WAR WITHOUT MERCY

James Bowell, signalman third class, was standing on the bridge of his ship when the kamikazes came. "The sky was full of airplanes," he recalls, flown by pilots bent on killing as many Americans as possible at the sacrifice of their own lives. It was April 6, 1945, and Bowell's ship, the minesweeper Defense, was part of a picket line protecting the American invasion fleet off Okinawa. A kamikaze plane came right at the Defense, but at the last instant it tilted its wings and flew right behind the ship's smokestacks. "I was staring right at the pilot," recalls Bowell. "He had a look of absolute terror. It was 'Errr, what am I doing?'" One wing of the Japanese plane clipped a gun tub amidships, sending the plane cartwheeling into the water. Miraculously, the pilot bobbed to the surface. "I want that pilot alive!" shouted the captain, Cmdr. Gordon Abbott. "Don't shoot!" cried the officer of the deck. But machine gunners had already opened up, blasting the pilot as he floated in the water.

Most kamikazes looked forward to their fate. Toshiharu Konada, at the age of 82 a distinguished gray-haired man, recalls his feelings from long ago in an interview with NEWSWEEK. Konada was to be an underwater kamikaze, trained to ride and steer a torpedo with 3,000 pounds of explosives into the side of an American ship. The human torpedoes were called kaiten--literally, "turning of the heavens"--built to save a nation at the edge of ruin. When Konada was given his orders to die in March 1945, "it was the happiest day of my life," he recalls. "Excitement filled from the bottom of my spine through my head. I was not afraid of dying at all. I thought my life could save many other people from dying." He was spared when the Americans dropped two atom bombs, ending the worst war in the history of mankind, on Aug. 15, 1945, 60 years ago.

A willingness to die is nothing new in warfare. Men have given their lives and commanders have willingly sacrificed their men since they were fighting with stones and spears. But no nation has ever intentionally, methodically sacrificed its soldiers on the scale of Japan in World War II, and no nation has ever responded more purposefully or with such overwhelming force as the United States. Americans remember World War II as the Good War and its veterans as the Greatest Generation. But especially in the Pacific, where America was up against an island empire that refused to give in short of death, it was a brutal, vicious war.

Thanks in part to the film "Saving Private Ryan" and a series of moving anniversary celebrations, Americans tend to focus on D-Day and the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule. But a bloodier, more brutal battle was fought at Okinawa between April and June 1945, and that engagement, which cost some 12,000 American and 200,000 Japanese lives, was a mere skirmish compared with the carnage that would have been wreaked by an invasion of Japan, scheduled to begin in the fall.

Don Dencker, an Army infantryman who carried a mortar on Okinawa, was shocked to see that the captain played by Tom Hanks in "Private Ryan" wore his captain's bars on his helmet at D-Day. At Okinawa, says Dencker, "we stripped our insignia, including the red crosses on medics." Captains and medics just made for more tempting targets. "It was a war without mercy. It was kill or be killed--no prisoners," Dencker, now 80, recalls to news-week. "Our chaplain carried an M-1 rifle, and he used it."

As Americans sink into a dirty war in Iraq, it is worth recalling the depths to which both sides plunged in the final days of World War II. Japan knew that it could not win, so it tried to bleed the United States and break its resolve. America merely redoubled its fury and began burning Japan, city by city. Recently, NEWSWEEK interviewed veterans on both sides of this grotesque endgame. Their recollections are appalling and instructive about the way in which men and women deal with all-out war.

Japan's suicidal tactics and the almost cultlike devotion to death shown by Japanese kamikazes inevitably invite comparison to the use of suicide bombers by fanatical Islamists. It is a comparison that Japanese veterans bitterly reject. They were soldiers fighting other soldiers, the Japanese are quick to point out. Interestingly, American veterans who were their targets agree. "We knew who we were fighting," says Pete Beninato, 82, a gunner with the Third Tank Battalion, Third Marine Division, in some of the heaviest fighting in the Pacific War. "What they got over there in Iraq is a crime. Our soldiers today don't know who the hell they're fighting. Those Iraqi suicide bombers, they're a bunch of cowards. The Japanese," says Beninato, "they were brave. I don't think I'd have the guts to kill myself. I like life too much. But they were good fighters, not afraid to fight, not afraid to die."

