By Henry Sakaida 

To the Japanese, a good myth is something that is embellished,  venerated, and passed along to succeeding generations. If a story is good, why spoil it? It becomes better with each telling.

Many veteran pilots were well known amongst their peers during the war, but the public was generally not aware of them because they seldom received newspaper mention. Pilots were respected, not for their claims, but for having survived. A veteran of Guadalcanal, Rabaul, or New Guinea had the same distinction as an American ace.

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Ensign Kaneyoshi Muto Spring 1945 Yokosuka Air Group

Doing one’s duty was not newsworthy no matter how successful the individual was. Every soldier was expected to be heroic and sacrifice his life for his country. War was a team effort. There could only be dead heroes, and the newspapers were full of obituaries of men who died heroically in battle. Exceptions to this policy appeared in the later part of the war.

Government propaganda put a positive spin to everything. A pilot who collided with a B-29 was written up as having intentionally rammed. And a pilot who was ambushed and never fired a shot, died heroically in a vicious dogfight after shooting down an enemy plane. This was good for the family and for public morale. Official citations wildly exaggerated the honoree’s accomplishment. This was traditional. Again, good for the family.

Kaneyoshi  (Kinsuke was his nickname) Muto enlisted in the Imperial Navy in 1935 and first saw combat on 4 December 1937 over Nanking. During the Pacific War, Kaneyoshi Muto served in various air groups and fought in the Solomons and New Guinea, Iwo Jima, and in the home defense.

Prior to Muto’s last assignment with the 343 Air Group in Kyushu in June 1945, he was sent to Yokosuka Air Group, Japan’s oldest and most respected. Veteran pilots were concentrated there. It was a prestigious assignment.

Japanese legend has it that on 16 February 1945, Ensign Muto single-handedly fought 12 enemy planes and shot down four. This story was published in English in Saburo Sakai’s memoir Samurai! (English, 1958). Martin Caidin, a well known American writer, took translations from Sakai’s Japanese memoir and added his own spin.

“On February 26, he completed a sensational day in the air by attacking in an obsolete Zero 12 Corsair carrier fighters strafing Tokyo. Muto took off from the fighter base at Atsugi and lost no time in plunging into the enemy formation. The startled pilots scattered before the unexpected attack of a single Zero, and two Corsairs tumbled to earth, wrapped in flames before the American fliers could turn against Muto’s plane.”

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A Kawanishi N1K2-Ja Shiden Kai (“George”) prior to restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The type of plane flown by Ensign Kaneyoshi Muto in 1945

“In a savage, incredible dogfight which ran from Atsugi to over Yokosuka, Muto confounded the enemy pilots with brilliant aerobatics. Despite their frantic efforts, the Corsairs failed to keep Muto in their sights long enough to send the Zero down. By constantly attacking, almost seeming to ram during his wild flying, Muto kept the Corsairs off his own neck while he shot down two more of the enemy. Finally, out of ammunition, he dove away from the fight.”

Despite the elaborate details, Saburo Sakai was not an eyewitness to this combat. The dogfight did not occur on 26 February 1945. Sakai was referring to 16 February when US carriers commenced their two-day assault on Tokyo area targets. Hundreds of planes from both sides saw action. The Japanese claimed over 275 American carrier planes shot down.

An equally exciting version (Zero! By Masatake Okumiya, Jiro Horikoshi with Martin Caidin) has Muto flying a Shiden-Kai fighter on a test flight when a dozen Grumman Hellcats chase him over to Yokohama.

“About noon of the first day the enemy planes attacked, fighter plane pilots awaiting orders at Atsugi Navy Airbase sighted a single Shiden-Mod. fighter, fleeing southward over Yokohama and pursued by twelve Hellcat fighters. There could be only one outcome to the chase, and the pilots waited for the Shiden fighter to fall in flames.”

“However, the unexpected happened. As the Hellcats closed the distance between their groups and the Shiden, the Japanese fighter suddenly turned sharply and at full speed raced directly at the enemy planes. The Hellcat formation scattered before the unexpected maneuver and the thirteen fighters swung into a wild melee of twisting and turning airplanes. Taking advantage of the fact that, in a battle of twelve planes against one, the enemy force often ‘gets in its own way,’ Muto hung to the tail of a Hellcat, pouring cannon shells into the Grumman until it blew apart.”

