Exploring museum on ‘phantom kamikaze base’

by David Krigbaum

Today, people come to Minami Satsuma’s Fukiage Sand Dune for fun and relaxation. At 50 kilometers long, it’s one of Japan’s three biggest dunes and every year hosts a competition that does for sand what Hokkaido does for snow. That’s what young men and boys come here for today, but 70 years ago, they came here to die for their country.

Bansei Air Base was secretly built on this massive sand dune beginning in July 1943 and made use of the dune itself as a runway. Located on Kyushu’s southern coast nearest to Okinawa, it was a natural fit for kamikaze operations against American ships off the embattled island.

Kamikazes began flying from Bansei in March 1945, using the different Army aircraft at their disposal. The Navy’s iconic Zero fighter is the most famous kamikaze, but any aircraft would do, especially obsolete models. The majority of Bansei kamikazes were the Type 99 assault (dive bomber) aircraft which had been in use since the Nazis invaded Poland.

Paired with the oldest aircraft in the inventory were the youngest pilots. Boys as young as 17, and often that young, were taught the art of dive-bombing as a human bomb. Telling of this is one of the most iconic kamikaze images; that of five smiling pilots with boyish faces in flight gear holding a puppy. Three were 17 and the oldest was 19. The image was taken March 26, 1945 at Bansei Air Base. All five died the next day hurling themselves against the American fleet.

The air base’s kamikaze missions came to a close on Aug. 15, 1945 as a final six were sent off on one last run to beat the Emperor’s order to ‘endure the unendurable.’ In all, 121 kamikazes flew, and successfully completed, missions from Bansei. The majority of these pilots were under 21.

The Bansei Tokko Peace Museum was built in 1993 near the site of the air base to honor their memory. (Tokko is another word for kamikaze, based on the official term for them.) The building is rather striking and artistic, but inside it’s a very small museum, especially when compared to the other kamikaze-centric museums at Chiran, Kanoya and Tachiarai. Because Bansei’s kamikaze operations were small and not as well-known as Chiran or other bases, I’ve seen it referred to as a “phantom kamikaze base” online, though I do not know where the tag originated.

The first floor is dominated by the museum’s only aircraft, which is an odd one for a kamikaze museum to have. The wreck of an Aichi E13A1 “Jake” reconnaissance float plane is half buried in the floor as if the museum was built around it. The Jake is not a tokko aircraft and none flew from Bansei, as the Jake was a Navy aircraft and this was an Army air base.

It’s here because it’s kind of been at Bansei since 1945. It was flown on a reconnaissance mission to Okinawa from Fukuoka, in northern Kyushu, and on the return trip ran out of fuel just off Bansei. It was ditched at sea and the crew was rescued. The aircraft lay on the seabed until it was rediscovered in 1984 and raised in 1992. It was visited by its still surviving crew after it was incorporated into the museum.

The E13A1 was also known as the Type 0 float plane, which can be really confusing because there is both the better known Type 0 fighter and a float plane derivative of the Type 0 fighter that is not called the Type 0 float plane … this is confusing.

The Jake is very rare. There are no restored Jakes in existence and even as a displayed wreck they are uncommon. The only other one in Japan that I am aware of is at the Kakamigahara Air Museum, which is closed for renovations until Nov. 2017.

Around the centerpiece are a few other artifacts, newspaper clippings about kamikazes and small items such as models. A video beside the wreck also tells the story of the air base, but since I don’t speak Japanese, the details were mostly lost on me. I did enjoy seeing the archival footage, and there’s something about watching Pearl Harbor attack footage with upbeat, patriotic music playing behind it. It was from a cut of newsreels that began with Japan’s initial victories before the slide toward defeat, desperate measures and the story of Bansei.

The upstairs memorial room commemorates all 201 Bansei personnel to die in the war; this includes kamikazes and personnel killed on base during air raids. Every soldier’s picture, along with personal information, is displayed as well as letters and some personal belongings. An inner room within the room contains letters written in blood. It’s appropriately somber and really conveys the personal price of war, especially if you can read Japanese.

Outside the museum is a kamikaze memorial and distinctive stone lanterns featuring aircraft, similar to the kamikaze lanterns at Chiran.

For those without a personal connection to Bansei Air Base or the soldiers it commemorates, this museum is best visited as a supplement to a Chiran trip. By itself there isn’t enough to justify going this far afield, unless you’re dedicated to visiting all the kamikaze museums or an aircraft fanatic who has to see the Jake. And to be fair, both of those are excellent reasons to visit.

For non-history related trips, the gigantic sand dune and the annual Fukiage Beach Sand Festival sand building competition can also be a big draw. The competition occurs in May.

The museum itself is entirely in Japanese with no English assistance. Photography is only allowed on the first floor, and adult admission is 300 yen.

David Krigbaum is a U.S. Navy Sailor assigned to Commander U.S. Fleet Activities Sasebo. He enjoys travelling to see historic sites and World War II artifacts. For more of his travels around the world and Japan visit www.wayfarerdaves.com.

Address: 1955-3 Kaseda, Takahashi, Minamisatsuma, Kagoshima, 897-1123
Telephone: 0993-52-3979

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