The Face of A Young Pilot Shot Down Over Iwo Jima
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 young man’s face – during the battle over the tiny island of Iwo Jima. More than half-century later, this encounter results 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 poised 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 301 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 [1], 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 wartime movies.[2] 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, Iwasita’s 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 301 Kokutai, and on June 25, 1944 he was flying to the front lines.

Air Combat Over Iwo Jima  

Kunio Iwashita’s flight arrived safely, but a week later on July 3, he suffered from an intense stomach ache, later diagnosed as a symptom of appendicitis, and was grounded. He watched from the ground as thirty-one Zeros took off to intercept incoming American planes. At the conclusion of the dogfight, only seventeen Zeros returned. Iwashita recalls: “I was on pins and needles to see friendly planes being shot down one after another. I told Commander Katsutoshi Yagi, the group commander, I wanted take part in the sortie tomorrow by all means.”

Before dawn on July 4, 1944, while still suffering from the stomach pains, Iwashita reported for duty. His squadron leader, Lt. Fujita took him aside to offer some advice about his first combat: “One’s first fight is most risky. Buntaicho, I will teach you how to fight. Don’t go apart from me. Follow me tight.” Iwashita recalled. His leader was a classmate of Iwashita’s deceased brother, and a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack and Battle of Midway.

Suddenly, a report sounded about enemy planes. The assembled pilots, including Iwashita, raced into the air. Before they got off the ground, they were under attack: “The enemy planes had come near, firing at us before we reached an altitude of 100 meters. Trajectories of their blue and red tracers looked as if a bundle of ice candies flew to us. In a hurry, I retracted the landing gear, prepared for firing and followed my leader. Looking down at the ground, I saw a terrible scene of aircraft and fuel tanks in flames.”

The Face Of A Young Pilot   

Lt. Iwashita saw four planes that he initially assumed were Japanese. Increasing his speed, he approached them at a distance of 100 meters. Closer, their star markings came into sight: they were American Grumman F6F Hellcats. They had failed to notice his approach, allowing Iwashita to close in on the last fighter in the formation. From less than 30 feet, he opened fire.

The Zero’s 20mm cannon shells tore into the Hellcat. “The wing of the F6F broke up. I saw the goggles and white muffler of the young pilot and his face as he looked back in surprise. The F6F was instantly engulfed in flames and crashed into the sea. Mount Suribachi was close to us.” Iwashita observed.

The remaining F6Fs circled to avenge the attack. One of their bullets hit the windshield of Iwashita’s Zero, making a snapping sound and shattering his canopy, causing him to duck reflexively. More holes appeared in the left wing. At the same instant, his squadron leader and morning advisor, Lt. Fujita arrived and drove off the remaining American planes.

Iwashita made an emergency landing and ground crews ran to him, saying, “Buntaicho, you’ve done well. Those four planes had been strafing the airfield. We were grinding our teeth. Then, you shot down one of them before our eyes. We gave cheers!” Iwashita recalled. There was no time for reflection. Following the air attack, Iwo Jima was bombarded by the American fleet. Iwashita and the other aviators resigned themselves that the American landing would occur the next morning, and they would be defending the island with the infantry.

Kunio Iwashita couldn’t sleep. He recalled all too vividly the face of the young pilot he shot down. While his comrades slept, Iwashita walked to the black sand beach near Mount Suribachi and stood alone. Looking towards the sea, where the American had crashed, he pressed his hands together in prayer.

The American fleet withdrew the next morning. A few days later all surviving pilots were ordered back to Japan on a transport plane. During their defense of Iwo Jima, Iwashita’s squadron lost 31 pilots and claimed 20 enemy planes destroyed

The War’s End

After Iwo Jima, Iwashita flew missions over the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan. He shot down other aircraft, but never witnessed another American pilot up close again. Iwashita was 24 years old when the war ended, and recalled the news: “I had experienced hard battles on Iwo Jima and in the Philippines, I expected that we could not win. Even though I understood that we would not be able to win, I did not think that Japan would be defeated. The idea of defeat would not come out of our minds because we had not received education to be defeated. However, I had a feeling that the time to come had come at last. I think that most members of the Yokosuka Kokuai[3] accepted the end of the war rather calmly.”By the end of the war, 31 of the 35 of his fighter school classmates were dead.

