The Devil of Rabaul: Japanese Ace of Aces 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.

Nishizawa (flying "UI-105") and wingman on May 7, 1943.
Nishizawa (flying “UI-105”) and wingman on May 7, 1943.

Of course, his request was refused.

It would have been madness to throw away a man of his calibre so lightly, and a great blow to morale. By this point, even in his early twenties, the young man was already being referred to by his enemies as the Ace of Aces – losing him in a suicide mission would have been simply unthinkable. Yet in the style of all great myths, tragedy and irony went hand in hand. By denying his wish, Nishizawa’s superiors sealed the fate of their finest pilot.

He was assigned to a different mission in the end, and the following morning set out as a passenger on a transport aircraft, setting off from Mabalacat. The weather was fine, with clear skies and low winds – the region had always been known for its gentler climate.

In fact, the assignment with which they had been tasked should not have posed any difficulty to any of the men on board; they were transporting replacement planes from Clark Field, Nishizawa’s own Zero having been destroyed in a separate operation.

In the sky above the small island of Mindoro, the Ace of Aces met his fate. (Wikipedia)
In the sky above the small island of Mindoro, the Ace of Aces met his fate. Photo Credit.

High in the clear October skies over Mindoro Island, two planes appeared in the distance. They were far behind, but rapidly closing the distance. The US fighters, a pair of F6F Hellcats, were now in hot pursuit, though even they had no idea just who they were bearing down upon.

As the three planes flew above the town of Calapan, American pilot Lt. Harold P. Newell sent the lumbering transport plane before him down in flames.

At the age of 24, just days after he predicted his own end, the Devil of Rabaul was dead.

PNG-Japanese-Nakajima-Ki-49-Hellen-Oct-2002-11
A crashed Nakajima Ki-49 transport aircraft – the same model that Nishizawa died in. Photo Credit.

In his short career, the Japanese Ace of Aces had earned the respect of his enemies and his comrades alike. He had become a nationally recognized symbol of bravery, patriotism, and fearlessness in the face of death. Hiroyoshi Nishizawa walks to this day a unique line between a man and a myth, with a story rivaled by few others in its mysterious and evocative nature.

Like all the great figures of legend, the legacy of the man now known as Bukai-in Kohan Giko Kyoshi lives on, even after death. In the ocean of the military, Nishizawa is remembered as an honored Buddhist person, the Devil of Rabaul and the Ace of Aces.

By Malcolm Higgins