November 24, 2009

Strike Witches -- feelings of sadness

Wonderduck posts about a Japanese movie released four years ago, about the last voyage of the Japanese ship Yamato.

It reminded me of something I've meant to post. It's an aspect of the second episode of Strike Witches. Now it's really a stupid series in a lot of ways. It's Gonzo, after all, and it's a fan service show, and it just isn't a series which I should be taking seriously. But the second episode gets to me.

Miyafuji and Sakamoto are on board Akagi, a Japanese aircraft carrier which in our timeline was sunk at Midway. It's the center of a convoy from Japan carrying war supplies to England Britannia, the most important of which are those selfsame two girls. As they approach their destination, a Neuroi attacks the convoy.

They're in huge trouble, but they're within range of the Strike Witches, who have been dispatched. Their only hope is to hold on long enough for the Strike Witches to come up and take out the Neuroi. In the mean time, as a desperation measure, the captain of the carrier launches his aircraft.

And before the battle is over, every single one of them gets shot down, with the pilots all killed. Watching those pilots fighting a lost cause battle so bravely... it gets to me.

Stupid, isn't it? But it's an example of "fake but accurate". Japanese pilots in WWII really were like that. There is, for instance, the example of Warrant Officer Sakio Komatsu.

At the Battle of the Philippine Sea, USS Albacore had the good fortune to find the Japanese fleet. They got a good firing solution on one of the Japanese carriers, and then their targeting computer went on the blink so that skipper had to fire by eye. He launched all six of his bow tubes and then went deep to avoid Japanese destroyers.

Four of the six torpedoes were clean misses. Two were on track to hit Taiho, the newest and largest carrier the Japanese had. Warrant Officer Komatsu had just taken off and saw the track of one of the torpedoes which was about to hit Taiho and he crashed his plane into the water in front of it. The torpedo detonated short because of that.

His sacrifice (he died in the crash) was amazingly gallant. Sadly, it was also wasted. The last torpedo hit Taiho and caused substantial damage. Most critically, it burst an avgas tank, which started leaking gasoline into the sump at the bottom of the forward elevator. The gasoline started vaporizing, and the inexperience and/or incompetent Japanese damage control people never figured out the proper way to cope. Instead, they did a lot of wrong things, the upshot of which was to fill the entire ship with an explosive fuel-air mixture.

Six and a half hours after Albacore's attack, the fuel-air mixture found a spark, and the ship suffered a huge explosion. A few minutes later there was another. Minutes after that, Taiho had sunk.

Warrant Officer Komatsu sacrificed himself for nothing. And so did tens of thousands of others, who made kamikaze attacks, or were slaughtered in bonzai charges, or starved to death on islands which were left behind in the "island hopping" campaign, or who died horribly in holes in the ground. After it became clear to the American soldiers that it was pointless to offer the Japanese a chance to surrender, they learned that when there was a cave which was suspected of containing Japanese, the best way to handle it was to have a guy with a flamethrower empty a tank into the mouth of the cave. Then a couple of satchel charges would bring the tunnel down, sealing any survivors inside to die slowly, smothering.

I'm sure a lot of empty caves were sealed that way, but there's no doubt at all that a lot of Japanese soldiers died that way, too.

I'm an American, and I'm glad my country and its allies won the war. I wouldn't change that if I could. But I do feel a deep and abiding sadness when I read about some of the ways in which good men were wasted, in dozens and hundreds and thousands and utter swarms. I've read about the defense plans for the home islands, which described the ways in which the Japanese intended to stop the invasion which was planned for November of 1945. It's ugly. It includes things like issuing land mines to civilians (men and women, and even children) which they would carry, to charge American tanks or trucks, and slam down, detonator first, on what they could reach. It included places where civilians would be placed one-at-a-time into holes, with an artillery shell and a hammer, and then covered up with camouflage. When they were surrounded by Americans they were supposed to hit the tip of the shell with the hammer.

If the defenders really had used those kinds of tactics, it wouldn't have taken long for American soldiers to learn to shoot anything that moved, even if it looked like it might be a child, just as they had previously learned not to try to take Japanese prisoners. There were a lot of ugly things in the Pacific war, but once the invasion started it would have gotten incalculably worse.

In part because the civilians that the Americans didn't kill, Japanese soldiers probably would have. They did that at Okinawa. They rounded up civilians and herded them to a cliff on the south end of the island, and forced them all to jump.

Getting back to Wonderduck's post, it's about the last mission of Yamato. It was a catastrophic waste of men, because even if the mission had succeeded it wouldn't have made any important difference. And there was virtually no chance that it would succeed. The flotilla was ordered to go to Okinawa and beach, and use their guns to provide fire support for the ground operations. But to do that they had to reach the island and there just wasn't any way.