By the summer of 1944, 2-1/2 years after Pearl Harbor, Japan's tactics on the battlefield could only be described as desperate. Beninato was on the island of Guam, lying underneath his tank, when he heard the enemy preparing itself for a suicidal charge. "They were drinking sake and screaming 'Banzai!' and 'Marine, you die!' " recalls Beninato. "Then they charged with bamboo spears with bayonets tied on the end. They were trying to spear tanks. We slaughtered them. It was sad, really."

Japan was just gearing up for greater sacrifice. By October 1944, kamikaze planes (named after the "divine wind" that spared Japan from a Mongol invasion in the 13th century) were attacking American warships in waves. Japanese factories were building ohka bombs, rocket-propelled explosives steered by suicide pilots (called baka, or "idiot," bombs by the Americans) and kaiten torpedoes, 420 all told, with 1,375 young men trained to guide them.

Toshiharu Konada wanted to be a doctor, but when war came, he became a kaiten pilot instead. He recalled seeing his first kaiten being lifted out of the water by a crane at a Navy base in September 1944. "It was black and shiny and dripping seawater. Dark clouds were covering the sky. I was kind of struck with awe: 'So this is it! This is what I am going to ride on!' "

The kamikazes made their greatest push after the Americans invaded Okinawa, a large island south of Japan and the empire's last line of defense, in April 1945. On April 6, as part of Operation Kikusui ("Floating Chrysanthemum"), Japan launched 223 suicide planes at the American fleet. Aboard the minesweeper Defense, Jim Bowell saw a kamikaze shot down as it came in low at the ship's bow. As the plane exploded, it flung its pilot high onto the mast of the American ship. The body, or what was left of it, hung grotesquely from a yardarm. "Cut that man down," Commander Abbott ordered Bowell, who was standing at his side on the bridge to send signals. Bowell, who was 19 years old, climbed up the mast and retrieved a "pile of pulp," he recalls. Bowell saved the pilot's bones as a souvenir and, after the war, brought some of them home to Minneapolis in a cigar box. When he told his mother what was inside the box, she yelled, "Get that thing out of this house!"

The gruesomeness was worse on the island of Okinawa. Private Dencker, the mortar handler with the 96th Infantry Division, came across some civilians hiding in a cave on his first day on the island. He knew just enough Japanese to say, "Come out." They did, but an old man repeatedly pointed to Dencker's pistol and his own head. He was begging to be shot. It was a disgrace for the Japanese to be taken prisoner. A few days later, Dencker came across more native Okinawans lying in the road, writhing. They had been given poison to take by departing Japanese troops. Army medics were trying to give them purgatives, but the civilians were resisting. They wanted to die. Finally Dencker encountered some actual Japanese soldiers. Surrounded by the Americans, they were trapped behind an outcropping of rocks. When the Americans called on them to surrender, the Japanese held grenades to their chests and blew themselves up.

So it went for three months. The Americans used flamethrowers. During one four-day stretch in June, the men of the 713th Armored Flame Thrower Battalion poured 37,000 gallons into Japanese-filled bunkers and caves. "It was very inhumane but effective," says Dencker. "No one was squeamish about what was ethical then, that's for sure. Anything to kill Japs and stay alive. Our motto was 'The only good Jap is a dead Jap.' That's the way it was."

It is jarring to hear the use of a racial epithet many years later, but the Japanese at the time were routinely referred to by Americans as "Japs" and "Nips." There was tremendous racial hatred on both sides, a fact that is sometimes forgotten or brushed over today. (In both Japan and the United States, there are teenagers so ahistorical that they are unaware that Japan and the United States fought a war.)

For the invasion of Japan, scheduled for the autumn of 1945 and spring of 1946, both sides loaded up. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the American Army Air Corps commander whose "burn jobs" had incinerated roughly a third of urban Japan and killed nearly a million people, had 5,000 B-29 bombers ready to go. To greet a half-million American invaders, the Japanese had at least 6,000 kamikaze planes and 2,350,000 regular troops, not to mention an enormous citizen militia of some 30 million. The women were given sharpened bamboo spears and were trained to use them (some of them practiced on dummies of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill). On July 21, a U.S. Fifth Air Force intelligence circular declared: THE ENTIRE POPULATION OF JAPAN IS A PROPER MILITARY TARGET... THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN.

