Save your life!

An account of NAP 1/C Shinsaku Yamakawa during the attack on USS oiler Pecos, Java Sea 1942

Our troops, after securing Rabaul and Kavieng, headed onto the open sea off Java Island. Since Allied forces of Dutch, the United States and United Kingdom were just fleeing around there on the sea, our carriers only launched a few attack units alternately as if we were doing some bombing exercises.

One day, one of the transmissions told us: "We sighted the enemy's transport." On that day, our battleship wanted to fire on it, so the planes did not need to take off. We watched, on the flight deck, the salvoes by our guns. As soon as the transport began to appear on the horizon, fourteen-inch guns of our battleship opened fire. After a while we could see clearly big water columns rise very close to her. The main turrets were easily firing in a row, as if it had been a firing exercise. The water columns looked like a chunk of spray, converging excellently almost into one point. We were astounded by this, and the only thing we could do was to appreciate the accuracy of our firing director. In a blink of an eye, the transport disappeared completely beneath the horizon, as if by some magic. Meanwhile, the patrol plane transmitted to us that they had found a US special task ship. Well, it was our squadrons' turn.

The mission was to be carried out by two companies of Kaga's dive-bomber squadron according to the set sequence of sorties. Commander of those nine planes was Lieutenant Watanabe, whose plane was flown by Chief Flying Sergeant Hiwatari. Our third company didn't need to take part in. However, I heard that NAP1/c of second company had been in sickbay and told this to my company commander. He said to me, "Then, you go to attack." The navigator was NA1/c Nakata as usual as before. As a guest or like a canteen dangling from a knapsack, we headed for naval oiler Pecos of the US Asiatic Fleet. Soon after the take-off, we sighted Pecos. The altitude of our formations was 5,000 m. Although there were patches of cloud, it was very fine weather for bombarding. We broke off the formation to make an attack run. The enemy flak fired heavily, but we were not bothered by it. At first the commander's plane dived, and second one and third one followed. My plane should dive as a last one, because we were a guest of the unit. We were going to observe their bombing, since I thought they would sink her so easily that we wouldn't need to wait for our turn. As I saw, the first plane and the second one were diving lower and lower. The enemy ship was heading straight forward. All the planes except for us had gone to steep-dive. Pom-pom guns of the enemy ship were firing up vigorously. After a while, the first plane dropped a bomb and pulled itself up. Pecos steered to starboard drawing a long white wake. When the wake drew a white arc, a huge water column sprouted in front of her port side. Then the second plane bombed. She was still steering to starboard, and it looked desperate the way she turned herself. The second one missed too, the bomb made a splash before her port side bow. Her wake turned to 45 degrees, and the third one bombed. She was steering with a heavy careen, and its bomb deflected too. "Gee!" If either her steering had been slower or the plane had predicted her turn enough, we would have got her; but she was doing her job very good. Her captain must have been able enough to dodge our bombs. When the fourth plane and the fifth one dropped bombs, she was still steering hard on starboard, and had already turned more than 90 degrees. Both bombs exploded about 10 m away from her port side bow, to our regret, and merely made big water columns. She was doing a praiseworthy job. On our side, the sixth plane and the seventh one were successively on dive-bombing runs toward her. Usually bombs were to be released at a of height 450 m. We had never missed the aim like this. I was still observing their bombing, wondering why. I observed her wake and the points where the bombs had fallen, thinking they would hit her this time anyway, but the ripple caused by the bombs paralleled the wake; bombs from the sixth, seventh and eighth plane completely missed her.

Finally it was our turn. They gave us a chance to bomb her. When I opened the sighting device, I uttered: "Damn!" I was rather admiring her excellent steering and was careless about my plane by then, now I noticed that it was a bit hard to look into the sight because of oil leak on the wind-shield. Since only one bomb was loaded, it was a serious job to hit her with the last one. We went into a dive and the altitude decreased as, 4,000 m, 3,000 m, 2,000 m ... The enemy's machine guns were firing toward us intensely. Though she made good to evade eight bombs, I felt some slack in her evasive maneuver at the moment. Then I released the bomb in total unconsciousness. I pulled the control stick hard out of the dive and rolled a little at the same time. The whole hull raised a bit as I saw, and fierce fire and smoke burst at the centre of her near the flak gun. "I've got her!" I was incomparably happier than ever. "Well, on my way back, I'll strafe them." I tried to turn my plane leftward. Maybe because I pulled the stick so promptly that I was dazed for a moment, but soon I retrieved my sight. I felt a heavy thud when my plane was in a 90-degree bank. I saw a big hole on the engine cover just in front of me. As I thought we got hit, I shifted my eyes to her and saw pom-poms astern still shooting up fervently with pretty accurate aiming. I had pulled the stick hard after the steep-dive and lost speed, moreover rolled it sideways, and at that instant, probably it had been like kind of a standstill in the air. Then, we got hit.

