FUKURYU, the secret unit of the Japanese Special Offensive Corps
Among the displays at the Yushukan Museum of the Heroes, which stands next to the Yasukun shrine in Tokyo, there is a space reserved among the kamikaze relics for the Lurking Dragons. This unit of the Japanese Special Offensive Corps, established in the Second World War, was so secret that, decades after the war, not even their compatriots knew about its existence.
The Dragons’ job was to blow up American warships, risking their lives in harbour depths, with bombs fixed to bamboo canes. They were able to breathe with the aid of an ordinary plate tank in their rudimentary diving gear, with caustic lye cleansing the stale air. Anyone who bungled his breathing died in terrible agony, as the natron corroded his respiratory organs. Fifty young men died during training.
After Japan surrendered, the officers burned all evidence and the unit was sworn to secrecy. Fearing retribution from the Americans, members of the unit kept quiet about it. Until now, that is …
Japan’s territorial expansion in the South Pacific led to conflict with the United States of America. Attempts were made to negotiate, but, according to Japan, it was the USA, deciphering the telegraphic code of the Japanese headquarters staff, that provoked the Japanese entry into war. The fact is that this Far Eastern country, which was militarily strong, became involved on the 8th of December 1941in the war with the United States − 25 times bigger than Japan − and its allies.
Initially, the war in the South Pacific brought victories to Japan. In Singapore, General Yamashita inflicted a crushing defeat first on the army of British General Percival and later on the American military forces. General McArthur had to escape from the Philippines on a PT boat.
However, the American offensive in the battle of Midway in 1942 turned the tide decisively. Having deciphered the Japanese telegraphic code, the Americans set an ambush and inflicted such great losses on the navy that the Japanese were only fighting on to stave off utter defeat. Their headquarters staff became resigned to taking a desperate step. Under the leadership of Vice-Admiral Onishi Takajiro, they founded the Tokkotai (Tokubetsu Kogeki Tai, the Special Offensive Corps), whose members, laden with bombs, undertook suicide missions against enemy targets. It was Lieutenant Seki Yukio who accomplished the first suicide mission with his flight called Kamikaze (divine wind) on the 25th of October, 1944. From then on, the Allies called every member of the Tokkotai ‘Kamikaze’.
However, the Special Offensive Corps included several other units and sections as well. The so-called Oka were also a part of this corps. Releasing a winged bomb from the bomber that carried it, a volunteer would guide it towards the target like a sailplane. There were motorised mini submarines, loaded with bombs, and speedboats. However, there was also a ‘foot soldier’ unit, called Fuku Ryu (Lurking Dragons). I tracked down a surviving veteran of this unit in Nagano Prefecture. Here is my interview with Shimizu Kazuro, one of the divers who carried bombs on bamboo canes.
– Mr. Shimizu, when and how did you join the Japanese army in the Second World War?
– I was born in 1928, in Shimoina in Nagano prefecture. One day, when I was in the third class of the local Iida junior secondary school, in other words, 15 years old, our teachers called us into the gymnasium where a high-ranking guest in the person of an army officer came to address us. By that time the war had been raging for one-and-a-half years, so we were not really surprised to see the uniform. At first the officer described the wretched lot of our country in a beautiful speech; he then announced that the army was waiting for us to volunteer. However, volunteering seemed to be somewhat compulsory when he closed his speech with the scathing words: “Whoever hesitates to volunteer to the defence of the country, get out!” To our astonishment, three fifth-form pupils jumped up, burst out of the door and dashed away, shouting something like “Who would agree to such great folly?” Each of these boys had been studying the philosophy of different eras. One of them I knew quite well – he had often quoted Hegel to me. We all got a tremendous fright.
– How did the first people volunteer?
– The homeroom teachers sent the classes of thirty back to the schoolrooms and the pupils were called out for the “conversation” one by one. I suspect that there was a kind of quota, and our school director made a promise of about 10-15 volunteers.
My school had rather a bad reputation, and there had been several incidents involving mischievous behaviour. Making snowmen was one of the boys’ favourite pastimes. Once they made one on the edge of the roof, and when an army officer passed underneath, they covered him in snow. The recruitment came at just the right moment to enable our teachers to get rid of their worst pupils. Our homeroom teacher nominated three.
– So you became a “volunteer” of the Japanese army by being nominated?
– No, not at all! I was the pupil president of my class, they did not even think of me. But one of the “volunteers”, a fatherless boy, begged me to intervene on his behalf because he did not want to leave his widowed mother alone. I pleaded with the teacher in vain to let him off, but he did not want to hear of it. I became angry and said, “Well then, I’ll join the army instead of him”. I was taken aback when he agreed. Not even the fact that I would be joining the Navy, the elite of the armed forces – as I was a good student – could console me.
