of the planning. It commenced in January 1951. The CIA sent multiple serious warnings to Willoughby that both men were not to be trusted. One such warning read “In either politics or intelligence work, [Tsuji] is hopelessly lost both by reason of personality and lack of experience… Tsuji is the type of man who, given the chance, would start World War III without any misgivings.” Still, Tsuji couldn’t do much harm because within three months, the plans were leaked to the Chinese communists, and the plan was abandoned. 

And although Seizo Arisue implicated Tsuji during the Tokyo Trials, in the 1950s, he recruited him to expand Japanese intelligence operations in Southeast Asia. He figured Tsuji had connections there thanks to his brief exile. What Arisue didn’t count on was that most of those connections despised Tsuji. After many complaints, he replaced him with a former chief of Japanese Military Police, the Kempeitai. That didn’t stop Tsuji’s endeavour within Japan’s military and political history, however. 

The Final Sensational Years (1952-1961/68)

Tsuji’s writings from this time show his primary objective was to rearm Japan and establish a military junta if possible. He eagerly worked with the Americans, because, in his words, he wanted to “deceive the ally before the enemy.” Still, Tsuji, together with Hattori and crime lord Kodama, became increasingly upset with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru. He adhered to a policy of relying on the United States for military protection, refusing to rearm the military and openly denouncing nationalism and purges. 

Hattori was the first to begin hatching a plot to assassinate Shigeru to control the government by replacing him with the more receptive senior politicians Hatoyama Ichiro or Ogata Tektora. But Tsuji prevented the assassination from coming through, reasoning it would provoke the Americans and be counterproductive in the long run. Hopefully, the irony of a Japanese ultranationalist and war criminal preventing the assassination of a U.S.-friendly PM isn’t lost on many. 

Writing two best-sellers skyrocketed Tsuji to fame, especially among reactionaries. That same year he was elected to Japan’s Parliament as an independent, kickstarting his extravagant political career. He used his newly found influence to criticise the US-Japan security alliance and propagate Japan’s rearmament. His past and misdeeds stuck to him throughout his entire career, with former rivals of the army implicating him in more war crimes. This didn’t prevent him from being re-elected in 1956. 

The enigma, Tsuji, died the way he lived. Or, well, rather, disappeared. In the wake of multiple political controversies, he left Japan to repeat his travels in Southeast Asia at the end of the Second World War, even choosing a Buddhist monk gown as his attire. First, he travelled to Laos in 1961 to meet the communist Pathet Lao rebels. And that’s the last any credible source reported seeing him: he simply vanished, killed in the conflict waging on in Laos.

But there are other theories out there. Some sources indicate that Vo Nguyen Giap, commander-in-chief of Vietnam’s People’s Army, covertly employed him until 1968. CIA documents indicate he indeed travelled to North Vietnam in April 1961, and some place him in Hanoi seven years later. 

A third theory goes that he crossed the border from Laos to China, where the Chinese Communists arrested him in January 1963. Upon realisation they captured the infamous Tsuji, they executed him right away. Unfortunately, much of the CIA documents are based on hearsay, and his actual fate will probably remain a mystery forever. 

Now, I briefly mentioned the Battle of Khalkhin Gol earlier. During that battle, a Korean soldier, like so many others, was captured by the Soviet Union. What makes his story so special is that he ended up not in the Soviet Union, but fighting in a Wehrmacht Ost Battalion on Normandy’s beaches during D-Day. His name was Yang Kyoungjong, and he is the only soldier known for fighting for three sides during the Second World War. Here is a video I created about him.

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Simo Häyhä – The Greatest and Deadliest Sniper in Military History

In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded their much-smaller neighbour Finland. It marked the start of the so-called Winter War. This war, lasting for just a little over three months, saw many heroic Finnish soldiers stand up against the better equipped and much larger Red Army behemoth. One of those soldiers that truly distinguished himself was the sniper Simo Häyhä. In merely 98 days, he managed to kill 542 Red Army soldiers, a staggering number. It didn’t just propel him among history’s most successful snipers, no. In just 98 days, Simo Häyhä managed to shatter any sniper victory score, a record that has not been matched by anyone before or since. And what is more, Simo managed to achieve this using no other equipment than any ordinary Finnish soldier had at his disposal. Including a rudimentary iron sight instead of scope on his rifle.

Early Life

Simo was born on December 17 1905, in the small municipality of Rautjärvi, south-eastern Finland. Nowadays, close to half the territory of his place of birth is Russian territory, signalling the significant geopolitical changes that would take place during Simo’s life. He was the seventh of eight children. His parents ran a relatively modern agricultural business on a significant plot of land. 

Two of his brothers passed away young, leaving him with two brothers and three sisters. Throughout his childhood, he enjoyed working on the farm whilst attending school. He had a relatively small posture, only 5ft3, but what he lacked in height he made up for in physical strength. He was practically oriented with no serious academic interest. During his spare time he hunted, skied in the mountains close by his elderly home and essentially enjoyed nature. 

