Aerial suicide attacks waged by Japanese pilots against Allied forces as Japan faced catastrophic defeat in World War II.
Tales of suicidal acts of bravery and extremely dangerous missions are found in many nations’ war histories and heroic legends. During the Battle of Midway (1942) in World War II (1939-1945), American torpedo bomber pilots pressed on with their attacks despite impossible odds and severe losses. However, various religious, social, and military influences led Japan at World War II’s end to conduct a sustained attack campaign that obviously entailed the attackers’ deaths.
For the Japanese, mixed religious influences had bred their extreme reverence for one’s lord and ancestors, strong allegiance to one’s family and emperor, and a desire not to bring shame upon one’s family or country. According to Japanese tradition, both life and death with honor guaranteed a godly standing in the afterlife.
The rise of militarism in early twentieth century Japan engendered a widespread embrace of the Bushido code of conduct espoused by the samurai warrior class. The Bushido code emphasized a profound sense of loyalty and honor, that would extend even to suicide if defeat or disgrace loomed.
In June, 1944, defeat directly confronted the Japanese, as the Americans crushed its naval, land, and air forces during the Marianas Islands invasion and the accompanying naval battle in the Philippine Sea. Japanese air losses were so severe they prompted U.S. Navy fighter pilots to nickname the battle the “Marianas Turkey Shoot.” Stuck with increasingly inferior planes and unable to replace fallen pilots, Japanese military leaders explored other means of averting defeat and shame. Despite some opposition, lower-ranking officers had already suggested that, given inevitable high losses, crashing an airplane or other craft into an American ship would be a relatively inexpensive trade of one person, or at most, a few people, for an entire enemy vessel. Advocates felt this “body-crashing” tactic would also openly demonstrate superior Japanese willpower. In early October, 1944, Japanese rear admiral Masafumi Arima crashed a bomber into and damaged the aircraft carrier USS Franklin. His act signalled an apparent sanction by higher command and galvanized further action.
In mid-October, 1944, as American landings in the Philippine Islands appeared likely, the swashbuckling, air-power-minded Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi assumed command of part of Japan’s land-based air defenses there. Hoping to support the Japanese fleet as it attempted a desperate counterattack, he pushed for the creation of the first suicide air groups. Composed entirely of volunteers, they embraced the battle nickname “kamikaze,” meaning “divine wind,” recalling the typhoons that had saved Japan from Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century.
The Japanese did not make many kamikaze attacks during the ensuing Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944), but they seriously damaged several ships and sank one small aircraft carrier, providing one bright spot in their otherwise overwhelming naval defeat. Thus, with their navy practically destroyed, and their overall war situation growing more dire, Japanese leaders expanded the kamikaze effort from an extraordinary battle tactic to a full-fledged campaign.
After Leyte Gulf, Japan fielded a variety of suicide units. The Japanese navy produced midget submarines that functioned as human-guided torpedoes. Both the army and navy deployed small boats carrying bombs to thwart amphibious landings. Although these sea-based efforts yielded some success, kamikaze air attacks were by far more productive.
As the Americans commenced amphibious landings at Leyte Gulf and further north on Mindoro Island through the end of 1944, the Japanese intensified their aerial kamikaze operation. The U.S. landings required that many American ships remain stationary offshore, thus easing the kamikazes task. Smaller, less heavily armored ships such as transports, destroyers, minesweepers, and escort aircraft carriers were especially vulnerable. Kamikazes damaged and sank several ships during this time, but the effort eliminated Admiral Onishi’s air force.
When the Americans and their allies commenced landings at Luzon Island’s Lingayen Gulf in January, 1945, the remaining Japanese air units on the Philippine Islands commenced almost continual kamikaze attacks that sank or damaged dozens of ships until almost no Japanese planes were left. As the Americans advanced closer to Japan, other air units eagerly assumed the kamikaze role. Forming a new kamikaze outfit on Taiwan, Admiral Onishi directed attacks that crippled a few carriers and destroyers operating nearby. Suicide planes disabled the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga and sank an escort carrier just prior to the February, 1945, landings on Iwo Jima. Because Japanese fighter planes had difficulty shooting down B-29 bombers raiding Japan, individual pilots conducted ramming attacks.
The most spectacular kamikaze assault occurred during the Battle of Okinawa (1945). Under the command of Vice Admiral Matome Ugacki, southern Japan-based kamikaze units not only attacked ships involved in the Okinawa landing, but also attempted a raid on the U.S. naval anchorage at Ulithi, an atoll island group east of the Philippines. From March through June, 1945, successive waves of massed kamikaze attacks, known as kikusui, or “floating chrysanthemum,” for spiritual purity, exacted a fearful toll. More than twenty U.S. ships were sunk and an equal number were severely damaged. However, the kamikaze threat was dissipated before the war ended by U.S. air raids on kamikaze bases and by the obvious operating cost of the kamikaze raids themselves. Although their own surrender later preempted an invasion of their homeland, the Japanese husbanded resources for a kamikaze campaign against it. On the war’s last day, Admiral Ugaki died in a failed kamikaze mission, and Admiral Onishi committed suicide.
