The American Who Buried a Kamikaze Enemy

In April of 1945, Captain William Callaghan and the USS Missouri were attacked by a kamikaze pilot intent on destroying all on board. His attack failed, and Callaghan stood up to his men to bury the enemy.

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The 75th anniversary commemorations of the dastardly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor seem to be a great gift to the Alt-Right’s xenophobic nationalists. That Day of Infamy – December 7, 1941 – seemingly confirms fears of treacherous foreigners while evoking nostalgia for the Greatest Generation’s war-winning whitebread America. But history demands we Shift Center, remembering that in World War II democratic decency defeated dictatorial demagoguery.

In fact, using America’s involvement in the Second World War to rationalize bigotry betrays the memory of the 416,800 who died fighting Nazi and Japanese racism, including Pearl Harbor’s 2,403 martyrs. In that spirit, just as most tourists visiting Pearl Harbor today end by visiting the decommissioned battleship the USS Missouri, this year’s anniversary ceremonies should end by honoring the values Missouri, its captain William McCombe Callaghan, and America represent – epitomized by Callaghan’s gracious, unexpected gesture, of honorably burying at sea the kamikaze pilot who tried killing Callaghan and his crew on April 11, 1945.

Decades later, many discount just how much Americans hated the Japanese – and how justified the hatred was. Japanese warplanes starting bombing Pearl Harbor just minutes after Japanese diplomats entered the State Department, pretending to negotiate. Japanese soldiers butchered 300,000 Chinese in the 1937 Rape of Nanking, ultimately murdering as many as eight million people, following what scholars call the “Three Alls StrategySankō Sakusen: kill all, burn all, loot all. Japanese officers reputedly ate the flesh of captured American pilots. Japanese soldiers tortured Americans in Prisoner of War camps and on the brutal Bataan death march of 1942. American war posters warned against “THE JAP BEAST AND HIS PLOT TO RAPE THE WORLD.” That American hatred and distrust did have a darker side—racist incitement and imagery that culminated in the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans.

Missouri’s commissioning in 1944 illustrated the two years it took to mobilize American industrial might and military prowess. But, reflecting the cultural conflict that intensified the Japan hatred, on October 25, 1944, the Japanese launched the first of what would be 1321 kamikaze missions. To Americans, the kamikaze—also known as Tokkotai, short for “Special Attack Unit”—confirmed that the struggle pitted fanatic “men who want to die” against democratic “men who fight to live.”

The Pacific was particularly tense in April, 1945, as the 82-day Battle of Okinawa began. In the first four weeks, the Japanese would sink twenty American ships. On April 6, five kamikazes crashed into the USS Newcomb. Flames catapulted 1000 feet into the air. Ninety-one sailors were killed or wounded.

Missouri’s commander Callaghan, a 47-year-old San Francisco native and devout Catholic, was raised in a culture devoted to the Navy’s unofficial motto Non sibi sed patriae, not for self but for country. Callaghan and his family had already sacrificed. A Japanese shell had killed his older brother, Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan, while standing on the bridge of his ship, the U.S.S. San Francisco, on November 13, 1942. Dan Callaghan was buried at sea.

Suddenly, at 2:42 PM on April 11, 1945, the terrifying buzzzzz of a kamikaze pilot pierced through the usual racket 2,700 Missouri crew members generated. As the ship’s guns fired away, the pilot – probably 19-year-old Setsuo Ishino – descended with the dreaded death dive – intending to detonate the 500-pound bomb attached to his Mitsbushi-made, ultra-manueverable, A6M5c Zero fighter plane.

Even as antiaircraft fire hit the plane, the plane hit the ship. The ship’s baker, Len Schmidt, captured the terrifying millisecond right before impact on camera. An explosion could have killed hundreds. Instead, what foxhole converts call a miracle – historians call it wartime’s dumb luck – intervened: the bomb fell off the plane before impact. The hit barely made a dent, although it did start a gasoline fire. The Japanese pilot was the only casualty. Half his body fragmented, scattering on deck; the other half sank into the sea with his plane.

With the special fury sitting-duck sailors expressed for these flying suicide bombers, crew members prepared to wash their enemy’s body into the sea. Then in a decisive, life-defining, incredibly decent move, Captain Callaghan said “No.” He decided to see past the fearsome façade, and honor the fearlessness—and fealty—this boy demonstrated. Callaghan ordered that the body be brought to sick bay “and we'll have a burial for him tomorrow.”

Crew members were furious, then offended when Callaghan ordered one shipmate to sew a Japanese flag, even if it took him all night. Callaghan treated this young man as “a fellow warrior who had displayed courage and devotion, and who had paid the ultimate sacrifice with his life, fighting for his country”—just as Dan Callaghan and so many others had. The next day, Callaghan would explain via the ship’s sound system that they were honoring a shared sense of duty, honor, and sacrifice with a fellow warrior.

The ship’s chaplain officiated as six pallbearers slid the body into the sea. The sailors saluted, and a round of rifle fire honored this then-unknown soldier. Callaghan reprimanded whoever hesitated to stand at attention, barking through his bullhorn: “This is a military ceremony as required by the Articles for the government of the USN [US Navy].”

Some sailors remained bitter, but, one recalled, “the honorable thing was done.” Decades later, amid a joint ceremony on Missouri, Junko Kamata, whose uncle was a kamikaze pilot killed during the Battle of Okinawa, would hail Captain Callaghan’s “humanitarian consideration for kamikaze soldiers.”

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Leadership counts. Noble leaders can stretch us, just as demagogues debase us. Ennobled by their captain, the sailors quickly shifted from resistance to acceptance to pride.

Timing counts too. Franklin Roosevelt died that day. FDR’s death didn’t diminish Callaghan’s heroism but did limit his fame.

Still, the story became part of the legend of the mighty Missouri, the historic ship that hosted General Douglas MacArthur for the Japanese surrender months later, then fought in Korea and even launched powerful Cruise Missile barrages in the 1990 Persian Gulf War. Callaghan’s magnanimity turned this hulking 887.2 foot by 108.2 foot mass destruction machine into a dove of peace.

This battleship’s unlikely moonlighting career makes it a fitting symbol during this brittle, Trump transition. Seventy-one years ago, Captain Callaghan transcended the American-Japanese chasm to recognize a common humanity, a defining patriotism, a shared idealism in this potential killer who, ultimately, was just a dead kid. Americans today have a narrower blue-red, Clinton-Trump divide to transcend. By recognizing our common national values and interests we too can stretch William Callaghan-style, quash our baser impulses, and start healing.