– The rebellious students who ran out must have been severely punished.
– You would think so! At school I had always been taught that we were fighting for the Emperor. I also thought that, in war, a man’s place was in front. So imagine how surprised I was when our schoolmates who left the meeting so noisily were not punished at all. The director must have wanted to conceal the fact that he had such rebellious pupils.
– How did your family take the news of your joining up?
– My parents were poor farmers. My mother fought back her tears but did not protest. Two days before I left to join up she presented me with a new mattress. That was an enormous luxury at that time. During the war only newly-married couples could get a new bed, for their wedding night. And my father managed to get a fish for me – not a piece of tuna, but a whole one, with its head and tail.
– You joined the Navy, the pride of the Japanese forces. How did your military service begin?
– I started my studies in September 1944 in Tsuchiura, at the Yokaren Aircraft Academy, which was the dream of all Japanese boys. We did theory in the classroom, and practical training exercises in the Aircraft Detachment of the Navy.
In March 1945 the theoretical part of our education – prescribed in the curriculum – was unexpectedly suspended, and the field manoeuvres were increased. We did exercises all day, learnt to handle small craft and send Morse signals. Obviously we were preparing for imminent deployment. Then, one day, a drunken naval officer gave a speech in our 300-strong camp: “Japan is over”, he said. “None of you will even get onto a plane. Everyone should look out for himself as well as he can and save his own skin.”
I found myself in the headquarters of Lieutenant Watanabe Kojiro. All the other detachments were very violent – as part of the training they had the recruits beat each other with cudgels. But Watanabe was different from the other officers, he forbade things like that. He often talked to us about Darwin and about how animals adapt in order to survive. Even after the war we used to get together for conversation.
– The Allies were inflicting ever-greater losses on Japan. Did you feel the effects of this?
– The shortage of raw materials was felt everywhere in the country. We were transferred to the Tsukuba Mountains to collect pine tree roots. We increased the volume of petrol by mixing it with the gum fluid that we extracted from the roots. Japan was grasping at straws. However, I did not like doing it. The Americans were penetrating deeper and deeper into the country. At the bombardment of Tsuchiura the barracks we had been in were destroyed, and towards the end we were coming under fire daily. While we were digging for roots, six of my mates were strafed from aircraft. I felt that my turn was about to come, too, but I wanted to die a nobler death. So when they were looking for volunteers for the Special Offensive Corps in 1945, I applied.
– On what basis were the members of the Tokkotai chosen?
– From three hundred of us, one hundred were chosen for certain death. Three groups among these were eliminated: firstborn sons, only children, and the fatherless. As the fourth son of the family, I was obviously suitable. For the next round, the more intelligent ones were filtered out from the hundred. We did not know which suicide corps we were going to but, considering that I was put into Yokosuka, I supposed that I, like the others, would also be an airman. Only at the end of June or the beginning of July, when I arrived at the coast of Kurihama, did I discover that I had been drafted to the Fukuryu, the Lurking Dragons. But there was no going back. Taisen Training Camp, where I ended up, was called the hell of the Navy.
– What was your mission, and what did the training consist of?
– We had to wait for the American warships in the shallow harbours, in diving suits, with bombs fixed to bamboo canes, and blow them up along with ourselves.
It is well known that, during deployment, the soldiers of the Tokkotai faced certain death. The aircraft of the “flying” Kamikazes were filled with just enough petrol to go one way, and inside the torpedo (kaiten) – released from the submarine – the cover of the wheel house was screwed shut from outside. Anyone who was not killed in the explosion would suffocate as soon as the oxygen ran out.
Our diving gear was closed in a similar way. When we got into our gear, two of our mates would seal the helmet on the collar of our rubber diving suit and then fix it with screws. We could manage to get out of this without help. We did not have an oxygen tank – a simple but clever gadget solved the problem of breathing. From the big helmet we would inhale air through our noses and after using it, we would blow it out through a pipe. This pipe led into a metal tank fixed onto our backs, in which caustic lye transformed the used air into oxygen. Anyone who bungled the breathing and drew up concentrated caustic lye into his mouth would lose consciousness after the third breath.
Our movements were special, too. We always had to take up a position calculated in advance to 10-15 degrees, so that our gear weighing 38 kilograms did not pull us back. This was completed with our weapon, a 15-kilogram bomb fixed onto a cane that was several metres long. I was 16 years old and carried gear that was heavier than I was.
– Did anyone die during training?
– We started preparations on the 10th of July 1945. Our training camp counted 1200-2000 would-be suicides. We put out to sea, with sections of 15-16 in each boat. At first we practised how to dive vertically 8-16 metres down, and how to get back. As a rule, we stopped after every two metres in order to swallow, so that the pressure would be equalized, otherwise our eardrums would burst. Later we learned how to walk on the sea bottom. A rope was fastened onto the waist and the training officer, pulling it, gave instructions about which direction to turn or how far to go.
