A SHORT STORY BY
JOHN J. RUST
August 4th, 1945
A bright orange flash caught Major Shindo Koshami's eye. He whipped his head left. A cross-shaped object spiraled through the sky, trailing flame and smoke.
Ours or theirs? He doubted it was American. Nowadays they had the better planes, the better pilots.
Another burning plane flashed across his canopy. Silver, cigar-shaped. A Ki-61 Hien, just like his. He grunted in anger. Another pilot gone to join his ancestors.
Pilot. The thought made him scowl. None of the boys he flew with was over twenty. All of them fresh out of pilot training, which had only lasted a few weeks. They were nothing but targets for the Americans.
Shindo jerked his control stick right, then left, throwing off the aim of any potential American attackers. He checked his mirrors, then looked behind him. His tail was clear.
Nodding in satisfaction, he lifted his gaze. Dozens of huge, oval-shaped aircraft crawled across the sky above him.
He pulled back on the stick. The Hien's nose rose, pointed at the bomber formation. Shindo gritted his teeth as an invisible hand pressed against his body. He tightened his stomach and grunted, trying to fight off the pressure. He narrowed his eyes, focusing on a B-29 toward the rear. The lumbering four-engine bomber grew larger by the second. His finger hovered over the trigger for his wing-mounted 30mm cannons.
A quake ripped through the Hien.
"Dammit!" Shindo pushed the stick left. The world outside spun before his eyes. He finally leveled out and checked behind him.
A stubby F6F Hellcat closed on his tail.
Shindo banked left just as tracers streaked past his Hien. He twisted the plane right, dove, then banked right.
Another stream of tracers flashed over him.
He looked behind him again, catching part of the Hellcat as it maneuvered for another shot. He jerked the plane left, then right.
His arms and shoulders tensed. He couldn't keep this up forever. But he certainly couldn't outfight a Hellcat. The American plane was faster, better armed and could climb higher than his Hien.
But having a superior plane didn't guarantee victory.
Shindo pushed the stick down. He checked behind him. The Hellcat dove, its guns flickering. Tracers zipped past him. Sweat broke out on his forehead. He held his breath, letting the Hellcat get closer . . . closer.
Shindo broke left. He counted to four, then rolled right. He glimpsed his rearview mirror. The Hellcat practically filled it
Another barrel roll left. A stubby blue shape shot past his canopy. He leveled out.
The Hellcat loomed in front of him. So fat, so inviting.
The American banked left. Shindo stuck with him and tapped the trigger. The Hien rattled as the fuselage-mounted 12.7mm machine guns erupted. A line of tracers cut into the Hellcat. Flames and smoke blossomed from the tail. The American rolled once and plummeted to the ground.
Shindo watched the fiery Hellcat fall for a few seconds, then turned back to the bombers.
A hole formed in the pit of his stomach. Failure consumed him as he watched hundreds of tiny objects fall from the bellies of the B-29s. Incendiary bombs. All falling toward Kyoto.
He slammed the side of his cockpit with an elbow. Another city in flames. All because he and his fliers failed. They couldn't even shoot down one damn B-29.
What difference would it make if we did? The Americans had hundreds more to take its place. And behind those bombers, hundreds upon hundreds of fighter planes, hundreds upon hundreds of warships, thousands upon thousands of soldiers and marines. All bent on destroying his country.
Shindo sighed. They could have shot down every B-29 and Hellcat here, and all it would have done was delay the inevitable.
Shindo taxied his Hien down the dirt strip and parked it off to the side. He pushed back the canopy and lifted himself out of the cramped cockpit. Exhaling, he gazed around the airfield outside Osaka.
Airfield. He shook his head. To call this an airfield was beyond generous. The little patch of dirt and grass served as a dispersal field so as not to have too many planes at one airfield, where American bombers could easily destroy them. The place consisted of a few tents, some trucks that looked older than him, and two entrenchments for 7.7mm machine guns laughingly referred to as anti-aircraft guns. A far cry from the airfields he served at in China and Burma. Back when Japan had a real air force.
Back when Japan was winning this war.
"Did you kill any Americans, Sir?" A skinny young mechanic asked him.
He jumped off the wing of his plane and looked at him. "One. A Hellcat."
"Banzai!" The young mechanic smiled wide.
Shindo grunted and trudged off. He glanced at the side of his Hien. Two holes stood out near the tail section.
He kept walking until he reached a tent with a makeshift wooden sign beside it reading "Pilots' Tent." Next to the sign was a crate. Shindo sat on it and stared at the sky. Tension wrapped around him. He waited to see a dark shape, or more than one, approaching the "airfield." He had tried to radio the other men of his squadron as they headed away from Kyoto. No one had responded. That didn't necessarily mean they had all died. Some of those boys had trouble operating their radios, never mind fighting the Americans.
He stared at the sky for five minutes. Ten Minutes. Fifteen. Twenty.
