Today, East Airfield is just a field. Every year, a crop of sugar cane is grown there. When the time is right (like it is at some point every year), the sugar cane is harvested and turned into whatever sweet things it becomes. And it’s then, when the sugar cane is removed, that the field presents the evidence of its prior occupation. The outline of a runway.
This airfield, which only peeks out at harvest-time, sits at Mabalacat, with which some of you avid Today’s History Lesson readers are familiar, even if you don’t know it. Mabalacat is a city in the northern region of the Pampanga Province, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Right here. If you move just a little to the south, you’ll discover Manila Bay. Once you’ve hit water, if you move slightly west, you strike land again. That’s the Bataan province, and now it’s starting to make sense to you. Moving south down the Bataan Province, you’ll run into water again, and you’ll see a little island right there in the middle of Manila Bay’s mouth. That’s Corregidor. See, you kind of knew where it was.
Named for the large number of balacat trees (Ma-balacat in the native tongue means “full of balacats”), the area was, in 1944, also full of Japanese soldiers. Having taken over the Philippines in the aftermath of their major offensive in late 1941, the Japanese military had been in control of the Philippines since very early 1942. But things were about to change. Luzon was about to be invaded again.
By American forces. The U.S. Army was preparing to land on Luzon, and the Navy was gathering around Leyte Gulf to support the Army.
Which brings us back to East Airfield in Mabalacat. The Japanese Navy’s 1st Air Fleet (based down in Manila) had been tasked with supporting the attacks on the U.S. Navy in Leyte Gulf. The problem was that the 1st Air Fleet had just 40 aircraft left. So on October 19, 1944, Vice Admiral Takajiro Onishi met with his officers at East Airfield and came up with the idea of suicide squadrons. He believed that a single plane carrying a bomb could do tremendous damage to any ship, even a battleship, if the pilot would hit the ship with both bomb and plane. In this manner, a few planes could become a formidable force.
And as General MacArthur stepped onto Philippine soil on October 20, 1944, the Kamikaze squadrons were born. There had been individual suicide attacks before, but this was the first time the “kamikaze” concept was organized into purpose-built units. Comprised of 23 pilots (all volunteers), the Shimpu Special Attack Corps (as it was called) was divided into four units and was led by the talented Lieutenant Yukio Seki.
It would take a few days to get things organized and prepared, but then these one-way attackers would take to the skies, and their first missions would end in dramatic fashion. Stay tuned…we’ll discuss it shortly.