During his teenage years Finland suffered quite a bit of turmoil. Up until 1917 its administrative status was Grand Duchy of Finland, part of the Russian Empire. Yet when in 1917 the subsequent Russian revolutions ended the Romanov-rule, within Finland too left-wing mass movements began questioning the direction Finland should take. 

Without getting too much into the internal politics – from January to May 1918 a civil war waged in Finland. Three months of incredible bloodshed between the so-called Finnish Whites, consisting of liberal and conservatives, and the Finnish Reds, supported by the Russian Soviets. Long story short, the Finnish White Army under Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim’s command won the civil war. 

In 1922, at the age of 17, he joined the local Finnish civil guard. He finished middle school and intended to take over his father’s farm once he became too old to operate it. 

In the civil guard Simo’s talent was discovered: marksmanship. He practiced with the Mosin-Nagant M1891, a Russian-built five-shot bolt action internal magazine fed military rifle. And he was quite adept at it. Finnish militias distributed this Russian gun and ammunition for free among its members. From December 1925 to March 1927, Simo fulfilled his mandatory military service, completing his time at the rank of Corporal.

Still, after completing his military service he still participated in many marksmanship competitions. Throughout the 1930s he won multiple awards and medals. Anecdotes survive which state Simo once managed to shoot 16 targets per minute, at a 150-meter distance, whilst reloading his gun because a Mosin-Nagant could only holster five shots at a time. An awe-inspiring feat. The Finnish Civil Guard’s preferred gun in competitions was the so-called SAKO M28-30, a Finnish-built improved Mosin-Nagant. In 1937, 440 of them were manufactured to be used in the World Shooting Championships in Helsinki, which saw Finland earn the most medals. Its barrel was heavier than its Soviet counterpart, and according to gun enthusiasts, the Finn models 28 and 39 were generally regarded as the ‘cream of the crop.’ 

When not participating in shooting competitions, Simo mainly worked on his farmland or went out hunting with his dog Kille, hunting wildlife in the area. His farmhouse was filled with hunting and marksman competition trophies. 

With tensions within Europe and between Finland and the Soviet Union ever-growing, the government emphasised military service among the Finns. They were well aware of the danger that loomed just across the border. In the summer of 1938, Simo received special sniper training in the Utti Training centre of the Finnish Army. It was the first time he received official military sniper training, and his superiors recognised him for his skill and natural sharpshooting talent. There’s no doubt the many years of hunting and shooting competitions honed his skills. Combined with a healthy dose of talent, Simo mastered any gun in any climate, even relatively basic rifles the Finnish army used during the 1930s.

Simo’s Tactics

The sniper training came just in time, though. Because of it, Simo contributed significantly to the enormous losses the Soviet Union’s Red Army suffered during the Winter War. In November 1939, the Soviet Union launched their invasion of Finland after a false flag attack. 34-year-old corporal Simo was called to the front. Recognised as a skilled marksman thanks to his time in the Civil Guard, he was deployed as a sniper.

Before we get to his actual combat experience, I want to have a look at his equipment and his tactics. His preferred rifle was the trusty SAKO M28-30. According to the website of Mosin-Nagant, one of the main improvements of this gun was the ‘rear sight design’. This meant the marksman could more easily pick up a target and fired shots tended to be more accurate. The gun rarely jammed in the cold weather, and its stocks were made of Arctic birchwood, proving resistant to the Finnish severe winter cold. Now, scopes were scarce, especially during the initial stages of the war. If Finnish soldiers used telescopic sights at all, soldiers looted them from Red Army soldiers. 

Simo preferred to use an iron sight, even when the opportunity presented itself for him to use a scope. For one, because he was convinced the sun could reflect off of the scope. But secondly, he simply felt an open-sighted rifle worked better with his small 5ft3 frame. Furthermore, an iron sight didn’t require him to raise his head ever so slightly when aiming. Since a sniper’s subtle movement can give him away, this appeared to be a sensible approach. Other considerations were that scopes could fog up, which you wouldn’t want happening at crucial moments.

Combined with the distinctive Finnish snowy camouflage outfit with fur lining against the cold, he blended in with his surroundings. He put snow in his mouth when in hiding, preventing his cold breath from revealing his position. Considering Finnish winters could easily reach -40C, laying still for hours wasn’t a comfortable task. He mastered camouflage in the snowy Finnish mountains and landscapes, hiding in nature. It helped that the surroundings of where he was deployed, namely the Karelian Isthmus was a 70 mile-long stretch of land with few roads, many hills and vast woodlands. 

According to his biographer, Tapio Saarelainen, in his biography The White Death, Simo’s success can be attributed to the following:

“Simo Häyhä was the best sniper who ever lived because he understood everything going on around him. He was a skilled trekker and hunter who knew exactly how to stay hidden. His gun too was one he had used for years and he knew exactly how it would react in its environment, and his personality was ideally suited to sniping, with his willingness to be alone and ability to avoid the emotions many would attach to such a job.”