Among the more exotic tokko ("special attack") units were the Fukuryu, or "Crouching Dragons." These suicide frogmen were to creep along the seafloor until they spotted American landing craft cruising above them. Then they were to jam bamboo poles wired with explosives against the bottom of the boats, destroying the invaders and themselves. Takaichiro Monna, 76, is the retired editor of a small publishing company and a university graduate with a degree in Russian literature, but as a 16-year-old he had wanted to be a kamikaze pilot. In April 1945, his flight school was shut down and he was assigned to a Fukuryu unit. "I thought I was going to die sooner or later anyway," he recalls. "I hated the idea of running around to escape from the enemies and die a useless death. I wanted to die a cool death. I was always told not to disgrace the family name."

He recalls traveling to his training base on a train with shuttered windows--probably to spare the young recruits from seeing the fantastic ruins wreaked by American bombers. Monna heard a rumor that one explosion could kill other frogmen on the seabed nearby. "I was very troubled," he recalls. "That was not the way I planned to die." He resolved to be the first to charge the American landing craft.

On Aug. 15, as he was awaiting his final command, he was instructed to dress in his formal black uniform and appear before a table covered with a white cloth. On top of the table was a radio. Monna was instructed to bow reverently. Over the static-filled airwaves, he heard the thin, reedy voice of Emperor Hirohito, saying something about "enduring the unendurable." Hirohito was announcing Japan's surrender after American A-bombs had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Monna had heard nothing of these events, and the radio was being jammed. He thought the emperor was saying, "Work much harder. Do your best and fight a good war." But then others came running, saying that Japan had lost the war. Monna did not know what to believe. He hoped for another divine wind to blow the enemy away.

That afternoon, Monna sat at the coast, looking blankly out to sea. Suddenly, he noticed some fishermen setting off in a boat in the restricted area where the Fukuryu had been training. The fishermen seemed very happy. That's when Monna realized the war was over.

Some citizens, too, felt disbelief and anger. During the war, Kiyoko Kano, 79, had been a farmer's daughter in a small village not far from Hiroshima. She showed her diary from those days to NEWSWEEK. It records how she had faithfully arisen at dawn some mornings for "bamboo-spear fight training," and how she struggled to accept what the emperor was saying over the village radio on Aug. 15. "It sounded as though there was a truce situation. All of us felt disappointed," she wrote after hearing the emperor's declaration of surrender, bringing peace. "We could not help but feel frustrated."

Toshiharu Konada, the kaiten pilot, could not believe what he was hearing from the emperor on the radio that day. He thought about following the example of a comrade who had committed suicide while sitting, fully uniformed, on his kaiten. "But then," says Konada, "there was this very strong desire welling up inside me, wanting to watch how my country was going to survive." After the emperor's speech, at least 500 Japanese officers committed suicide. But the rest of the nation heeded the emperor, who was regarded as a divinity, and there was no organized resistance.

On the island of Guam, Pete Beninato and his Marine Corps buddies in the Third Tank Battalion had been pre-paring to invade Japan. "We weren't too anxious to go in there. The Japanese would fight to the last man--no surrender." When Beninato's men heard that America had dropped atomic bombs (on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9), destroying two entire cities, the reaction was incredulity. "We just looked at each other," Beninato recalls, amazed that so much destructive power could be concentrated in a single bomb. "Now people say we shouldn't have done it. But they weren't over there," he says. "They weren't getting shot at. They weren't expecting 80 to 85 percent casualties. I could've kissed [President] Truman."

When the Japanese surrender was announced on Aug. 15, "we liked to go crazy," says Beninato, a retired heavy-machinery salesman living in Louisiana. "Where the beer came from I had no idea, but we drank a lot of it."

Signalman Bowell was in Seattle, where his battered ship had gone for repairs. "There was no celebration," he recalls. "We were just too tired." Bowell did not know it yet, but he was suffering from what a later generation would call posttraumatic stress disorder. He would soon suffer from fainting spells. In the fall of 1945, Bowell's ship sailed to Japan for the occupation. Ashore, he was astonished when Japanese soldiers bowed to him. "I was surprised to find how genteel they were," he recalls.

Don Dencker was in the Philippines, getting ready to fight again, when peace came. He was one of only seven of 187 men in his company to survive unscathed through nine months of fighting (50 were killed). His reaction, and the reaction of his buddies, was "relief, just plain relief," says Dencker, who went home to be an environmental engineer in civilian life. "It was the lifting of a death sentence."

WAR WITHOUT MERCY | News