Caidin casts doubt to the story when he wrote: “Pilots watching from Atsugi did not know the name of the pilot in the Shiden fighter, but after watching the Grummans being shot out of the sky, they quickly identified him as Muto.”

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Lt(jg) Sadaaki Akamatsu

The story from Caidin’s pen has many problems and one deals with geography. The distance between Atsugi and Yokohama is roughly 15 miles. Pilots at Atsugi could not see a dogfight over Yokohama.

What actually happened? Sixteen F6Fs belonging to VF-82 from the carrier Bennington made their way towards Atsugi Airfield. Their assignment was to rocket bomb and strafe the air base. Seven of them began to dogfight overhead with a mixed group of very aggressive fighters. Indeed, four Grumman pilots were shot down over Atsugi, but it is unknown how many, if any, Kaneyoshi Muto downed.

The four unlucky pilots who were shot down in the dogfight were Lts James F. Carroll, Benjamin Inghram, David O. Puckett, and Ens James A. McCann. Puckett and McCann were liberated from prison camp at the end of the war, but Lts Carroll and Inghram were never recovered.

The story originated from Muto’s comrade, Lt(jg) Sadaaki Akamatsu of the 302 Air Group, who witnessed the dogfight over the air base. News reporters went to Atsugi where the fighting took place to interview eyewitnesses, and there was Akamatsu, the “bad boy” leader of the fighter pilots there. He had a story to tell, and it was a real doozy!

All the veterans who knew Akamatsu took his stories with a heavy dose of salt. His combat record did not need embellishing. Akamatsu’s fighting ability was legendary; he could take an ax to a swordfight and win. He amazed his peers by dogfighting in a Raiden “Jack” and claiming several Mustangs and Hellcats. This powerful interceptor was not designed for dogfights, but for destroying B-29s. Saburo Sakai criticized it and said “it flew like a truck, wasn’t maneuverable like the Zero, and was difficult for young pilots to fly. Akamatsu was the ultimate master of the Raiden!”

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F6F Hellcats in flight

Talkative, terribly opinionated, and brash, Akamatsu had survived 8 years of war. He and Muto once served together in the China War. Akamatsu was extremely laudatory about his comrades’s peerless skills and wanted to promote it. The senior pilot was prone to exaggerate. In postwar interviews, he claimed to have shot down 100, 260 and 350 enemy planes in combat, depending upon his sobriety and mood!

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Originally written in Japanese, Martin Caidin took their translations and added his personal flair.

Lt(jg) Akamatsu’s “eyewitness” account took the nation by storm. He also told his story to his friend Saburo Sakai and Minoru Genda (mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack). Both men wrote about Muto’s epic fight in their own books, as if they had personally witnessed it. The combat episode began to spread in postwar aviation books and magazines, often connected to the story of the Shiden-Kai fighter. It remained unquestioned until esteemed Japanese aviation author Koji Takaki, and this author began to ascertain its validity in the late 1990s.

The story was timely. The government needed to raise public morale. It broke with tradition and proclaimed Kaneyoshi Muto a national hero. No one doubted it. If the government said he did it, then it was true. Muto’s wife remarked years later, “When I heard the news on the radio, I was so proud of him!” Muto never talked about this incident.

Ensign Muto’s battle citation is still held by his family. It was awarded on 29 June 1945 by Adm Michitaro Tozuka, C-in-C of the Yokosuka Naval Station, and reads: “One B-29, 3 F6Fs, 3 F4Us, and one P-51 destroyed, plus 2 B-29s damaged in the intercept combat since December 1944. In particular, 3 carrier planes each destroyed on 15 and 25 February when enemy task force planes came to the Kanto area.” There was no mention of the famous duel. (Note: there was no air raid on 15 February.)

The various kills attributed to him by Saburo Sakai (35 + 4 B-29s) and others (28) have no basis in fact, and this includes Muto’s official battle citation. The culture of aces did not exist in the Japanese military and there was no system to evaluate and award victories; it is a postwar creation.

Ensign Kaneyoshi Muto was killed in combat on 24 July 1945, two weeks short of Japan’s surrender. Legends die hard, and he is still remembered as the pilot who took on a dozen enemy planes and shot down four.


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After action reports from the USS Bennington’s VF-82 relating to the fight with Ensign Kaneyoshi Muto and the Yokosuka Air Group:

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For More on Japanese Aces of WWII Check Out:

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai

Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945

B-29 Hunters of the JAAF

For Related Articles See:

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