Footsteps of kamikaze pilot photojournalist traced by son 77 years on

MINAMIKYUSHU, Kagoshima – The son of a late former Mainichi Shimbun photographer, who photographed young Japanese kamikaze pilots before their suicide bombings in the final stages of World War II, followed in his father’s footsteps this summer to visit this southwestern Japanese city, which is home to a base located for one-way flights was removed during the war.

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Kamikaze pilots are last seen before their suicide bombing missions, toasting with the maintenance crew. (Mainichi/Hiromu Hayakawa)

The photographer, Hiromu Hayakawa, joined The Mainichi Newspapers Co. in 1937 and apparently visited the Chiran base around April 1945, after returning from Japanese-occupied Manchuria in what is now northeastern China. Photographs he is believed to have taken at Chiran include those detaining maintenance crews checking planes during the night, pilots visiting their injured comrades, and pilots making final toasts before departing for suicide bombings.

“It’s my first time seeing these photos,” said Iwao Hayakawa, 81, the late photographer’s eldest son and a resident of Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, as he viewed the old black-and-white images kept at the museum’s headquarters Mainichi Shimbun in Osaka in the city of Osaka.

Iwao made his long-awaited trip to Chiran in July of this year. “I wanted to visit Chiran at least once,” he said.

Chiran is known as the origin of 439 of the 1,036 airmen killed in kamikaze operations against US military ships in Okinawa. The area where the military base was located is now surrounded by residential areas and sweet potato fields, leaving only a water tower, ammunition depot and other few facilities as remnants of the war.

Kamikaze pilots visit an injured comrade. (Mainichi/Hiromu Hayakawa)

Iwao walked around the remains of a bunker where kamikaze planes were stored, the runways, and the “triangle barracks” where the pilots stayed. There used to be a barracks for newspaper reporters nearby, but now a cedar forest is growing there.

“My dad was probably here,” Iwao said, seemingly overcome with emotion.

He pulled out a Nikon SLR and clicked away. Iwao himself worked primarily as a photographer for Sports Nippon Newspapers for 40 years until his retirement in 2000.

Kamikaze pilots sleep in their barracks the night before their suicide bombings. The cotton futons are said to have been provided by local residents. (Mainichi/Hiromu Hayakawa)

“He was a strict father,” Iwao recalled while admiring his father as a photographer. “He studied his subjects thoroughly before photographing them. The composition of his photos was also well thought out,” he said.

After turning 40, Iwao learned that his father was photographing kamikaze pilots in Chiran when he saw a magazine with photos of suicide bombers taken by his father.

By that time his father had already passed away. In addition to his assignment in Chiran, his father was also an embedded reporter in Manchuria, covering Nagasaki after the August 9, 1945 US atomic bombing of the southwestern Japanese city. He didn’t talk about the war or share his thoughts on peace with his son, and Iwao never had a chance to sit down and talk to him about photography before he passed away in 1981 at the age of 64. If only he had him more (about the war) ask,” Iwao said with regret.

Mainichi Shimbun photographer Hiromu Hayakawa appears in this photo provided by his son Iwao Hayakawa, apparently when he was an embedded reporter.

Iwao also visited the Chiran Peace Museum, which displays personal effects left behind by kamikaze pilots and other relevant materials, including four photos taken by his father.

One of the photos shows pilots sound asleep in a barracks the night before their kamikaze attacks. Satoshi Yamaki, 46, a curator at the museum, explained: “Normally they would use military blankets, but there is evidence that local residents made their futons available to the barracks in hopes that the pilots could at least sleep their last living night on cotton futons .”

Iwao Hayakawa visits the remains of a bunker used to store kamikaze attack aircraft in the city of Minamikyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture, July 15, 2022. (Mainichi/Saori Moriguchi)

Most pilots had to leave on their suicide missions in a few days, but they were also allowed to head out into town in Chiran and interact with locals. One of the photos shows pilots helping with farming while waiting for orders for their missions.

“It must have been difficult to keep photographing the kamikaze units unless my father got adamant. I suppose he had a few sleepless nights in the barracks as well,” Iwao guessed. “I think he figured that as long as he had a job, he had to catch the pilots and report them to newspapers as a professional.”

(Japanese original by Saori Moriguchi, Osaka City News Department)

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