Former World War II 'Zero' fighter pilot laments Japan's wartime past

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Story highlights

  • Kaname Harada, 99, was one of a select breed of pilots who flew the iconic Mitsubishi A6M "Zero"
  • But he now devotes what remains what is left of his life to call for peace
  • It comes at a time when Japan is trying to revise its post-war pacifist constitution

Tokyo (CNN)"As 70 years pass by, everything will be gone. But what cannot disappear, is the hatred towards war."

These poignant words were spoken by 99-year-old Kaname Harada, a former Japanese fighter pilot, as he reflected on his country's wartime past seven decades after two atomic bombs brought World War II to an end.
    Harada was one of a select breed of pilots who flew the iconic Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a feared long-range fighter plane operated by the Imperial Japanese Navy between 1940 and 1945.
    "When I chased the enemy planes, they recognized that they were not supposed to fight against the Zeros," Harada told CNN. "As the Zero's bullet hit the opponent, the plane disintegrated in mid-air. Afterwards, the sense of relief and superiority ran through."
    But many of Harada's fellow pilots paid the ultimate price in this brutal war -- especially as Japan became more desperate.
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    During the final years of the Pacific campaign, the Zero was also adapted for use in "kamikaze" operations -- or suicide missions -- when pilots would fly their bomb-laden planes directly into Allied ships in an attempt to cripple the enemy fleet.
    "Men given such an honorable place would be considered lucky," Harada said. "So there was absolutely no guilt, but the feeling of 'Alright, I am going to do my work. This is my last service to my country.'"

    Remorse

    But while many of those who survived experienced a degree of pride in their past heroics, others endured feelings of remorse.
    "Until the war, I had never experienced feelings of wanting to put an end to people I had nothing against. They had families. They had children. They did not want to die. This is my most painful past," Harada said.
    "Enemies looked at me with despair and expressed with their hands for me to have some mercy. But in war, if you let them go, they will attack us back. In the front line, only one side survives."
    When CNN visited his home near Japan's Nagano mountains, west of Tokyo, Harada appeared weak and in failing health, only able to walk into the room with the help of his daughter. She now lives with her father after her mother died several years ago.

    Redemption

    But as Harada contemplates his own mortality, he's been using what strength and conviction he has left to send a message to the Japanese people -- and perhaps achieve a degree of redemption.
    "There is nothing more miserable than war in this world. We should raise our voices to let the next generation become aware of this, and ask to them to maintain peace," Harada said. "This is the least I can do to atone for the bad feelings I have."
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    Harada said his main concern is that as his war generation dies out, decisions about Japan's future will rest with younger people who have only known peace and never experienced the horrors of war.
    His message comes as Japan remembers the devastating consequences of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. 70 years ago, which bludgeoned Japan into unconditional surrender. The attacks were the first time atomic bombs were used in conflict, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the initial blast, and from radiation fallout in later years.

    Japan's future

    But as Japan looks back on its darkest hour, it is also contemplating a critical change to its future.
    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to rework Japan's post-war pacifist constitution to allow troops to be deployed abroad. While the controversial new legislation is expected to be approved by the Japanese parliament, it has divided the nation.
    For Harada, there's no argument. "I can't say anything lukewarm as 'I'm against war, I don't like war.' There is nothing as ugly as war."
    One of the Harada's most vivid memories was witnessing how medical care was divided up between the wounded after an attack.
    "When I stepped onto the ship, there were many people with no hands, no legs. They screamed, 'I'm suffering. I need water. Mother!' There was no space for me to put my feet since the ground was covered with severely injured people," Harada said.
    "I said, 'I flew for five hours and my body feels numb, but I am not hurt, so please look after those who are badly injured.'
    "They told me, 'You are in the front line. The severely injured ones are the last priority.'
    "In war, there is no such thing as human rights. Everybody is just a weapon."