Accidents often happened on training. Concentrating on the movement of the rope, many people bungled the order of their breathing and fainted. Those of us who were above were informed of the problem by the loosening of the rope and pulled our mates up as quickly as possible. By that time the window of the helmet had become milk white. There was an accident like this in my section, too. When we removed his helmet, blood burst out of the boy’s mouth and he shouted “help me, Mom!” I have no idea what happened to him later. Others perished because of faulty brazing of the tank – water oozed in and on meeting the caustic lye generated a hot mixture which burned their respiratory organs. And those who got caught in the thick sea plants or lost the end of the rope, drowned. Fifty of my mates met their deaths in this training, but many of the survivors suffered permanent brain damage caused by respiratory problems.
I hoped this would not happen to me.
– The front came closer and closer. How did you spend your days?
– We could no longer carry out the ceremonial cremation of our fallen comrades in the shrine, so we simply built a fire on the coast and burnt their bodies. Our daily program became monotonous: training, praying, burning.
We were 16 years old and we smoked a lot, so much that our heads hummed and we could not think. In this hell we went to sleep dreading death every single night.
I was brooding on why my life had to end so terribly. I was envious of the “flying” Kamikazes who would perish by crashing into the enemy’s aircraft carrier with their proud metal birds. I kept myself going by hoping that it would also be good to die in the sea, that it would not hurt, and that I would simply fall asleep. I pondered a great deal why I had to die at all. I had learnt that I had to die for the Emperor, but I thought of my parents as well, who loved me so much. It made me bitter to think that, even according to our training officers, our mission had no hope of success. On the sea bottom even standing up is impossible after fifty metres. If, by chance, one of us managed to blow up a ship, the others would lose their lives, too. However, it was more likely that the Americans, who attached so much importance to their safety, would “sprinkle” the sea with bombs before landing anyway. The “daihonei” planned to sacrifice us on the coasts of Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, and in the Shibishi Bay of Kyushu Island.
– Did you have a premonition of the coming surrender?
– During our daily training we were not informed about the technical and numerical superiority of the Americans. On the 15th of August we listened to the Emperor’s radio broadcast announcing the end of the war, but the radio set crackled so much that we did not understand what he was talking about. We knew that a new kind of bomb had destroyed Hiroshima totally and we supposed that the speech of the ruler was encouraging us to hurl defiance. We continued our training for two more days, thereby increasing the number of those who lost their lives in peacetime. On the 20th, when training ended, the officers made us collect all our gear and burnt it all, together with all the written records. On the 25th, we were ordered to return home. The members of the Taisen Training Camp, including me, found it strange, until we eventually heard that the war was over. So I could go on living, I did not have to die! I felt relieved; I did not even care about the humiliation of defeat.
– What happened after you got home?
– Returning home from the war, I was glad to see that none of our family members had lost their lives; my two brothers had also got back safe and sound from the front. I went to bed and am told that I slept for a week. I kept it from my people that I had been in the service of the Special Offensive Corps, but they felt I had gone through terrible ordeals, so everybody pampered me. At my old school, I was surprised to see that the floor of the passage had been lifted and the walls had become blackened. I heard from my classmates who had stayed at home that in my absence the school building had served as a war factory and that they had worked there. I came to hate our teachers who had sent us to our deaths without conscience. They did not ask for forgiveness – what’s more, they even ridiculed me. They called the Yokaren Academy the Yotaren Academy, which means ‘trudging’ or ‘reeling’. I lost all interest in learning anything from them. Whenever I could, I would gather the boys in the attic of the school and we would smoke and discuss the events of the past. I did not know who to believe. My life took a 180-degree turn. I became a nihilist; I read the books of Nietzsche and Shift and the book ‘Revolution’ by Lenin. In a period of 4 to 5 years I tried to kill myself twice.
– What did the general public think of the Lurking Dragons?
– For years, no-one even knew the Fukuryu existed. We had to keep the secret, and as for the Americans, as we had never really been deployed, they did not even hear about us. We made our voices heard only at the exhibition of the Tokkotai Museum, and said that we, too, belonged there. However, it came to light that no records or documents giving the story of the Fukuryu had survived destruction. We, the survivors, reconstructed our gear from memory, for the statue exhibited in the Yushukan (Museum of the Heroes).
– Have you forgotten the Fukuryu already?
– I will never be able to forget it as long as I live. However, so many things have happened to me since the war. I am already a pensioner. I have retired from a newspaper in Nagano. Now, finally, I can enjoy the peace and the life I received as a gift.