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Iwashita and Nisi, Japanese and American

On July 3rd, 1944, Kunio Iwashita watched from the ground on a runway on Iwo Jima as thirty-one A6M Zero fighter planes took off to intercept a wave of incoming American planes off the coast. After a half hour of fierce dogfighting concluded, only seventeen Zeros returned.

Iwashita recalls his thoughts: “I sat upon pins and needles watching my brothers being shot down, one after another. I told Katsutoshi Yagi, my unit commander, that I wanted take to the sky the next day, by any means necessary.”

The next day, before dawn on July 4th, 1944, while suffering from stomach pains the result of a severe case of anxiety, Iwashita reported for duty. His squadron leader, Lieutenant Fujita, took him aside to offer some advice about what would be his first time in combat: Iwashita again recalls what he was told, “Your first fight is the most dangerous! I’ll teach you how to brawl. Don’t stray far from me. Follow as tightly as you can.”

Fujita was a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack and Battle of Midway, as well as a Naval Academy Flight School classmate of Iwashita’s deceased brother, Kutaka Iwashita, who was a pilot onboard the aircraft carrier Zuikaku, and had died earlier in the war, during the Battle of Santa Cruz, inspiring two movies about his exploits in the process. Kunio had big shoes to fill.

Once in the air, the Japanese aviators assumed formation and began their patrol. Within a short time, Iwashita saw four planes ahead of his sortie, that he initially assumed were Japanese. Increasing his speed, he approached them from behind, coming within a distance of 100 meters. Once upon them, their star markings came into sight: they were American Grumman F6F Hellcats. They had failed to notice his approach - the Japanese pilot was completely undetected, allowing Iwashita to close in on the last fighter in the formation. Iwashita continued to close in on the last plane in the formation, until coming within less than 30 feet of the Hellcat, where he opened fire. His A6M5’s 20mm cannon shells tore into the Hellcat. He recalls, “The wing of the F6F broke apart - I saw the goggles and white muffler of the young pilot and the surprise on his face as he looked back at me. The F6F was instantly engulfed in flames and he lost altitude until he crashed violently into the sea. I remember glancing, noting that Suribachi was close in proximity to us.”

Later that same night, July 4th, 1944, Iwashita couldn’t sleep. He recalled all too vividly the face of the young pilot he had shot down. While his comrades slept, he left the barracks and walked along the black sands of the beach near Mount Suribachi, and looked to the spot on the sea where the American fighter had tumbled into the waves. He pressed his hands together in prayer.

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, which he remembers so vividly, and pay his respects to the family. The request was passed to the US Navy Historical Society, and after some time, Kunio got his answer.

Five American pilots were shot down over Iwo Jima on July 4th, 1944. One was rescued, the other four were marked ‘Missing In Action’. Although impossible to identify precisely which plane Iwashita shot down, one photo stood out: his name was Alberto C. Nisi, who piloted F6F Hellcat #43041.

On July 4th, 1944, Alberto Nisi was 26 years old, serving aboard USS Wasp with VF-14, the “Iron Angels”. Nisi was a second generation Italian-American, 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 receiving a celebratory message from her brother when the baby arrived, there was a telegraph from the Department of The Navy. Ensign Alberto Nisi was missing in action. His nephew was born 2 days later, 2 days after his death.

The American fleet withdrew the the morning after the dogfight, July 5th, surprisingly to the Japanese, who had anticipated an invasion of Iwo Jima, and had ordered all pilots to fight as infantrymen to the last man. This fate would befall the Japanese servicemen stationed on the island just short of a year later. After their anticipated demise had simply sailed in the other direction, all surviving Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service 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.

After being stationed on Iwo Jima, Iwashita flew missions over the Philippines (luckily escaping Clark Airfield on the last departing transport plane, while many of his squad mates fled into the jungle, where they died of starvation or disease), Okinawa (as an escort for kamikazes enroute to the American fleet), and Mainland Japan (intercepting B-29’s).

He later remarked, “I had fought ferocious battles over Iwo Jima and the Philippine islands, but I knew within that we couldn’t win. Now, although I understood that we would not be able to win, I did not think that Japan would be defeated. Defeat was unthinkable in our minds, because we had not received education on defeat. We were taught to believe we were indestructible. We knew no such reality, however. I had a feeling that the time had come at last when it would be over. I think that most members of the Yokosuka Kokuai (the unit he was stationed with at the end of the war) accepted the end of the war with a relieved calmness.”

By the end of the war, 31 of the 35 classmates of his fighter school’s graduating class were dead.

During his service time, Iwashita became an Ace, and shot down several other aircraft, but he never witnessed another American pilot up close again. The face of the man who’s life he claimed haunted him.

On June 20th, 2003, after many negotiations and much consideration, and through some reluctance, a meeting between his family and the Nisi family was organized. After receiving reassurance from his daughter, who had done the work to contact the Nisi family, Iwashita decided to go ahead with the meeting. Although he was made many offers, Kunio declined any media coverage of the meeting - it was to be a private affair.

After introductions, Iwashita explained his recollection of the battle, 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, the Nisi family warmly embracing the man who had once been their most bitter enemy. After the meeting had concluded, the Nisi family presented Kunio with a wartime photograph of Alberto in the cockpit of his F6F Hellcat (pictured above). Iwashita immediately recognized the face that looked back at him.

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 proud of his days as fighter pilot, but still, pride doesn’t mitigate the feeling that you experience when you take someone’s life.”

Iwashita is still alive today, at 96, and is the president of the Zero Pilots Association of Japan.