Wings ’97 — Atsugi air show

Originally printed in the Clear Lake Courier — August 13, 1997

Naval Air Facility Atsugi competed with a typhoon while presenting its 42nd annual air show the last weekend in June. Wings ‘97 was NAF Atsugi’s “Friendship Day,” one of the events held by American military bases in Japan during the summer to socialize with our Japanese hosts. Eighty aircraft were on display and 125 booths sold food and souvenirs.

Because of Typhoon Peter threatening us Saturday night, the crowd this year was only half of last year’s 300,000. Saturday’s military air show performance was canceled due to overcast skies; the civilian stunt planes performed low-level acrobatics. All airplanes were placed in hangars and all booths dismantled just before the rain began falling. A few spurts of rain and gusts of wind throughout the night were all we got of a typhoon.  Sunday’s clear blue sky and hot sunshine provided perfect air show weather.

Several elderly Japanese men in the front row of the VIP section wore ball caps that said “Atsugi 302” and “1944-5.”  I learned later that the 302nd Naval Air Group had been established at Atsugi in March 1944.

The Marianas Islands were under heavy Allied attack at the time, and Japanese leaders realized B-29 attacks on the mainland would be inevitable if the Marianas fell. The 302nd was the first air group given the chief mission of air defense of the mainland; it was assigned to defend the mainland “to the end.” Half the damage done to B-29s attacking later in the war was inflicted by this group.

Kamikaze pilots also trained at Atsugi. The Japanese Imperial Navy had begun building the “Atsugi Airdrome” in 1938 to handle large, long-range planes.  Lack of money delayed completion.

In 1943 the airdrome became a shore base for carrier planes.  Korean slave labor built twelve huge underground caves to serve as hidden barracks and hangars.  (As far as I know, all tunnel entrances are now sealed for safety reasons.)

Although surrounding towns were burned to the ground, Atsugi was not touched by Allied bombing.

When the war ended, the strong and proud 302nd Naval Air Group refused to obey the surrender order.  These Zero fighter pilots considered the order treason, a conspiracy of those close to the emperor, and they vowed to fight to the death. Citizens from the town gathered outside the base to offer support.

While the “Atsugi revolt” was in progress, U.S. negotiators decided Atsugi’s central location and long concrete runway made it the ideal site for General MacArthur and occupation forces to enter Japan. When the Japanese negotiators tried to convince them this fighter base could not handle transport aircraft, the Americans showed a reconnaissance photo of a four-engine plane taking off there.

Japan, forced to accept that decision, had to quell the revolt quickly and without letting the Americans find out about it.  The high command sent workers to destroy the airplanes on the Atsugi flight line, and the two-week revolt was crushed. General MacArthur arrived several days later.

The base was turned over to the U.S. Army and virtually abandoned until the Korean War. Seabees then built a new runway on top of the old Japanese one, and Naval Air Station Atsugi was commissioned in December 1950.

During the 1960s, the American Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (which had replaced the Imperial Navy) agreed to share NAS Atsugi, which was downgraded to a naval air facility in 1971. In 1991 Atsugi once again became a permanent shore base for carrier planes, this time U.S. Navy aircraft from USS Independence.

Now, on the last Sunday of June 1997, Japanese and Americans together watched the air show demonstrations of Hornets, Tomcats, Prowlers, Vikings, Hawkeyes and Seahawks from Carrier Air Wing Five, as well as Japanese P-3C Orions and several civilian stunt planes.

The performance of an Army Special Forces parachute team was canceled after the team had been blown off course during a practice jump three days earlier; they landed in the town of Yamato, half a mile off-target. (Seven mayors have now petitioned the U.S. military to cancel future air shows because “the accident caused a great deal of uneasiness among local residents.”)

The air show announcer said two famous Lees served at NAS Atsugi–Lee Trevino (golfer) and Lee Harvey Oswald.

I wish I had talked to the elderly Japanese pilots, but getting through the language barrier seemed like too much work. Perhaps I’ll run across them at some other event.  Next time, I’ll be prepared to ask questions.

One Response to “Wings ’97 — Atsugi air show”

  1. Petra Keller Says:

    This is a very informative and well written article about the Atsugi Naval Base. I would recommend this to friends to read it also.
    I know all about language barriers
    Tahnk you for your work and keep it up
    Have a very Merry Christmas

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