'Wings of Defeat': Kamikaze Stories, Told in Person "Veteran kamikaze pilot" might sound like an impossibility. But some of Japan's World War II suicide bombers survived — and in conjunction with a new documentary, they're touring American schools.

'Wings of Defeat': Kamikaze Stories, Told in Person

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Once students are in the classroom, teachers try to keep their attention with special guests, and that includes people whose description sounds like a punchline, veteran kamikaze pilots. Around 4,000 Japanese pilots killed themselves in World War II. They deliberately crashed their planes into American ships and other targets. But some kamikaze pilots survived. Several have been visiting high schools and colleges around the United States. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: It's not often you see an American classroom filled with teenagers, black, white, Latino, Asian, and teary-eyed from meeting old men once dedicated to fighting America to the death.

You're actually talking to former suicide bombers.

Ms. ANIKA WARNER (Student): I know. It's so amazing.

ULABY: Sixteen-year-old Anika Warner said she never thought the experiences of kamikaze pilots could suddenly feel so personal.

Ms. WARNER: It's, like, kind of amazing that you can see people and they can talk so, like, knowledgeably about stuff that you can only read in a textbook. As good of a teacher as you have, no teacher can explain to you, like, how it feels to know that your family is going to be with you. Nothing's going to be with you. You know that you're not going to win the war, and you're dying because your country told you to.

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ULABY: The former kamikazes are featured in a new documentary called "Wings of Defeat." It examines the frantic, desperate nationalism that engulfed Japan during the end of the war. The kamikaze corps was not volunteer. Most were drafted as teenagers, barely able to fly. The kamikazes were told they were gods, heroes, divinely chosen to save their country. They were beaten and brainwashed.

(Unidentified Man): (Through translator) The mission we've been given is to kill ourselves and sink an enemy ship without fail.

ULABY: That's the sort of speech Takehiko Ena heard before his two suicide missions. Both times his plane crashed into the sea. Takehiko Ena is now 84, grandfather-age to the students at Springbrook High in Silver Spring, Maryland. He spoke to them through one of the documentary's producers.

Mr. TAKEHIKO ENA (Former Kamikaze Pilot): (Through translator) You know, at the time, the kamikaze strategy was a completely last-ditch resort.

ULABY: Most of the students said they'd never really thought about kamikaze pilots before. And if they had, they were like 18-year-old Vikram Madan.

Mr. VIKRAM MADAN (Student): I guess my view was that these people were these fanatic people and then this really shows that they were not fanatics, they were human just like me. They were just doing what they were told to do and they were just doing it for their love of their country.

ULABY: This classroom is also where 81-year-old Jack Mock met 85-year-old Takeo Ueshima. Mock was a seaman on the USS Nashville when a kamikaze attacked it in 1944, killing over 100 people. Ueshima was a kamikaze.

Mr. TAKEO UESHIMA (Former Kamikaze): He did his duty, we did do our duty. See.

ULABY: He did his duty, we did ours, said Takeo Ueshima. Jack Mock agreed.

Mr. JACK MOCK (Retired Navy Seaman): You were doing your job and we were doing our job.

Mr. UESHIMA: Yeah, right.

Mr. MOCK: That's all it was to it.

Mr. UESHIMA: Right.

Mr. MOCK: Yeah, no hate, no nothing.

Mr. UESHIMA: No, no.

Mr. MOCK: You - you got us and we got you.

ULABY: The nightmare of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hung heavily over the former kamikazes' conversation. Ueshima told the students it erased his will to be a warrior.

Mr. UESHIMA: War is destruction of human life. War is (Japanese spoken).

ULABY: The former kamikaze said they never could have imagined they would one day live to discuss their legacy with American high school students, nor could they have expected their compassion. "Wings of Defeat" is playing at film festivals around the world. Its producers plan to bring it to more American high schools.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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