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Well-known Japanese fighter pilot dies at 76

Federal Way lost an admired and loved member of the community this week.

Revered by many to be Japan’s greatest living World War II flying ace, Masajiro “Mike” Kawato lived a quiet life in a cottage tucked away in a quaint Federal Way neighborhood. At 76, Kawato was seldom recognized locally for his amazing life and contributions to history. Once pursued vigorously by reporters, it had been ages since he last granted an interview at the time of his death. The most recent significant interview was conducted by prominent Seattle reporter Emmett Watson in 1991.

Kawato died Dec. 17 of cancer. No date has been set for memorial services.

Unimposing and charming, one would never guess that Kawato, a Zero pilot, was credited with 19 recorded confirmed kills, that he suffered 17 wounds as an aviator or that he set a single engine non-stop trans-Pacific flying record from Japan to California. The employees of Starbucks on Dash Point road remember him fondly as a gentle man that came in several times a week with his best friend, Jim Hornby, for coffee.

On the other hand, ask almost any WWII buff about Kawato’s good friend Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the American WWII flying ace, and they immediately recognize Pappy. The stuff of legends, Boyington is widely regarded to be without equal among WWII South Pacific fighter pilots. That was, until he met Kawato for the first time near New Britain Island, one fateful day Jan. 3, 1944 near the end of the war.

On this day America’s greatest pilot met his match and an air battle to rival any in American cinema took place over the South Pacific. The two types of planes engaged in the fight were the Japanese Zero, armed with two 20-millimeter cannons and a machine gun, and the American F4U Corsair, with six wing mounted .50 caliber machine guns. Both planes were considered technological marvels of their age, with armaments, speed and maneuverability that would have astounded pilots of an even earlier age.

As Kawato recounted in his auto biography, “I saw an unusual sight. An F4U Corsair was after a Zero and right behind the F4U Corsair another Zero was followed by another F4U Corsair.”

The lead Zero burst into flames, succumbing to fire from the pursuing F4U. Then the lead F4U went down in smoke and flame.

Kawato, who had been flying above the strange unfolding scene put his Zero into a dive and joined the fray firing on the second F4U that flew behind the second Zero. The F4U pilot Kawato pursued displayed incredible flying prowess putting his plane into sharp turns, rolling dives, and evasive maneuvers that tested the limits of these aircraft. The battle started at 6,000 feet and ended at 1,000 feet above the ocean swells. In the end the F4U succumbed to Kawato’s legendary flying skills and 20 millimeter gunfire. The pilot, Boyington, was forced to bail out of his severely damaged plane.

Boyington was picked up by a Japanese submarine later in the evening floating outside of Rabaul Harbor and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner in a Japanese war camp.

Before the end the war, Kawato, who had had many close brushes with death himself, was shot down his fifth and final time near New Britain Island. Having successfully delivered a “model 21 bomb” midstern to an Australian destroyer, Kawato returned to drop a second from his specially modified two passenger Zero. On his third pass Kawato’s plane received crippling anti-aircraft fire that seriously damaged its structural integrity and killed his communications operator. Kawato was undeterred. His intent was to fly his Zero into the side of the destroyer, Kamikaze style.

With just 150 feet to spare, the intense gun fire from the destroyer tore off Kawatos wing and sent him full-throttle into the sea. Left for dead, Kawato spent three days floating in the open ocean before washing up on the south side of New Britain Island.

For two months he subsisted on not much more than snails and small lizards that had been sun-dried, coconuts and sweet potatoes taken from the fields of native farmers. Finally captured, he was treated by doctors and then delivered to a P. O. W. camp in Australia. In the meantime, Kawato was declared dead by the Japanese military and a funeral was held. Three and a half years after he left to war, Kawato could not resist returning home and visiting the altar where the funeral services had been held. Kawato was just 20 years old. It took years to re-establish his condition in the legal record to that of a living individual.

Both Kawato and Boyington wrote a book about their WWII experiences. Boyington’s book is called “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” a reference to the Blacksheep squadron that he headed. Kawato’s book is called “Bye Bye Blacksheep,” an ironic title to say the least.

After the war, Kawato and Boyington met and became good friends, neither harboring any ill will towards the other. At their first meeting, Boyington greeted Kawato with a handshake and a bear hug as if reunited with a long lost friend, a scene that touched the hearts of many who witnessed the event.

Kawato went on to be a pilot for Japan Airlines. In 1976, after years of planning and at considerable personal expense, Kawato set out on a record breaking flight to emulate Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris in 1927.

Flying solo in a single engine Piper Comanche, Kawato flew nonstop from Japan to Crescent City, Calif., a trip in excess of 5000 miles and 35 hours flying time.

On arriving, he was presented with numerous awards including a Resolution of Honor from the California State Assembly.

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