Helen Watson White
The Lost Pilot: A Memoir, by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (Penguin, 2013), 320pp, $40.
You are now 30m from the target. You will sense that your speed has suddenly and abruptly increased … The moment of the crash. You are two or three metres from the target. You can see clearly the muzzles of the enemy’s guns. You feel that you are suddenly floating in the air. At that moment, you see your mother’s face. She is not smiling or crying. It is her usual face.
An extract from the training manual for Japan’s kamikaze pilots presents an unimaginable experience in a way that can only be called imaginative. The dive-bombing tokkotai (Special Attack Units) were warned ‘never to close their eyes as the enemy ship loomed up prior to impact – they might veer off course’ and fail in the specific hit they were trained to achieve. Hence the promise that the enemy’s guns will not be the last thing they see.
In The Lost Pilot, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman – British-born but raised in New Zealand – has written a wide-ranging memoir based on the fact that his father Bill narrowly escaped death from such a ‘special attack’ on the British carrier Illustrious on 6 April 1945. Research in Japanese archives fined down the list of known trainees on that mission to just six names: three pilots and three navigator/gunners who died that day doing what they were ordered to do.
Of the three Suisei (Comet) dive-bombing planes that set off from their base in Formosa (Taiwan), two were hit and destroyed on their way to the target, the third deflected at the last minute by fierce anti-aircraft fire, so that it exploded in the sea some 30 yards from the Illustrious, sending up ‘a giant waterspout towering over the ship’.
Holman has his father’s photograph of the moment of explosion, taken from another ship in the fleet, but only words for the scene the sailors saw in close-up: ‘Fragments of the plane smashed onto the deck, skidding across its armour-plated runway: body parts, aircraft parts, a cylinder head from the great radial motor, a skull with an eyeball attached, a red and yellow inflatable life raft …’
The whole book is concerned with the difference between these two impressions of a moment: the incident seen from a distance – and therefore able to be romanticised – and the appalling experience recorded by those who were right there in it. The photo of the explosion provides the book’s (exciting, almost attractive) cover image; the text explores the lifelong effects on us all of the brutal reality it contains.
Holman begins his relation with his childhood perceptions of a father who returned – saved, but badly singed – from the hell of World War Two. That is, he begins the story with his father Bill sobbing on Jeffrey’s neck as Bill faces his own imminent death from cancer in 1972. Who is here the comforting father and who the vulnerable son? ‘Ask any adult child of an alcoholic how this weird reversal comes about and they can explain,’ writes Holman.
At the same time, he questions how the chosen kamikaze pilots faced their imminent death. Were they the staunchly heroic ‘suicide bombers’ of myth, or were they – younger than you might think, many in their teens – also vulnerable sons?
Holman himself endured some pretty ghastly circumstances in his early life, brought up in the West Coast mining town of Blackball with his hardworked father drinking, gambling, then imprisoned for the crime of theft – the same for which he had been discharged from the navy. Yet the tokkotai – the educated but untried ‘flower of their country’ – faced something worse: death by gruesome plane-crash, the time and place decided for them. Was this really suicide, he asks, death at one’s own hand?
The issue of personal responsibility for one’s actions and relationships looms large in the account of Bill’s sliding in and out of the family after his wife, unusually, took out a separation order against him in 1961. In the context of the whole book, Holman is just as hard on himself as on his father in this regard; having ‘worshipped and feared him’ for as long as he could remember, he badly wanted a male hero in his life, and later, in adulthood, naturally wanted – after his father’s failure – to be that man.
It seems the blame for all this pain lies in the same place for most of the family; for Holman’s mother and maternal grandmother, he says, ‘were also victims of the post-traumatic stress disorder my father was trying to medicate. They’d both been bombed and blasted in 1940 and 1941 by Goering’s Luftwaffe in Liverpool, during that port city’s vicious blitz; and then again in 1943, when they moved to London and ran the gauntlet of the V-weapons that rained down on them there.’ All three adults in the household were, like so many survivors – whether civilians or service personnel – ‘deeply damaged, struggling inwardly to adjust and make new lives in the post-war peace’.
Holman is right about the tendency in the culture of the time to bottle up deep and conflicting emotions – or to take to the bottle for swift, albeit temporary, relief. You could even do both things at once: ‘the men could go to the RSA and share their experiences in a silence where even the unsaid was a kind of saying’.
Having studied over many decades how his own culture works, particularly the male half of it – which, let’s face it, is more than half of what it is – Holman in later life began to consider the history and background of the Japanese, particularly those who were drafted into the military machine, and more particularly still, those who directed their flying-machines at his father and his mates at sea off the southernmost Japanese islands.
His education was greatly assisted by the fact that his (maternal) great-uncle, an expert in naval affairs, had written a remarkably prescient book – and ‘one that had made his theories a worldwide talking point’ – called The Great Pacific War 1931-1933. Although his nanny was proud of her famous younger brother, and produced the book, published in 1925, he barely believed her back in Blackball. Then in 1990, while working in the UK, Holman discovered a new biography of the great-uncle, Bywater: The Man Who Invented the Pacific War, and met its author, becoming as fascinated as the biographer was by the relevance of Bywater’s analysis to subsequent Pacific history.
In 1993 there were also published the intimate diaries of some of the tokkotai themselves, romanticised as kamikaze (divine wind, expressing the will of the Emperor) or sakura (falling cherry blossoms) – in a fatalistic image of action without agency. Some of the diary entries are reproduced in Chapter 4: ‘I am desperately trying to find my true self,’ writes one, ‘I no longer have a self’. Another confesses, ‘When I received [my] order, I felt the earth were cracking [and] swallowing me, as if my blood were flowing backward.’
Of the 4000 kamikaze who died, there are poignant postcards and letters home, story after story of the impossibility of the youths’ accommodation to this most stringent of codes. Photographs show named (and to their families precious) individuals, some of whom survived their supposedly final mission, turning back because of unfavourable weather, or being pre-empted by the dropping of the atomic bombs at the very end of the war.
Although Holman says Japan was always ‘calling’ to him – through the flood of postwar books, comics, films, then manufactured goods like neat, fast cars – the second half of the book pursues such an idea to its end: a pilgrimage made to the key places in his family’s war-story, to meet the people who experienced the other side of that giant trauma of loss and sacrifice.
This is a travelogue with a difference, tracing those six Japanese youths known to be heading for the Illustrious, and discovering the nephew of one, the younger brother of another, a great-niece who can translate – up to a point – plus new and special friends who have made a life of being half-Japanese, getting to know (and be able to interpret) the culture from the inside.
If this were only half the book that it is, without the diary written almost daily during a month of travel through southern Japan, it would still be a fascinating read. But the personal story of the author’s developing respect for his country’s former enemies, his changing understanding of their motives and ideas, and of their deeply particular history, is finally more important than either his troubled family memories or the history of the region.
This is the book of a poet and scholar who adds spiritual illumination to a largely hidden subject; who, in attempting to cross the many barriers between our two cultures, admits humbly to his inadequacy as an intermediary.
Best of all, he asks questions, and expects us to continue the conversation into the next generation.
HELEN WATSON WHITE has degrees in English and theology from the University of Otago, and for five years was sole editor at University of Otago Press. She is a freelance editor, writer and arts reviewer.