Visitors can listen to Taro Tsukamoto’s message and see other displays at the Kaiten Memorial Museum, a facility dedicated to members of manned suicide torpedoes during World War II, in Shunan, Yamaguchi Prefecture. (Koichi Ueda)

Yusaku Tsukamoto was stunned when he heard his brother’s voice again about 35 years after he died in World War II.

The familiar voice of Taro, who piloted an Imperial Japanese Navy suicide torpedo, came out when he played a record that Tsukamoto found at his mother’s home.

“Goodbye and thank you so much to my father, mother, brother, sisters, hometown and school,” Taro said in the recording made in late 1944.

Tsukamoto discovered the record in a trunk in a closet about 40 years ago while he was organizing his mother’s belongings at her home in Tokyo’s Tabata district after she passed away.

“I had never expected to hear his voice again,” said Tsukamoto, now 84, who lives in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture.

LAST LEAVE TO SEE FAMILY

Taro died in the western Pacific in January 1945 when he left a Japanese port on a suicide mission to pilot a manned Kaiten torpedo and ram it into an enemy vessel.

He was 21. His body has never been recovered.

Taro joined the Navy in December 1943 when he was attending Keio University in Tokyo.

About a year later, in November 1944, he made a brief visit to his parents’ home in Tabata without notifying them in advance.

He would not say why he took leave to return home. But Tsukamoto remembered that day vividly as he was so excited about being reunited with his brother, who was 12 years older.

He also remembered that their mother cooked a lot of dishes for the family at a time securing ingredients was an effort due to a deepening food shortage on the home front.

The brother was well aware that this could be his last visit to see his family as he volunteered for a mission on a new “weapon” called the Kaiten, two months earlier.

HUMAN TORPEDO VOLUNTEER

The Kaiten was a torpedo that was developed for a suicide mission. A sailor would operate the craft to damage an enemy vessel by smashing into it.

It was named Kaiten, which roughly means “the heaven shaker” in English as a desperate Japan sought to change the course of the war by deploying the suicide craft. Japan had suffered defeat in various battlefields across the Pacific, starting with the 1942-43 bloody battle of Guadalcanal.

One of the criteria for being selected to the Kaiten mission was “someone who has no anxiety about his family after his death.”

Taro was turned down once on the grounds that he was the eldest son in the family. It was a norm in Japanese households for the eldest son to assume various responsibilities, including inheriting the family business or taking care of aging parents.

But Taro insisted on joining by signing a letter with his blood that it was not a concern as he had a brother.

His plea was finally granted.

But Tsukamoto learned about his brother's acceptance into the suicide corps long after it occurred.

POIGNANT RECORDING LEFT BEHIND

Although Taro did not tell his family about his assignment, he was determined to record his “will” during his return.

He traveled to his father’s recording studio in Tokyo’s Ginza district. His father ran an advertising agency.

At the beginning of the recording, Taro recounted memorable childhood days--playing in a river with friends, going to a summer festival and having family quarrels--rather fluently and in even tones.

“I wish I could live with you to have a happy life for a long time,” he said wistfully.

Then, his tone turned resolute and what he said became patriotic.

“But I am convinced that before being a member of such a happy family, I should never forget being a Japanese.

“Right on that moment on Dec. 8, we young men were given the privilege of dedicating all our lives to serving our country,” he said, referring to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that plunged it into war against the United States.

Taro concluded his recording of two minutes and 35 seconds, saying, “Farewell, I will go with high spirits.”

In a family photo taken while on leave, Tsukamoto smiled next to Taro.

FINAL MISSION A MYSTERY

In January 1945, Taro stayed in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, where there was a base for Kaiten trainees.

On Jan. 9, Taro left Ozushima island in Shunan, Yamaguchi Prefecture, as an ensign in a submarine carrying 112 sailors. The island was home to the first base built to train Kaiten pilots. Their destination was the Ulithi Atoll in the western Pacific, where U.S. Navy vessels were congregated to prepare campaigns in the region.

The submarine carried Kaiten crafts, where Taro and other volunteers were supposed to pilot when it came near its target.

But the submarine went missing and its whereabouts remains unknown.

The date of their deaths was listed as Jan. 21, 1945, when Kaiten torpedoes were scheduled to be launched.

PUBLIC CAN HEAR RECORDING

The aged recording was a treasure to Tsukamoto. He converted it to a tape recording and dedicated it to the Kaiten Memorial Museum in Shunan. The museum memorializes sailors who were killed in Kaiten missions.

Visitors to the museum can listen to Taro's words as a digitized version was made available there in May last year.

The audio is the only surviving recording of a Kaiten driver. In the Kaiten campaign, 106 sailors died, including those who lost their lives during training.

Every time Tsukamoto heard Taro’s voice, he thought of the life his beloved brother would have had if there had had been no war. And the inevitable question he asked himself is, “Am I living each day to its fullest?”

Tsukamoto hopes all the visitors who listen to Taro’s recording at the museum will do the same.