By Justin R. Taylan

This is the story of an American and a Japanese pilot who met in aerial combat. Their deadly aerial engagement began with a moment of humanity – the sight of a young man’s face – during the battle over the tiny island of Iwo Jima. More than half-century later, this encounter resulted in a meeting between former enemies.

By the summer of 1944, Iwo Jima was poised to become the Pacific war’s front line. General MacArthur was ready to fulfill his promise, “I Shall Return” to the Philippines. The invasion of Saipan was underway, and Iwo Jima was under attack. The Japanese Navy was in the process of moving the 301st Kokutai (Air Group) to Iwo Jima. However, American carrier planes allowed them no time to establish.

The first flight of nine Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero fighters, led by Lt. Katsumi Koda, was intercepted as they approached the island. Three Zeros, including Lt. Koda’s, were shot down. The following day his classmate from Eta Jima (the Japanese naval academy), Lt. Kunio Iwashita flew the same route. Much had changed since they graduated from the academy in March 1941, three years earlier.

Zero Pilot Kunio Iwashita

Kunio Iwashita served aboard two cruisers before transferring to flight school in November 1941. By coincidence his older brother, Kutaka, was an instructor at the same school. Kunio remembered being summoned by him at midnight on December 7, 1941: “He told me in a rigid tone. ‘At last our country will wage war against America with an air raid on Hawaii.’ I was overwhelmed by tension and almost stopped breathing.”

In May 1942, his brother was appointed Buntaicho (vice squadron leader) of a dive-bomber squadron aboard the Japanese Carrier Zuikaku. He left a handful of his hair with Kunio, in the Japanese tradition. This would be the last time they were to see each other.

His brother was killed during the Battle of Santa Cruz, after bombing the USS Hornet. Hit by anti-aircraft fire, his bomber was severely damaged and his rear gunner killed. Limping back to the fleet, he ditched and was picked up by a Japanese destroyer. Before expiring, he uttered the name of his carrier ‘Zuikaku.’ Even in death, his brother was a role model, especially after his heroics were dramatized in two Japanese wartime movies. Upon learning of his brother’s death, Kunio Iwashita reflected: “Rather than being proud of my brother as my own flesh and blood, I came to respect him deeply as such an excellent Navy officer that I was simply no match for him. He always dealt with matters with all his might and burned up his power of life twice as fast as ordinary men, ending his life at age 25.”

By the end of February 1943, Iwashita completed his pilot training first in his class, just as his older brother had earlier. Instead of being sent to the front with his classmates, Iwashita was ordered to remain in Japan as an instructor. Report after report brought disheartening news of their deaths. Before long, Iwashita was assigned to the 301st Kokutai, and on June 25, 1944 he was flying to the front lines.