They were spotted leaving Kure by two American submarines. Marc Mitscher had plenty of aircraft and flight decks and plenty of warning, and swarmed them.

The first wave attack hit Yamato with two bombs and one torpedo. But it was the bombs that doomed the ship. One of those bombs started a fire which was never controlled. Eventually it reached the magazine under Number 2 turret, which detonated. That blew the ship in half.

But it was already sinking; it still would have been lost without that explosion. Eventually American planes put 10 torpedos and 7 bombs into Yamato, and not even the largest battleship in the world can stay afloat after that much punishment. Only about 7% of the crew survived.

So when I watch that episode of Strike Witches, and see those poor bastards flying Claudes trying to take on a space alien, and getting butchered and fighting to the last man, it rings true to me. Japanese pilots in that era really would have done that. It's a silly series, but what's portrayed in that episode of it isn't silly. Tragic, but not silly.

UPDATE: Yamato appears in episode nine of Kamichu. It's my favorite episode in the series, and it's the one I rewatch most often. At one point they show the wreck of Yamato on the bottom, but they took some liberties with the wreck for story reasons.

They needed the bridge to be intact and upright so that Yurie could swim into it and "take command". So though they correctly depicted the wreck as being in two pieces, they showed the front half as being upright on the bottom, and they put the break point behind the pagoda.

In fact both halves of the ship are upside down. That's the norm for that kind of shipwreck. And the break point was underneath number 2 turret, which was just in front of the pagoda.

It doesn't matter, of course.

UPDATE: James has a post about a Japanese battle flag, I guess you could call it. When I saw it, it reminded me of something that shows up in ep 12 of Kamichu.

Unfortunately, I think the current owner is going to have a very hard time finding the family to return it. "Inoue" is not exactly a rare name in Japan. (Check out the left column.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in General Anime at 12:32 AM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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1 There is a rather famous anime based on the concept of *rebuilding* the Yamato where it lays on the floor of the ocean into a space battleship...the opening of the series shows an intact Yamato sitting upright.  Of course, I think the Yamato became much more important as metaphor than a real ship.

I've wondered how much the Japanese people of today know about WWII because of images like that.  Then again, while the American public knows all about PT 109 now, how many Americans know much about Guadalcanal?  Or etc....

Posted by: Ben at November 24, 2009 06:02 AM (Ssska)

2 The rebirth of the the Yamato is called "Star Blazers" in the US.  That's the show that got me into watching anime in the first place.  Every kid who lived near me would gather in my basement for 1/2 hour every afternoon when it was on. The other week, I was clicking around Youtube and found a few videos of classical orchestras playing the theme songs, which are still very popular in Japan.  The name Yamato itself is basically the same as calling an American battleship the "America."

I think that a relative few in the US know anything about WWII.  The general reluctance of vets to discuss what happened afterwards didn't help.  They also tried to "protect" their offspring from what happened, which lead to the baby boomers and all their issues.  My sister who is a teacher tells me that the effort to "discourage interest in war" is schools is so widespread apart from a few dry facts, the only thing the kids know is to call conservatives Nazis.

Posted by: ChadAmberg at November 24, 2009 09:46 AM (54Ve5)

3 A similar one that always gets me is in the Return of the King when Faramir and co are sent off to die pointlessly trying to recapture the fallen city (while his father messily eats tomatoes)

Posted by: Andy Janes at November 24, 2009 02:20 PM (cEaZp)

4 One can look at the fate of the German army during the second world war as another case where absolutely first class troops under brilliant commanders were thrown away with incredibly stupid orders defending a hopeless and morally repugnant cause. Closer to home, the Confederate army seems to be a similar case.

It is easy only in retrospect, however, to tell the difference between a waste of life and a necessary sacrifice.  Soviet strategy in the Second World War also involved what would seem to be the massive waste of troops, but it is certainly possible that it helped them win the war.

In a very dark way, I'm kind of glad that "stupid bravery" seems to often be tied to "dying honorably for a truly awful cause".

Posted by: Civilis at November 24, 2009 03:43 PM (wdOme)


It's certainly a romantic notion, in the original "Romanesque" meaning of the term, to sacrifice one's life for a hopeless or even pointless cause, simply because one's honor demands it.

But like they say, you don't win a war by dying for your country... you win a war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian at November 24, 2009 07:37 PM (4njWT)

6 This reminds me of Norris' last fight in MS 08th Team, where creators took a lot of mileage from the pointless sacrifice.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at November 25, 2009 04:09 PM (/ppBw)

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