Name in Japanese: 関 行男
Pronunciation: seki yukio
Period: 1921 to 1944
In the last two years of WWII, it was clear that Japan would be defeated unless desperate measures were taken. So it was decided that the nation’s remaining planes and pilots would be flung bodily against the invading forces in the hope of inflicting unsustainable and demoralising costs. This method of ‘special attack’ came to be called kamikaze, Divine Wind, after the typhoons that wrecked the invasion fleets of Kublai Khan off Kyushu hundreds of years earlier. The first kamikaze was Seki Yukio, from Saijo in Ehime.
Yukio was born in 1921, a time when Japan was intent on keeping pace with the imperial jostling of the world powers. Education had a strong military flavour. From his middle school years, he was required to take naval training courses, and like many a son of the Inland Sea shore, he sought a career in the Navy.
In 1938 he enrolled in the Japanese Naval Academy at Etajima. He graduated in 1941, a month before the Pearl Harbor attack. As a lieutenant on the seaplane carrier Chitose, he would have regarded Japan’s early successes against America and European powers like Britain and Holland with pride, especially regarding the supremacy of Japan’s aircraft, whose outstanding performance took the West completely by surprise.
However, the Battle of Midway, in which Seki’s ship played a small role, marked the turning point in Japan’s fortunes, and Seki would have been aware of his nation’s peril, and the gulf between what the public was told, and what military men like him knew. In 1942, he returned to Japan and enrolled in the naval flying academy at Kasumigaura, Ibaraki. After basic training, he was transferred to Usa in Oita, where he trained as a dive bomber pilot on aircraft carriers. In January 1944, he became an instructor at Kasumigaura. At that time, officers were assigned local families to visit on weekends, and Seki fell in love with Mariko, daughter of the Watanabe family of Kamakura. They married in May 1944.
In September 1944, Seki was transferred to the Philippines as leader of the 301st fighter unit, which was facing American attacks. Around this time, Vice Admiral Onishi had decided on the policy of kamikaze attacks, and Lieutenant Seki was asked by his group commander to lead the first official suicidal special attack squadron. Seki reluctantly agreed, and his recorded statements and subsequent actions suggested that he resented being required to throw away his life (so soon after his marriage!), and he believed that conventional military tactics would better serve the nation.
In several interviews, he expressed his true thoughts clearly;
“Japan’s future is bleak if it’s forced to kill one of its best pilots (one of his squad, a celebrated ace). I’m not going on this mission for the Emperor or for the Empire. I’m going because I was ordered to!”
“If they’d let me, I could drop a 500-kilogram bomb on the flight deck of a carrier without going in for body-crashing, and still make my way back.”
After four separate attempts to engage the enemy, on October 25, 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Lieutenant Seki led five bomb laden Zero fighters against a group of American ships. The small US carrier St. Lo was sunk, the first ship to go to the bottom due to kamikaze attack. Japanese and American after-action reports were muddled, but it appears that Seki tried to drop his bomb on the ship and survive, rather than ram it and die. Nevertheless, he died in the action that day, and only one of his squad survived to report on the historic suicide attack.