It had been grimly forbidden to strafe the ship just after dive-bombing like this. I got hit because I broke the rule. However, I thought the gun crews were admirable for firing back persistently from the sinking ship. I thought of that in an instant. I was falling as my beloved plane rolled sideways. The enemy machine guns were still accurately firing at me. I saw the red tracer bullets like meteors head toward me. I did not lose my sense in any aspect. Meantime, maybe for a mere few seconds, I recollected every scene of my past affairs in rapid succession. At the next moment, I thought that it was a deal for a plane to sink a ship. "I shall never regret." The sea surface was closing up to me. I saw exactly the blue of the sea. "After all, it will be over. Exactly at the next moment, it will be completely over! Nothing will remain after this except for the blue of the sea. Neither I nor the enemy ship will remain in this world." Indeed, I was not bothered by the idea of hell and heaven, or life and death either. I just thought of conversion from existence to non-existence. "Simple and also very natural change may come." I could not think of any more that might happen.

The plane was already 50 m above sea level. But, a strange thing happened. The enemy machine guns ceased fire. Probably they thought they got me. I tilted the stick rightward as fast as I could. Air-flow by the propeller made white ripples on the sea. In the nick of time, my beloved plane barely recovered to a level flight. "We make it!" They might have thought they had shot us down completely, but ceased fire a mere second too early. However, thanks to them, we survived. I could not see ahead of the wind-shield due to black oil spread on it. The bullet might have pierced an oil pipe. My plane was jolting heavily. I looked back at Pecos and found that she was listing rapidly. My 250 kg bomb had beaten her. In the meantime, I had not any chance to talk with NA1/c Nakata sat behind me. After this mess, for the first time I said to him: "Well, we got hit. Are you OK?" "I am OK", he replied. Miraculously we both were not injured at all. But my beloved plane got big holes at the root of the wing and behind the rear seat. Our formation came close to us. Everyone was looking at us anxiously. The Commander signaled me by hand: "Are you OK?" It was a bit too early to ditch there, because the engine was still turming, though it was spilling some oil. I was going to exert myself as far as it allowed to. Lieutenant Watanabe's plane and the others all came close to us as if they were taking care of us. I appreciated really how they felt about us. I said: "I am sorry, Katsu". "Not at all," he replied. "We'll get a severe scolding if we come back." Already we were chatting with laughter aboard the plane. It was shaking so horribly that the engine might break apart from the fuselage and the whole plane might as well shatter to pieces. "There are some sharks around this water, aren't there?", NA1/c Nakata asked me back from the rear seat worriedly. "Well, it's too hot here. We could use a swim." We came back finally near to the mother carrier, doing some silly talking with each other. I thought I could safely ditch around here, but "All Japan school girl's offering to the Nation" was still turning its engine admirably. At last we got a chance to make a landing. The other planes, having enough fuel, let us land first. On a landing course, I could not see the flight deck at all because of the oil-blotted wind-shield. I poked my head out of the canopy, but soon my goggles became blackened out. Wiping them with my gloves, I managed to land on the deck without an accident.

We felt deep relief for a short while. As soon as all the planes landed, a debriefing was done. The flying master called for us quickly. While we awaited his lecture which we had to be ready for, he simply scolded us with such brief words. "Save your life!" For we had sunk an enemy ship, fortunately we were not grilled very hard. At this sortie I got the most bullets during this World War. I admire even now after the war both the machine-gunners who were firing at us to the last with accurate aiming even on the sinking ship and the captain who was steering her excellently. The mopping up of Java Sea was completed. Our task force advanced into the Indian Ocean with irresistible power. Carrier Kaga left the fleet and sailed for the homeland, because we had some misgivings about the damage on the bottom which she sustained during passage through the North Palau Straits on her way back from the air-raid on Port Darwin.

NAP 1/C = Naval Aviation Pilot of the First Class (Itto Hikohei)
Shinsaku Yamakawa was born in 1920, enlisted in 1938, embarked on Hiryu in 1940 then on Kaga, Ryujo, Kasuga Maru, and Junyo. He was Chief Flying Sergeant (Hisocho) at Japan's Surrender. In 1955, he enlisted in the Self Defence Air Force, and entered Japan Air Line in 1970 serving as a flight teacher. He was principal of a flying school at the time - 1994. His book "The Dive-Bomber Squadron of Japanese Carrier / NF-bunko of Kojin-sha" was published in 1994.

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Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942
Copyright Shinsaku Yamakawa. 1994