WWII Japanese pilot is a god in Taiwan

World War II Japanese fighter pilot Sugiura Shigemine is worshiped as a god for his sacrifice in Tainan

Figure of General Flying Tiger (Image from 海尾鎮安堂.飛虎將軍 Facebook page)

Figure of General Flying Tiger (Image from 海尾鎮安堂.飛虎將軍 Facebook page)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- A small temple in a quiet neighborhood of Tainan holds an unusual secret -- a shrine dedicated to a fallen Japanese fighter pilot from WWII who sacrificed himself to save the area's residents and has since been deified.

During World War II, Taiwan was a major hub for the Japanese military's South Pacific campaigns, and so it eventually became a target of allied bombings as they sought to tighten the noose on the remnants of the Empire of Japan. On the morning of Oct. 12, 1944, aircraft of the U.S. Third Fleet began bombing the area in Tainan where the temple now stands because it was next to a major military installation used by the Japanese.

Sugiura Shigemine, a 20-year old Japanese fighter pilot, flew his Model 32 Zero to engage the American warplanes in an effort to defend his base against superior numbers. During the course of the battle, his aircraft was struck by allied fire, and it began to hurtle toward the small coastal town. Instead of bailing out and parachuting from his aircraft, he chose to stay inside the plane to steer it away from the village.

Many elderly witnesses can still vividly recall the moment when he guided his crippled plane into a nearby field where it crashed, killing him instantly, but likely saving many lives of the civilians in the town. So intense was the impact of the crash, that his body was only identifiable by his boots. His remains were later recovered by the Japanese military and he was given memorials in Taiwan and his native Mito, Japan.

Twenty years after the war had ended and virtually all Japanese had left Taiwan, a young man in a white cap and naval uniform began appearing to local villagers in their dreams, while others reported sighting him lingering around a nearby farm. To find an answer about the identity of this man, villagers contacted a priest of the nearby Chaohuang Temple, who determined that he was the apparition of a solider who had died in the war.

Photo from 海尾鎮安堂.飛虎將軍 Facebook page

With his heroic act still vividly in their minds, the villagers decided that this must be Shigemine and they decided to build a small shrine in his honor in 1971. Eventually a temple was constructed called Zhenan Temple and was moved to its current location in 1993 as it grew in fame.

Sugiura became the patron saint of the village and was bestowed the title General Flying Tiger (飛虎將). Every morning worshipers play the Japanese national anthem and light a cigarette in front of the three small statuettes made in his likeness because cigarettes were one of the few indulgences the pilots were allowed, and helped calm their nerves before battle. Then in the evening, they play the Japanese naval song"Umi Yukaba" (If I Should Go to Sea).

Photo from 海尾鎮安堂.飛虎將軍 Facebook page

The faithful come to ask the god to ensure peace, achieve high entrance exam scores, help find lost items, and provide life guidance.

In recent years, the god appeared in a vision to the temple's manager asking for a vessel to carry him outside the temple on pilgrimages. In 2015, enough funds were raised to build such a vessel (mikoshi) and in Sept. 2016 he was taken on a pilgrimage to his native town of Mito in Japan, where he was given a parade and memorial.

Photo from 海尾鎮安堂.飛虎將軍 Facebook page