A Wish Becomes Reality

Many years later, married and himself a father, Iwashita retired as an executive in the textile industry. He remained active with wartime comrades as President of the Zero Fighter Pilots Association and member of the Unabarakai[4]. But Kunio could never forget that face over Iwo Jima.

During the 50th Anniversary remembrances of WWII, Iwashita delivered a speech about his experiences. He revealed that it was his deepest hope to discover the identity of his first kill and pay his respects to the family. The request was passed to the US Navy Historical Society, and Kunio got his answer. Five American were shot down over Iwo Jima on July 4, 1944. One was rescued, the other four went ‘Missing In Action’. Although impossible to identify precisely which plane Iwashita shot down, one possibility stood out: his name was Alberto C. Nisi.

Ensign Alberto Nisi

On July 4, 1944 Nisi was 26 years old serving aboard the USS Wasp with VF-14, the ‘Iron Angels’. Nisi was of Italian decent, and his family lived in Worcester, Massachusetts. Before the war, he attended a two-year college and earned his degree in accounting, worked for the Electric Boat Company in Connecticut, and joined the US Navy Reserves. Prior to his July 4th mission, he was constantly writing his sister, who was pregnant and expecting in early July. Instead of celebration when the baby arrived, there was a telegraph. Ensign Alberto Nisi was ‘missing in action’. Born two days after his uncle’s death, Terrence Nisi’s life paralleled his uncle’s: he studied accounting, shared a love for golf and served in Vietnam.

Nisi Family Today

Albert Nisi’s siblings, Victor and Mary, live in Massachusetts. By coincidence, Iwashita’s daughter and her husband also live in Massachusetts. After Iwashita made contact with the family, he informed his daughter about the planned meeting. She worried about the implications of her father meeting a former enemy. Iwashita held firm.

Terrence Nisi recalled the moment his family received Iwashita’s letter: “Since Alberto died almost 60 years ago, I feared this might open up old wounds for his brother and sister, I talked to them first. Alberto was someone I didn't know, but was always compared with. If Mr. Iwashita was possibly an eyewitness to the final moments of his life, I wanted to meet him. My uncle has no grave, he was missing in action.”

The Meeting

Trepidation rankled both sides prior to the June 20, 2003 meeting. The entire Nisi family would be there, only Victor was unable to attend due to health reasons. Iwashita declined any media coverage of the meeting. It was to be a private affair.

After introductions, Iwashita explained his recollections of the combat and answered the family’s queries. The former Zero pilot even entertained numerous questions from Albert Nisi’s curious 11-year-old great-nephew. The atmosphere of the two-hour meeting was gentle. Then the Nisi family showed Kunio a wartime photograph of Alberto in the cockpit of his F6F Hellcat.

Terrance Nisi reflected on the meeting: “Mr. Iwashita's visit moved us very deeply. It took a lot of courage for him to meet us. He was a proud fighter pilot, still that doesn't mitigate the feeling when you take someone's life.” As we pause to reflect on the legacy of WWII, perhaps we should also reflect on these two courageous families and their special meeting.

BILINE: Justin Taylan, 27, is a Pacific War author and winner of the WWII Veteran’s Committee’s 2005 Award and creator of and Special thanks to Alfred Weinzierl and Naoki Koudachi. This article originally appeared in the World War II Veterans Committee Newsletter, Issue XXVIII Spring 2005.

[1] Eta Jima is the Japanese Naval Academy for officers

[2]Daikaigun o Omou” (Recollecting the Great Navy) by Masanori Itoh and also the story became a motif in the film “Rengo Kantai (The Combined Fleet).

[3] Iwashita’s unit assignment at the end of the war ferrying A6M5 Zeros

[4] Unabarakai is the Naval Appreciation Society