It is shortly before eight o'clock on a Sunday morning. Masamitsu Yoshioka, navigator and bombardier, sits behind a pilot and in front of a radio operator/rear gunner as their airplane, a Nakajima B5N2 "Kate" (Type 97-3 Carrier Attack Aircraft), screams in low over the southern defile of the Wai'anae mountain range, southwestern Oahu. Yoshioka stares intently at the horizon.
First of two parts
On a warm spring mid-morning in May of 2023, I sit at Yoshioka's kitchen table inside his small, clean apartment. It is about a fifteen-minute walk from Ayase station in eastern Tokyo. He is dressed in a pressed gray suit, blue and gray necktie, and white collared shirt. His silver hair is combed back neatly from his finely-shaped forehead. As we speak, he sits upright, respectful.
At one hundred and five years old, Yoshioka is every atom the military man who was part of the first attack wave on Pearl Harbor more than eighty years before. He is friendly, gentle, welcoming, and humble. He smiles meekly as our interview starts, and occasionally breaks into a grin as he recalls humorous events of the past.
But when he calls to mind that furious quarter of an hour over Oahu, Yoshioka is present in body only. His eyes lock onto the middle distance behind me. And his mind leaps back in time to track his Nakajima "Kate" as it swoops in to complete its mission.
Yoshioka's plane is carrying an 800-kilogram torpedo, specially modified to skim the shallow waters around Ford Island, in the middle of one of the best natural harbors in the Pacific Ocean. It will hit home with devastating accuracy.
'It Was All Wrapped In Black Smoke'
The images of a day that happened long before most of the people on planet Earth were born flare up before the mind's eye of Masamitsu Yoshioka. He speaks without notes, without prompting. He remembers the events of the attack as though he were living through them again.
"It was all wrapped in black smoke," Yoshioka says. "I spotted a battleship. There were only two ships that I could clearly see. The pilot flew dead-on to one of them, and when the aircraft was at the speed, distance, angle, and altitude we'd trained for, I released the torpedo.
"As we sped away over the ship, I spotted, out of the corner of my eye, two narrow, white columns of seawater, about two meters in diameter and thirty meters high, exploding up right beside the vessel. Direct hit!"
But the direct hit had been a tragic mistake. In the thick smoke and the rush of battle, Yoshioka had picked out of the chaos a target that he thought was something other than what he helped sink.
"We were told in training not to waste time on the Utah," Yoshioka says. "She was a training vessel. We were shown her silhouette and made to memorize what she looked like so we could steer clear.
"But as we flew over the deck I could see, in a flash going by, gun turrets without any barrels. A training ship. It was the Utah. A mistake!"
History in Living Color
Still, the memories Yoshioka shares are priceless. Mistake or not, he is a treasure trove of living history. He knows, firsthand and in living color, what the rest of us know mainly from grainy black-and-white film.
"As we sped off I turned back to look and could see the mast of the Utah tilting as she listed. I could see little else in the black smoke, but I remember distinctly that the top of the Utah's mast was yellow," Yoshioka says.
"It was just then, after eight in the morning local time, that we came out over the mouth of the harbor to the sea."
A Good Place to Die
The attack on Pearl Harbor was, tactically, an unqualified success. Yoshioka shows me a commemorative document written and signed by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884-1943), the strategist who planned the fearless raid on a major nerve center of American power, the United States Pacific Fleet. And on Wheeler, Ford Island Air Station, Hickam, and other airfields.
"The fleet left Hitokappu Bay, Etorofu, on November 26, 1941," Yoshioka recalls. "On the Soryu, the pipes had been wrapped in asbestos, which indicated a cold-weather destination. But we were also told to pack our shorts, which of course indicated someplace farther south. The sailors and airplane crews had no newspapers, no radios. We had no idea where we were headed."
Soon, however, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (1887-1944), the fleet leader on board the carrier Akagi, announced that the destination was Hawaii.
The combined fleet steamed across the North Pacific, but the final die had not yet been cast. Back in Washington, negotiations between the Japanese and Americans continued, albeit both sides came increasingly to recognize that war would come.