Shindo gave up after a half-hour and went inside the tent. He took off his flight jacket and leather helmet. Next he removed his tunic and undershirt, both drenched in sweat. Sighing, he lowered himself onto his cot. He managed not to look at the other cots in the tent, tried not to think of yet another group of pilots that wouldn't be coming back.
His eyes shifted to his nightstand, or rather, the crate he used for a nightstand. He focused on the black and white photo set in a small frame. It showed six men gathered in front of a parked fighter. All wore their flightsuits. All were smiling.
Shindo's jaw tightened. Kenji, Tomoya, Tatsuo, Yataro, Makoto. His best friends. His fellow warriors. For years they ruled the skies over China. Like all young men, they felt invincible. And why not? Back then they had the best planes and the best pilots in the world.
Then one by one, they started dying. Tomoyo, Tatsuo and Makoto all within a month-and-a-half when those damned American mercenaries, the Flying Tigers, arrived in China in 1941. Yataro died a year later, and Kenji the year after in Burma.
So why am I still alive?
Shindo lay down, closing his eyes. But sleep would not come. He lifted his head, gazing at the five empty cots in the tent.
Such a waste. Part of him felt shame for that thought. Those men had died for their country, their Emperor.
Reality clouded his devotion to the Emperor. How had those boys died for their country? In fighter planes they barely knew how to fly, pitted against more experienced pilots in much better aircraft. What honor was there in a fight like that?
But what else could they do? Surrender? That was the height of dishonor. They must never allow the Americans to trod the sacred soil of Japan and remake this country into their own corrupt and decedent image. What did they know of honor, of culture, of respecting one's past? He shuddered at the thought of the Americans conquering his country.
But that's exactly what would happen. The fanatical fools in Tokyo could ignore reality, could preach all they wanted about how they would drive the Americans back into the sea when they came. But Shindo knew the facts. B-29s bombed them constantly. Much of their merchant fleet had been sent to the bottom of the ocean by U.S. submarines. The Americans and their allies had driven them from the Solomons, the Marianas, the Philippines and Okinawa. Even carrier-based aircraft could operate over the Home Islands.
A lump formed in Shindo's throat. Japan would lose this war. No matter what he or any other soldier, sailor or airman did, they would eventually lose.
But he would still fight.
What else could he do? War was all he knew. That had been the case since 1937 when he and his squadron first arrived in China. But now the war was coming to an end, an end that did not favor Japan.
You could always run to the hills and hide. You would still live.
Shindo dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. He was too much a warrior to do that. If anyone should have run to the hills it should have been all those inexperienced boys who had gone up with him over the past few months only to be shot down with ease by the Americans. If they didn't run, how could he?
He could not dishonor them, dishonor his old friends, his Emperor. No. He would do the only thing he knew how to do. He would fight. And most likely, he would die.
A faint smile traced Shindo's lips. A plan formed. He would not let the Americans choose the time and place of his death. He would do it himself. And he knew the perfect time for it. When the Americans invaded. He would fly his Hien out over the ocean and find an American ship. A carrier, perhaps. Or better yet, a transport, loaded with thousands of American soldiers. He would fly his plane into it and take as many Americans with him as possible.
That would be the proper end for a true warrior.
September 4th, 1945
How can this be possible?
The war was over, yet Shindo lived. His Hien lay before him along the side of the dirt strip, destroyed. Not the way he envisioned it, flying it into an American ship. Instead it had been sliced up into neat pieces by mechanics with cutting torches.
Slowly, he gazed around the makeshift airfield, then to the hills, picturing Osaka beyond them. No American troops advanced on the city. Not a single enemy soldier had set foot on Japanese soil. They didn't need to. Not when they had a bomb that could unleash the power of the sun. Even a month after the fact he still couldn't imagine how Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be gone in the blink of an eye.
But they were.
As a result, Japan surrendered.
He turned back to the pile that had been his Hien. An emptiness formed inside him. He should be dead by now. He should have died a meaningful, honorable death. A warrior's death.
But what was a warrior to do when there was no more war?
"Excuse me, Sir?"
Shindo looked to his right. A narrow-faced boy in tan fatigues stood at attention before him. "We are ready to depart. Is there any place we can take you?"
Shindo blinked. The young soldier's words echoed in his mind. "Is there any place we can take you?"
Where could they take him? He had no family. He had no real home. Home had been whichever air base he'd been assigned to.
His knees buckled. The emptiness became all-consuming. No home, no family, and after the surrender, no occupation.
Without the war, he had nothing.
"Osaka," he replied in a distant voice. He had no real attachment to the city. It just happened to be the closest one to the airfield.
"Hei!." The young soldier bowed and strode off to a nearby truck.
Shindo followed him, his steps slow. He sat in the back quietly, not speaking to the eight other men with him. He only recognized them by their faces or the insignia on their uniforms. He hadn't bothered to learn their names, to make friends with any of them. Everyone he had called friend had died.
