By Henry Sakaida

Honor and saving face is an integral part of Japanese culture, and this was especially true during wars.  The story here happened 77 years ago. The identity of the subject in this story is disclosed here for the very first time.


Many years ago, I was conducting research on the Khalkin-Gol Border War. This is known to the Japanese as the Nomonhan Incident. It lasted 129 days and involved Manchuria (supported by the Japanese) against the Mongolians (supported by the Soviet Union). It started in May 1939  along the disputed Mongolian/Manchurian border and lasted until 16 September 1939.

In the course of research, I came upon a photo of a captured Japanese fighter pilot with a bandaged head. It was taken by a Soviet military photographer and  appeared in various Russian publications since the 1939 war. I had to identify the pilot!

Capt Keisuke Yamada

Capt Keisuke Yamada was a squadron leader in the 1st Sentai. He remained unidentified in this photo for 77 years.

Keisuke Yamada

Keisuke Yamada (standing), date unknown, prior to his assignment at Khalkin-Gol.

In searching Japanese combat accounts, I discovered that Capt Keisuke Yamada was lost on 21 July 1939. He reportedly parachuted from his stricken fighter and was declared killed.  Soviet records show that Sr/Lt Vitt Fyodorovich Skobarikhin rammed an enemy plane on 20 July (it could have been an accidental collision). There was an 11th Sentai casualty on the 19th, none on the 20th, one on the 21st (Yamada), and 4 on the 23rd.


Sr/Lt Vitt Fyodorovich Skobarikhin belonged to the 22nd Fighter Regiment.


Ki-27 fighter of the 1st Sentai. This is Capt Yamada’s plane, hit by Sr/Lt Skobarikhin. It is doubtful that Yamada parachuted because his plane is relatively intact.


Damage to Skobarikhin’s I-16’s left wing can be seen here.


Luckily, there is a Soviet photograph showing the Japanese aircraft brought down by Skobarikhin. It clearly shows the marking of the 1st Sentai (air group). Capt Yamada was squadron leader in the 1st Sentai and he was the only Japanese casualty that day. Skobarikhin’s ramming/collision actually occurred on the 21st. So, what was the fate of Capt Yamada?

All Japanese fighter pilots carried pistols. The sidearms were not carried for self-defense; they were suicide weapons. It is a certainty that if Capt Yamada had not been critically wounded, he would have shot himself to prevent capture.

In Japanese military culture, the concept of surrender did not exist. Soldiers were expected to fight to the death. If they did not return, they were declared dead. To be taken prisoner brought extreme shame and dishonor to the individual, his family, and his unit. Since Japan is a group oriented society, anyone connected to the person shared in the silent humiliation.

Those Japanese captured were seriously wounded or incapacitated; no one willingly gave up. During the war, both sides took care not to mistreat prisoners. After the armistice was signed, they were released. The Japanese captives came back spiritually dead and were treated with disdain by their comrades. The officers were dealt with harshly; as leaders and role models, they should have died with their men, no excuses! The enlisted personnel were transferred to labor units and were ordered never to discuss what happened. Many bore guilt and shame for the rest of their lives.

It is understandable that some Japanese prisoners refused repatriation and choose to voluntarily stay with the Soviets. Going back would cause more harm than good.  According to one study, about 560 stayed behind. Under the circumstances, it was a painful but practical decision. The families were notified of their deaths and funeral services held. These forlorn men started new lives.  They took on new Russian names and helped in the Soviet war effort.  After the war, they eventually married and started families. They blended in with the large Asiatic population in the Soviet Far East and disappeared forever.


I know of 3 officer pilots whom the Soviets captured: 1/Lt Naoyuki Daitoku, 11th Sentai, lost 6 July; Capt Keisuke Yamada, 1st Sentai, lost 21 July; and Maj Fumio Harada, 1st Sentai, lost 27 July.

The officers presented an embarrassing dilemma. They had been venerated at the sacred Yasukuni Shrine which needed Imperial approval.  Awarded the title of war gods, their return would be an insult to the Throne and a mockery of the war dead. Japan has never had a living war god. The mistake had to be rectified and the public could never know.

All returning officers were quickly separated from the enlisted men, confined,  and no communication was allowed. Even their guards did not know their names. A secret court of inquiry was held and ended with the disgraced officer being given the gracious opportunity to protect his honor…by suicide.

In postwar interviews, the deaths of Maj Fumio Harada and 1/Lt Naoyuki Daitoku were revealed. Harada stoically accepted his fate, but the lieutenant stated that his capture was beyond his control, and requested that he be returned to active duty to fight again. The request was denied. Caskets were delivered outside their quarters at night and pistols were left on the table. Both men shot themselves. If Capt Keisuke Yamada had returned, this is how it ended for him.

Sr/Lt Vitt Skobarikhin became a Hero of the Soviet Union on 29 August 1939 and fought in the Great Patriotic War.  During Khalkin-Gol, he flew 169 missions and claimed 5 victories (one by ramming). He retired as a colonel in 1954 and died in Moscow in August 1989.


For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45

I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft Carrying Strike Submarine, Objective Panama Canal

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

Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945

B-29 Hunters of the JAAF

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