Zero Hero: Man Who Downed Pappy Boyington

My new-found acquaintance is a pleasant, 66-year-old man who lives alone in an apartment in Redmond. His name is Masajiro "Mike" Kawato.

Mike is slight of build, a bit wrinkled, speaks pretty good English, and has 17 bullet wounds, including one in his head where he unsuccessfully tried to kill himself.

Kawato, a pilot, once was known as "a man without a country," and he must be the only living person in all the world who made a pilgrimage to the site of his own funeral.

Mike has one further distinction - he is the only World War II Japanese Zero pilot, a war ace, living in America.

At the age of 18, Mike flew his first Zero combat mission and, at the age of 19, shot down Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, America's most renowned fighter jock.

Kawato recorded 19 confirmed "kills" of Allied airplanes in the South Pacific. Marine ace Boyington shot down 27 Japanese planes.

"But we were friends," Kawato said, "even though he did not like the title of my book."

Kawato's book, published in 1978, is titled "Bye Bye Black Sheep," a gentle put-down of Boyington's own best-seller, "Baa Baa Black Sheep," later made into a TV series.

Their first meeting was unabashed melodrama. They were brought together at a Kiwanis luncheon at the Los Angeles airport in 1977. Boyington, a bit late, entered the hall and strode down the aisle to scattered applause.

Ignoring everyone else, Boyington marched straight to Kawato,

pulled him into a bear hug and the two embraced before a standing ovation.

Later, Boyington said, "We were both part of an era that is gone now and will never be replaced. Animosity never existed among pilots."

It was the era of the great fighter jocks, the single-combat warriors of World War II, whose deadly air battles have inspired countless movies, television dramas and documentaries.

How does Kawato know, for sure, that it was the famed American ace he shot down?

"We compared the location and the situation. Pappy remembered it as I did," Mike said.

He went on to describe the encounter, which happened over York Island, called Matsushima Island by the Japanese, near the Japanese air base at Rabaul.

Kawato describes the fight in his book, but the other day, at the Washington Park home of his friend, Wallace Barr, he recounted it again with hand gestures.

It was a strange sight, he said. An American F4U Corsair was chasing a Zero. Right behind the F4U was another Zero, followed by another F4U. The first Zero burst into flames and crashed. A moment later, the F4U headed down in smoke and flames.

Kawato, who was much higher at 15,000 feet, made a dive on the second Corsair, the one piloted by Boyington.

"I came down too low behind the Corsair," Mike said, "then I got back up behind him."

He fired bursts of 20mm gunfire. Boyington's plane began to smoke as he zigzagged and descended to escape the Zero.

At about 1,000 feet, the Corsair's canopy opened and Kawato said he saw a figure jump out. The Corsair crashed into the ocean after the pilot ejected in his parachute.

The pilot was, as later confirmed, Boyington, who spent the remainder of the war in a Japanese prison camp.

A word about the Japanese Zero fighter. It was designed by the late Jiro Horikoshi (he died in 1982) and built by Mitsubishi.

In the beginning of the South Pacific war it was the scourge of Allied fighters - being fast and maneuverable, with an armorless thin skin that made it light and dangerous.

The Zero was deadly, armed with machine guns and two 20mm cannon. It had exceptional firepower for its time, and it was especially deadly in the hands of an ace like Masajiro Kawato.

Kawato, who engaged in many air fights, was downed five times. The fifth was almost the finisher. At Jackinot Bay, New Britain Island, he attacked an American destroyer. With his Zero crippled and himself badly wounded, Kawato settled on a suicide crash on the destroyer.

But return fire zapped his Zero off course and Kawato cartwheeled into the ocean. Numbed and severely wounded, he feared capture by the Americans, and tried to fire his pistol into his right temple. The gun was empty.

Painfully, in true agony, he reloaded the gun and tried again. This time he connected, but only enough to knock himself into unconsciousness. He drifted for days, then hid out on a nearby island.

Eventually, he was picked up by Americans and taken to a hospital in Australia. It took him months, even years, to get well. At war's end, he went back to Tokyo to find he had been officially declared dead.

It took him a long time to regain his citizenship with what was left of the Japanese government. It was during this time, too, that he reunited with his family and visited the site where they held his funeral service.

Kawato is indomitable. After World War II, he worked as an instructor and test pilot. Among other flying jobs, he was a pilot for Japan Airlines on domestic flights.

In 1976, after three years of planning and $60,000 he had saved and borrowed, he made the first nonstop flight in a single-engine aircraft from Haneda Airport, Tokyo, to Crescent City, Calif., more than 5,000 miles in 35 hours and 15 minutes. He did it in a Piper Comanche.

He did it, he says, for three reasons: "To emulate Charles Lindbergh's flight to Paris in 1927, to recognize the U.S. centennial and to honor the spirits of World War II fighting men, Americans and Japanese alike."

"Bye Bye Black Sheep" is an action-packed personal account of a miraculous life, one that airplane buffs have been buying in increasing numbers.

Kawato makes little money these days except for proceeds from his book. If you want an autographed copy, you can reach him in Redmond at 4850 156th N.E., No. 95. Zip is 98052.

"Don't you at least get a pension?" I asked him.

"Very little," Mike shrugged. His face brightened, then receded into a wry smile. "We lost the war," he explained.

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.