The Empire of Japan entered WWII by attacking the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, kickstarting the war in the Pacific theatre. By 1944, Japan had lost most of its navy and was faced with the reality of abandoning its imperialistic plans, while trying to cling on to its occupied territories. In October 1944, a directive was issued for the formation of a Special Attack Unit, better known as the Kamikaze – or Divine Wind.
In a desperate attempt to cripple the Allied Navies, Japan sacrificed around 3,862 pilots and as many aircraft. The pilots were used as guided missiles ordered to smash into a ship, while their planes were packed with explosives.
Only 19% of all the Kamikaze attacks were successful, while the pilots sustained a 100% casualty rate. Despite the relatively low number of successful attacks, they cost the lives of more than 7,000 Allied naval personnel.
Fear and hatred of these attacks grew inside every American sailor in the Pacific theatre, as well as back home. However, an interesting precedent occurred ― one that leveled the grounds for mutual understanding between the two nations.
A Kamikaze pilot flew directly into the USS Missouri in April 1945, only damaging it slightly. The captain of the ship, William Callaghan, dared to make an unpopular move.
He ordered that the remains of the 19-year-old pilot, Setuso Ishino be buried with proper honors ― ones worthy of a fallen warrior. This occurred during the time that the Battle of Okinawa was gaining heat. In the first four weeks of that battle, the Japanese sank twenty American vessels.
The crew was anxious for revenge. In their minds, this was no time for commemorating their enemy, especially not an enemy responsible for the Bataan Death March, the Rape of Nanking and the treacherous assault on Pearl Harbor without a declaration of war.
Despite these facts, Captain Callaghan stayed firm in his decision. For him too, the resolve to provide such respect to an enemy pilot, was not an easy one. His older brother, Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan had been killed in battle, while on board the USS San Francisco, on November 13, 1942.
As the Kamikaze pilot, carrying 500 pounds of explosives was diving from the sky, and right into the Missouri, the ship’s anti-aircraft guns had been released upon him. Severely injured, he rammed his plane into the ship, but the bomb had accidentally fallen off the plane seconds earlier. Len Schmidt, the cook assigned to the USS Missouri, managed to photograph the suicidal aircraft just moments before impact.
No substantial damage was done to the ship, and Ishino was the only victim of his sacred suicide. The crew scraped the remains of his body from the deck, while the rest sank with his A6M5c Zero fighter plane. Asked whether the remains should be disposed of overboard immediately, Captain Callaghan gave a negative reply:
“No, when we secure, take it down to the sick bay, and we’ll have a burial for him tomorrow.”
Reportedly, the crew did not take the news lightly, but what almost spilled the glass was an order by the Captain that a Japanese war flag was to be used for the ceremony.
An improvised flag was made, and a minister was appointed to conduct the burial at sea. Six pallbearers carried Ishino’s remains, sailors saluted, and a round of rifle fire echoed on the open sea to honor the fallen pilot. Although some crew members were bitter and unwilling to comply with the order, the ceremony was carried out without incident.
Callaghan was so keen on burying the enemy pilot who attempted to sink his ship, that he enforced disciplinary actions on the sailors who protested his decision. In the end, everyone agreed that the honorable thing was done ― a gesture which gave a sense of hope to the men who were exhausted by war.
After the burial, Callaghan simply stated that his decision was:
“A tribute to a fellow warrior who had displayed courage and devotion, and who had paid the ultimate sacrifice with his life, fighting for his country.”
The USS Missouri has gone down in history as the ship on which the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan was signed, but this story should not slip into obscurity.
In a time fueled by hate, Callaghan’s act showed there was still respect and valor in combat and that the men fighting on the other side were reflections of those on board the Missouri. They were all desperate and scared but obliged by a duty that could demand from them that what they found most dear – life.