The Devil of Rabaul: Japanese Ace With 88 Kills Who Died in the Passenger Seat

 
 
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“In the ocean of the military, reflective of all distinguished pilots, an honored Buddhist person.”

So translates the name awarded to Japanese pilot Hiroyoshi Nishizawa following his death in 1944. His passing was sudden, unexpected; an anticlimactic end to a remarkable tale. In death, his superiors honoured him with a Zen Buddhist moniker; Bukai-in Kohan Giko Kyoshi. In life, however, he earned himself a very different title.

The Devil of Rabaul, they called him, and not without good reason.

For his enemies this young man bore a terrifying reputation. The Second World War encompassed all corners of the world, but in the east, where the Allies faced the deadly power of the Japanese air force, much of the combat was defined by the rise of the aces.

Enlisted pilots of the Tainan Kokutai pose at Lae in June 1942. Several of these aviators would be among the top Japanese aces, including Toshio Ōta (middle row, far left), Saburo Sakai (seated next to Ōta, second from the left) and Hiroyoshi Nishizawa (standing to the far left). These pilots fought against Allied fighter pilots during the Battle of Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands campaign.
Enlisted pilots of the Tainan Kokutai pose at Lae in June 1942. Several of these aviators would be among the top Japanese aces, including Toshio Ōta (middle row, far left), Saburo Sakai (seated next to Ōta, second from the left) and Hiroyoshi Nishizawa (standing to the far left). These pilots fought against Allied fighter pilots during the Battle of Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands campaign.

Skilled pilots on both sides fought terrifying aerial battles, carried out daring raids against the enemy and engaged with combatants in the air, on the land and on the sea. Yet even amongst the many outstanding Japanese aces, there was no one quite like Nishizawa.

This was a man who seemed to find no fear in death – a man whose courage and daring knew no bounds. This was a man who, without the permission of his commanders, flew six consecutive loops directly above enemy positions.

The outrageous aerobatics, performed in the early summer of 1942, could easily have cost him his life. Instead, the soldiers on the ground held their fire, and by the time Nishizawa returned to his own base, a letter had already arrived congratulating him on his manoeuvres – and inviting him back for the “all-out welcome” he deserved.

Hiroyoshi Nishizawa in his Mitsubishi Zero A6M3 Model 22 (tail code UI-105) from the 251st Kōkūtai over the Solomon Islands in May 1943. The unit's aircraft have been hastily sprayed with dark green camouflage paint on the upper surfaces.
Hiroyoshi Nishizawa in his Mitsubishi Zero A6M3 Model 22 (tail code UI-105) from the 251st Kōkūtai over the Solomon Islands in May 1943. The unit’s aircraft have been hastily sprayed with dark green camouflage paint on the upper surfaces.

The Devil of Rabaul chose to decline that particular invitation, of course, but if his enemies hadn’t quite believed his reputation before that day, they did now.

In fact, even amongst his own comrades he seemed like a figure out of legend. Nishizawa was known as a strange and solitary character, for he seemed ever more content with the status of an outsider as his celebrated status increased. Tall, thin and strikingly pale, Nishizawa was far from forthcoming, and even once his name became synonymous with acts of courage and valour, he kept to himself.

He may have been an object of veneration, but the only place he ever seemed truly comfortable was the sky itself.

Even in death, elements of mystery still cling to the man who seemed to stray so close to myth. Nishizawa had already been present at some of the key battles fought in that geographical theatre of the war, and October 1944 found him escorting the first of Japan’s major kamikaze attacks against the Allies. He himself was only present to back up the five bombers, but as the attack unfolded, something extraordinary occurred.

Mitsubishi Zero A6M2 Model 21 ready for take off.
Mitsubishi Zero A6M2 Model 21 ready for take off.

The young pilot watched his comrades hurtling to certain death, their planes ripping into the US warships below. Led by Lieutenant Yukio Seki, the explosions caused by four of the five planes triggered chain reactions throughout the vessels. In the sky overhead, Nishizawa was also engaged in combat, successfully bringing down two F6F Hellcats and raising the total number of his confirmed kills to 88. It was a clear victory for the Japanese fighters, but even as he fought, Nishizawa had a striking vision.

While the carnage unfolded before his eyes, he saw another event take place –his own death. Though accounts vary as to the exact nature of the fate he envisioned for himself, he returned from the mission without a shadow of a doubt in his mind. To the Devil of Rabaul, it seemed his end was close at hand.

Once again, he held true to his courageous nature. While another man might have tried to run from his fate, the Devil of Rabaul wasted no time in facing his destiny head on. The very next day, with his premonition still at the forefront of his mind, he himself requested a position on the next suicide squad kamikaze mission. If he had to die, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa was going to do it in style.

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