On December 2, a message was received by Admiral Nagumo on the Akagi from fleet command. "Niitaka yama nobore 1208," it read. "Climb Mt Niitaka 1208." That was the signal that talks with the Americans had broken down and the Pearl Harbor attack would proceed on "1208" as planned.
"My only regret was that I wanted to be able to tell my parents what I was doing," Yoshioka remembers.
He was twenty-three years old.
Joining the Navy and Going to War
Masamitsu Yoshioka was born in Notomachi, Ishikawa Prefecture in 1918. He joined the Imperial Japanese Navy on June 1, 1936, at the age of eighteen, at Kure, in Hiroshima Prefecture. He trained there, in Saiki, Oita Prefecture, and with the Kasumigaura Naval Air Corps (Kasumigaura Air Group) in Ibaraki Prefecture. His first job was learning how to perform maintenance, including on biplanes.
From these pedestrian beginnings, Yoshioka would go on to experience the deadliest war in human history.
It was shortly after he was transferred to the Kasumigaura outfit, Yoshioka says, that the Second Shanghai Incident broke out. Known in English as "the Battle of Shanghai," it took place in the late summer of 1937.
Just before this, in July of that year, a nighttime skirmish took place near the Marco Polo Bridge in Peiping (present-day Beijing). That drew Japan into what would quickly escalate into the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Many from the Kasumigaura group were sent to Shanghai, Yoshioka says, to support Japan's forces on the ground there.
"I was in Kasumigaura as everyone was rushing around preparing to head to China."
In February of 1938, Yoshioka graduated from a one-year course that the brass had truncated to eight months. That was probably due to the pressing need for reinforcements on the continent.
"Immediately thereafter," Yoshioka tells me, "we left port in Yokosuka, headed for south China." Yoshioka helped with the campaign to cut off the support and reinforcement channels ("En-Sho Route") for Nationalist generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) in southwestern China and Southeast Asia.
Training to Fight an Enemy Unknown
"I was doing maintenance work," Yoshioka says of his time in the China war. "But day after day I would watch the planes take off, and I thought that I would really like to be in one of them flying away too."
In December 1938, Yoshioka applied to become a navigator. He made the cut. He completed training with the forty-third navigator training cohort at Yokosuka and Oita (again on a truncated course due to wartime needs). On October 1, 1939, Yoshioka was assigned to the aircraft carrier Soryu. It was not long before he was sailing, again, toward the war on the mainland.
"We were going out to help an army campaign in Nanning, China," Yoshioka says. "There were eighteen Type 95 Carrier-Based Fighters [Nakajima A4N, a biplane]. And there were eighteen Type 96 Carrier-Based Fighters [Mitsubishi A5Ms], and eighteen Type 97 Fighters [Nakajima Ki-27s]. Fifty-four aircraft in all.
We traversed the Taiwan Strait and headed toward the Gulf of Tonkin, near the Mekong River. We went up into the air carrying six sixty-kilogram bombs, three under each wing."
The mission was a success. The Japanese army was able to break through on the ground thanks to support from the air.
How To Come In Flat and Low
After that, Yoshioka says, he started to train on level-run bombing for torpedo attacks. In Kagoshima Prefecture and again at Saiki, in Oita, he was learning how to come in flat and low—just ten meters off the water—and deliver a torpedo on a level run to a ship dead ahead, four hundred meters from the propeller nose.
"We trained endlessly through August, September, October, and November of 1941," Yoshioka recalls. "All torpedoes, level-bombing, where the angle has to be just right."
I ask Yoshioka if he had any idea why he was suddenly being trained in a new way.
"In the baths and at the barber, or gathered up on deck smoking, the men used to talk," Yoshioka recalls.
"Some of the men would speculate as to what we were doing. Who were we training to attack? The gasoline for our airplanes came from the USA. So, many of the men said, 'There's no way we can be preparing to attack America'. Nobody had the slightest notion that that was what was coming."
Continues in Part 2: "Masamitsu Yoshioka, 105, on What Happened In the Skies Over Honolulu"
- Memories of the Gripsholm Exchange: Living on Both Sides in World War II
- 80 Years After Pearl Harbor, Finding History through Their Voices
- Save the Asian Monuments: Reopening to the Global Museum World
Author: Jason Morgan
Jason Morgan is an associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.