On August 8, 1945, just one week before the end of the war, American fighter planes carried out a machine-gun attack on two passenger trains running on the Nishitetsu (Western Japan Railway) Omuta Line near the Nishitetsu Chikushi Station in Chikushino City, Fukuoka Prefecture, in Kyushu.
Reports on the incident say that at least 64 victims lost their lives in the strafing, making it one of the largest death counts ever resulting from an attack on trains. However, some witnesses say that more than 100 were killed.
A new film using materials compiled by the Chikushino City Board of Education reexamines the incident, which is still shrouded in mystery 75 years after the end of the war.
Bodies Piled on Top of Other Bodies
It was the height of summer and the rice in the paddies around the Chikushi Station had grown to about 30 centimeters in height on that day, August 8, 1945. Suddenly, as two trains with two carriages each approached the station, they were strafed with gunfire from American planes.
According to Nishitetsu Railway data, at 9:52 A.M., the train arriving from Fukuoka Station (now Tenjin Station) was nearly full, with about 200 passengers. In route it had stopped for about an hour when an air raid warning sounded, and then continued on its way, with repeated stops and starts. Around noon, as it was approaching Chikushi Station, it was hit by machine-gun fire from the American planes. A survivor who tumbled out onto the platform recalled, “Bodies were piled on top of bodies in the carriages that were awash with blood.”
He counted more than 100 bullet holes in the sides of the train cars alone. It was reported that 56 people were killed instantly, and more than 100 were injured in the shooting. The whole incident was over in a matter of five or six minutes.
Meanwhile, a train from the opposite direction had left Kurume Station at around 9:00 A.M., carrying about 20 passengers. It was hit shortly after it left Tsuko Station, one stop before Chikushi Station. Eight people were killed instantly and several others were injured by the machine-gun fire.
There is, however, no surviving official record of public investigations into the incident. The records of the local fire brigade chief, who was in charge of collecting the bodies, were destroyed in a fire. The Chikushi Village Hall suffered flood damage in 1953, and other records were lost.
When queried, Nishitetsu replied to the Chikushino City Board of Education that it did not know the whereabouts of the list of victims it had compiled after the attack.
To prevent the incident from fading from memory, the Board of Education did its own research and was able to identify 11 victims by name. It also collected 64 personal statements about the incident. These were compiled in 2018 into a report, “An Account of the Shooting at the Nishitetsu Chikushi Station.”
Only Eight Victims in a Full Train?
A major discrepancy appeared when the Board of Education was collecting records and testimony. The Nishitetsu Railway account put the total number of victims from the two trains at 64, but a colleague of the train drivers who had rushed to the scene said he had reported, “There were seven or eight victims on the up-bound train and I counted 62 bodies that had been taken from the down [bound] train.” He went on to speculate, “There were probably around 100 victims.”
A number of those who provided recollections for the Board of Education also stated that the claim of “approximately 20” passengers on the up-bound train was “mistaken.” One passenger testified that the train was so packed that there was not a single seat available, and that there were between 120 and 130 people in the two cars.
The repeated machine-gun fire came when the plane was so low that “you could see the pilot’s face.” The witness continued, “It is impossible to believe that only eight people were killed in a packed train.” In an interview with the Board of Education, this witness suggested that the death toll was “more than 150.”
Bodies of the victims were taken to various locations, including a nearby rice mill, shrines, schools, and the Nishitetsu Railway yard in Futsukaichi. It appeared that about one-third of the victims were military, and their bodies were handled separately.
Keiichi Kusaba, a member of the Chikushino City Cultural Properties Division who compiled the records and testimony, said: “It is possible that 64 is just the number of people who died instantly. The testimony of witnesses is consistent with there being at least 100 who were killed.”
The Attackers were Identified
Many of the witnesses described the attackers as four to seven “Grumman” planes. However, in 2013, a citizens’ group from Usa City in Oita Prefecture found footage from a gun camera mounted on the aircraft at the United States National Archives and Records Administration.
The film footage showed the train shooting at Chikushi Station, along with other footage of a machine-gun attack on what was then the Japanese National Railways Araki Station in Kurume City, Fukuoka Prefecture. This led to the identification of the planes as P-51 Mustangs.
The Chikushino City researchers also obtained a “detailed battle report” from the U.S. National Archives that recorded the actions of the attackers. After analysis, it was determined that the attackers were 12 “P-51s” of the 340th Fighter Squadron of the U.S. Army.
According to the battle record, the squadron had taken off from Iejima in Okinawa. It was scheduled to meet up with B-29 bombers over Oita, but failed to make the meet and changed to a “contingency target” list. Planes from the squadron reportedly attacked trains near the former Japanese National Railways Araki Station, as well as carried out the Chikushi Station attack. After doing so, they returned to Okinawa via the airspace over the Otowarai airfield.
This refuted a belief held by some after the incident that the planes were returning to base after an air raid on Yawata (now part of Kitakyushu City).
The situation at the time of the incident was extremely tense as the Japanese Army had relocated its 16th Area Headquarters from Fukuoka City to an underground bunker dug in the mountains of Tsukushino City in preparation for war on the mainland.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military was intensifying its attacks on cities in the area in anticipation of a Kyushu landing.
The tragedy occurred between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. Neither side had any way of knowing that the war would end seven days later.
The Chikushi Peace Memorial Hall is located in Fureai Park, about 300 meters west of Chikushi Station. The museum at the park houses the waiting room of the station at the time of the attack, which was given to the city by Nishitetsu Railway to be preserved as a “symbol of peace.” Several holes in the ceiling caused by machine gun fire remain as a reminder of the tragedy.
On August 8 this year, the local community, led by Hideki Oishi, chairman of the Chikushi Neighborhood Association, remembered the victims of 75 years before in a peace memorial ceremony held at the museum.
Author: Kazuo Nagao, staff reporter with The Sankei Shimbun Kyushu bureau