As he should have.
He rocked back and forth with the truck and it rattled along the dirt road. After a while, the countryside gave way to the city. Rather, what had once been a city. Much of Osaka had been reduced to rubble. The few buildings that remained standing were burned out.
Shindo's face stiffened. Anger swelled within him. Anger at the Americans for laying waste to his country. Anger for the soldiers and his fellow airmen who could have fought harder. Anger at the generals and admirals whose blunders led them to this nightmare.
Anger at the fates themselves for letting him live to see this.
An idea flared in his mind. They couldn't have destroyed all of Japan's planes yet. Some must still remain. If he could find one, he could fly it toward the sea, find an American ship, any American ship, and crash into it. A final act of revenge. A warrior's death.
He snorted, cursing himself for even thinking it. The Emperor himself had proclaimed the war was over. The Emperor! How could he even consider disobeying his orders?
The truck groaned to a halt.
"We cannot go on," the driver called out. "There is too much rubble in the way. We'll have to find another way."
"Do not bother," Shindo said. "I can get out and walk."
Nodding to the other men, he jumped out the back. He walked with his head down so he could watch for holes and rubble. And he kept walking, from one scorched and battered street to another. A few times he lifted his gaze and examined the shattered husks of the few standing buildings. His jaw trembled. How long would it take to rebuild Japan?
Could the country ever be rebuilt?
On one street he walked past a couple old men standing amidst the rubble talking amongst themselves. Their eyes locked on him as he neared. Shindo could tell they stared more at his tan uniform than his face.
The men's eyes narrowed. He felt the disdain radiating from their stares.
"Why did you let this happen?" he imagined them saying. "Why did you not fight harder? Why did you not give your life for our Emperor?"
Shindo looked away from them, but still felt their hateful stares.
Hateful stares he deserved.
The sun started to lower in the sky. Shindo had no idea where he was. Not that it mattered. One rubble-strewn street looked just like another. Where would he stay the night? Would he have to sleep on the street?
The thought made him stop. His empty stomach twisted. How could he go from a fighter pilot one day to living on the street like some pathetic beggar?
Sighing, he shuffled around a corner. That's when he heard the noise. A combination of thumping and scratching. He looked up.
Just down the street he spotted a thin, middle-aged woman and a small boy who couldn't be any older than eight. Both of them picked up chunks of rubble and tossed them into a wheelbarrow. Curious, he headed over to them.
"Hello. What are you doing?"
The woman gasped and spun around, a hand on her chest. "Oh. Sorry. You scared me."
"My apologies." He gave a slight bow.
"You're a soldier?" asked the boy.
"No. I'm a fighter pilot."
The boy's face scrunched. "Why didn't you kill the Americans? Look at what they did." He swept his arms out, motioning to the ruined street around them. "I hate you! I hate you all!"
"Hisashi!" The woman smacked the boy upside the head. "Show some respect to this man!" She turned to him and bowed. "Forgive him. I am sure you fought bravely."
"Thank you," he muttered.
"Oh, where are my manners. I'm Kiami Yusake. This is Hisashi, my grandson."
"Major Shindo Koshami." He winced. Could he call himself "major" any more?
"Are you headed home, Major?"
He chewed on his lower lip. "Um . . . yes," he finally lied. How could he admit to this woman he had no home to go to?
"What are you doing?" He nodded to the wheelbarrow.
"Cleaning up the street."
He gazed out at the rubble scattered as far as he could see. "I think this will require more than two people and a wheelbarrow."
"Perhaps, but at least we are doing something productive."
"This isn't the only street in ruins. Not just in Osaka, but throughout Japan."
"True. But you must start somewhere. Today we clean one street. Tomorrow another. The next day another, and so on. Then one day, all the streets will be cleaned up, and all our homes rebuilt."
A spark flickered in the emptiness inside him. A spark of joy. Joy for this woman, who in the middle of all this devastation had found purpose. Certainly one woman couldn't restore the entire nation, but she could do her part.
Like you did your part to fight the Americans, Shindo.
He stared at Kiami, and thought about all the wrecked streets he had journeyed through today. If she was true to her word, she could be at this task for months. Perhaps years. But at least she had a task. She would have a reason to get out of bed every morning for a long time.
Could he say the same?
"I wish you luck in your task, Kiami. Hisashi." He bowed to them both.
"Thank you, Major." Kiami smiled and bowed back.
"Thank you," Hisashi muttered.
With a brief smile, Shindo headed off. He got about three meters before he turned back. Kiami and Hisashi had already gone back to tossing rubble into their wheelbarrow.
Something punched through his emptiness. A yearning. A yearning to do something meaningful, to find some way to serve Japan again.
To matter again.
He walked back to Kiami and Hisashi. The two lifted their heads, looking at him with curiosity.
He smiled, bent down and began picking up rubble.
- THE END -