A Fighter Pilot’s Visit From Beyond

By Henry Sakaida  

     Lt(jg) Yukihiro Watabe woke up from a fitful sleep on the morning of 16 March 1945. He had a disturbing premonition that he only had 3 days to live! The 21 year old Japanese fighter pilot in the 343 Air Group was the division leader of Squadron 701. A large American carrier task force was steaming towards Japan at the moment, slated to raid Kure and surrounding areas on 19 March. The Japanese were unaware of the enemy advance. 



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American pilots encountered the “George” fighter for the first time on 19 March 1945. Because the Hellcat and the George looked so similar, pilots on both sides shot at their comrades by mistake, and sometimes hesitated to fire in a head-on encounter, unsure if it was friend or foe. (Depiction by Shori Tanaka)

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Lt(jg) Yukihiro Watabe predicted his own death.

     On the 19th, a reconnaissance plane from the 343rd sighted the American task force at 0650 and radioed a warning to headquarters. A minute later, another message came in: “Large enemy aircraft formation heading north over the south coast of Shikoku!”  

     Capt. Minoru Genda, the commander of the elite unit and mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor attack, ordered his pilots to scramble. All 3 squadrons (301, 407, and 701) started rolling down the dusty airfield. 

It was a magnificent sight with ground crews and other pilots cheering them on. Genda had personally handpicked seasoned veterans for his “Squadron of Experts.” 

     The eager and over-confident pilots of VBF-17 had no idea of whom and what they were up against. The Americans roared head-on into the Japanese formation of Shiden-Kai “George” fighters. The newest fighter plane in the Japanese Navy’s arsenal, it was rated equal to or better than the F6F Hellcat.  

This was Air Group 343’s baptism of fire and it promised to be bloody. 

In the vicious clash, VBF-17 lost 6 pilots while Squadron 701 lost 4. Lt (jg) Watabe did not return. After shooting down one Hellcat, his fighter was hit and crashed in a forested valley. His mother, Mrs. Fusae Watabe, who had been sleeping, was awakened by her son calling out: “Mother, I’m home now!” She sat upright and saw the upper figure of her son clearly on the bedroom wall. Then his image faded away forever. 



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Japanese enemy aircraft identification guide for the F6F Hellcat. Veteran Japanese pilots respected this fighter.

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The US Task Force plan of attack on 19 March 1945. Air Group 343 was based at Matsuyama.

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General Minoru Genda, center, attends a memorial service for the fallen members of his unit in the 1980s. In the 1950s, he joined the Japan Self-Defense Air Force and flew the F-86.



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