Simo’s tactic was quite curious. Often, he took provisions for several days to trek into the wilderness on his own. He’d pick out strategic points, dig in and wait patiently. Sometimes for hours and hours on end, in the freezing Finnish winter, hidden among the snow. He’d pour water over the snow he rested his rifle on. It would freeze, and when he’d shoot there wouldn’t be a fluff of snow giving him away. When a Soviet patrol or infantry platoon passed, they were sitting ducks for the skilled marksman.

Simo’s Combat

During the next 98 days, Simo managed to kill 542 Red Army soldiers. That’s an average of over five per day. Not to mention the fact that winters in Finland enjoy just a few hours of daylight. Perhaps his reputation is best summed up by the Soviets’ nickname; they referred to him as the ‘White Death.’ His Finnish comrades referred to him as the ‘Magic Shooter.’

He initially served in the 6th Company of the 34 Jalkaväkirykmentti, an Infantry Regiment. He participated in the battle at the Kollaa River. A much smaller Finnish force managed to fend off four significantly larger Soviet divisions for months. The Finns had several advantages; one of the most significant ones must have been the fact Red Army soldiers didn’t wear camouflage clothing, making them easy pickings. During the war Simo received the Order of the Cross of Liberty, one of Finland’s three official state orders. He received the third and fourth class crosses of liberty as well, and in February he was awarded a SAKO M28-30 rifle with his name engraved on it. 

Lieutenant General Woldemar Hägglund commanded the Finnish forces, facing the 1st and 14th Soviet Armies. Writer Paul Feist describes this campaign as the ‘Miracle of Koolla,’ with at one point a few thousand Finns facing over 160.000 Red Army soldiers. He writes about the ‘Battle of Killer Hill,’ where 32 Finns fought off 4000 advancing Red Army soldiers. I have been unable to find an account that verifies this Battle of Killer Hill took place. Yet the Finns certainly gave the Soviets a run for their money, inflicting nearly eight times the amount of casualties they themselves suffered. 

 On March 6 1940, one week before the Winter War officially came to an end, things took a turn for the worse. A Red Army soldier shot Simo through his left jaw with an explosive bullet. Initially thought to be dead, he was put on a pile of dead bodies. His comrades nearly buried him if it wasn’t for an attentive soldier noticing his twitching, and dragging him out of the pile. He was unconscious, and the bullet blew half of his face away. In a near poetic twist of fate he awoke from his coma one week later, on the day the Winter War was concluded. As testament of Finnish perseverance, by the time the war was concluded Koolla was still in Finnish hands, against all odds. Still, the Finns ended up ceding nearly 10 percent of their land to the Soviet Union. 

Life after the Winter War

Simo had to recuperate for several years because of his severe injuries. He wanted to serve in the Continuation War against the Soviet Union, lasting from June 1941 to September 1944, but was refused due to his injuries and recuperation. It took 26 surgeries but he recovered and lived for many decades after the war. 

Over the years he participated in marksmanship competitions, winning many medals and awards. He enjoyed moose hunting, reportedly even hunting with the Finnish president Urho Kekkonen and made a living from dog breeding. The facial injuries certainly did not hold him back in pursuing an active lifestyle.

Being a sniper still means killing enemy combatants. Although it’s easy to sensationalise lives and achievements such as those of Simo’s, he himself appeared to have looked at it through a stoic lens. He felt he simply performed his duty. And he did a great job at it. He gave many interviews after the war. In a 1998 interview when asked how he managed to become such a skilled marksman, he answered simply with ‘practice.’ The follow-up question was if he felt regret for killing so many people, to which he said he ‘simply did what he was told to do, and did so as well as he could.’

So if we put Simo’s record in perspective, how successful of a sniper was he? Just keep in mind: he managed to achieve it with the most rudimentary of military equipment. The Red Army’s top sniper was Ivan Sidorenko, just 21 years old when the Second World War broke out. Throughout the war, he claimed at least 500 kills. The famous Canadian First World War sniper Francis Pegahmagabow had at least 378 confirmed kills to his name, mainly Germans. During that war the greatest Australian sniper was Billy Sing, with 150 confirmed kills. Still, these numbers are pale in comparison to those of Simo. 

Simo spent his final years in the small village of Ruokolahti in south-eastern Finland. In an interview he stated he was a ‘happy and fortunate man.’ He always ‘slept well, even during battles on the front.’ The legendary sniper passed away on April 1 2002, at the age of 96. His honorary rifle is still on display in the Military Museum of Finland. He still finds recognition in popular culture. The Swedish metal band Sabaton created a song about him, and the 2016 film named the White Death is based on his life. 

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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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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. 

I would 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. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time! 

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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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