One reason for Japan’s conservation of resources for an expected invasion of its homeland was an increasing lack of trained fliers. Japanese leaders embraced the kamikaze strategy in part because relatively unskilled pilots could be used. Up until the Okinawa fighting, Japanese pilots willfully sacrificed themselves to national adoration. However, the continued loss of pilots required ever more replacements. This relentless operational toll spurred more aggressive recruiting, and Japanese army aviation units eventually drafted nonvolunteers to fly kamikaze missions. However, a desire to avoid shaming one’s peers, family, and emperor amid Japan’s desperate situation ensured deliberate sacrifice by all, including conscripts.
Although Japan’s fuel and aircraft construction problems hindered the kamikaze effort somewhat, kamikaze planes needed only to crash into their target, therefore the shortages had less effect than they might have in a conventional air campaign. Although the Japanese kamikazes used many types of airplane, such as twin-engine bombers, dive-bombers, trainers, and even seaplanes, they most often used the venerable Mitsubishi Zero fighter. Kamikaze planes usually carried bombs for extra destructive effect.
The Japanese created a specially designed suicide plane, the Okha, or Cherry Blossom, which the Americans nicknamed “Baka,” or “Crazy.” Launched from a bomber plane’s belly, the Okha’s small rockets initially propelled it for a high-speed glide, with target impact detonating a warhead in its nose. Okhas and their “Thunder God” pilots achieved moderate success, but often their bomber carriers were shot down before they reached the Okhas’ fifteen-mile range.
Kamikaze units carefully considered their tactics. Reconnaissance planes located American ships and helped guide the kamikazes, who favored traveling in formations in order to mass their overall attack. Experienced fighter pilots escorted the formations to provide navigational assistance, protection, and after-action reports. Given strong American defenses, kamikaze formations sometimes snuck toward their targets by following American carrier planes returning home. Additionally, attacks from land, as during the Lingayen Gulf amphibious operations, allowed kamikazes a better element of surprise than did attacks from the sea, as at Okinawa. Kamikazes preferred twilight attacks, in which low visibility hindered the defenders target spotting, although it could also hinder the kamikazes as well.
Once in the target area, the formations split up for individual attacks. Kamikaze forces would have liked to mass their attacks against their prized targets, aircraft carriers. However, a combination of too few kamikazes, too many carriers, and too strong air defenses often prevented this strategy. Kamikazes apparently picked the best vessels available as they encountered swarming fighters and a hail of defensive fire. During the Okinawa campaign, for example, destroyers on the U.S. fleet’s defensive perimeter were popular targets.
The kamikazes preferred either high-altitude, steep-dive attacks, or very low target runs culminating in a pop-up climbing maneuver that went into a steep dive. Sometimes, they quickly shifted away from one ship to strike another one nearby. In order to maximize damage, they tried to hit aircraft carrier elevators and ships’ superstructures. Some even strafed their targets during their final approach. For all this effort, however, the mission’s inexorable attrition degraded tactical sophistication as more inexperienced pilots became kamikazes.
Intense kamikaze assaults such as those at Lingayen Gulf and Okinawa shook Allied sailors who had never experienced this type of warfare and understood that the only way to prevent being hit was to destroy a kamikaze plane outright. Lesser-caliber guns that scored well against conventional attacks failed to stop a determined kamikaze, and concentrated barrage fire by guns of 5-inch caliber or greater was a better solution. However, even small-caliber guns had some effect as long as gunners led their target and sustained fire.
The United States used airplanes against the kamikazes; fighters intercepted them and bombers attacked kamikaze airfields. One reason kamikazes attacked the destroyers on the outer perimeter of the Okinawa invasion fleet was that these ships controlled the interceptor fighters. Kamikaze formations, with their inferior planes and their pilots’ inexperience and resolve to press on toward their targets, were decimated by the Americans. Indeed, U.S. Navy fighter aces such as Commander Eugene Valencia achieved impressive aerial victory tallies during the Okinawa fighting. Airfield attacks eased the kamikaze scourge at Lingayen Gulf and Okinawa.
Damage-control strengths, such as the Americans’ water fog firefighting technique, also saved stricken ships. The aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill endured an attack that killed four hundred crew members. British carriers with armored flight decks better withstood kamikaze hits than their unarmored American counterparts. Finally, many ships survived because kamikazes hit their upper superstructures instead of their hulls, nearer to the waterline. Kamikazes also lacked the mass and velocity of a well-directed heavy shell or properly released bomb.
Kamikaze air attacks were costly to both sides. Although kamikaze missions took many Allied ships and sailors, they also required the attackers’ self-destruction. For a loss of nearly 4,000 aircrew, over 3,000 kamikaze sorties scored roughly 360 hits on about 350 different boats and ships. Of these, fifty-six sank, including three small escort carriers, seventeen destroyers, and dozens of transports. Eight large aircraft carriers, five smaller carriers, and six battleships were among the many vessels whose damage required at least some time away from combat. Total human casualty estimates vary, but the Okinawa kamikaze campaign alone resulted in the deaths of approximately 3,000 U.S. Navy sailors.
For all the havoc wreaked by kamikazes, the United States possessed the resources to overcome it. Further, kamikaze attacks incurred an assured depletion of Japan’s own air forces. As the statistics show, kamikazes more frequently crashed or were shot down than achieved their objectives. Still, they confronted Americans with an unprecedented level of commitment that at times adversely affected American sailors’ morale. This commitment may have seemed foolhardy to the Allies, but it served as a human model for late-twentieth century mechanical “smart” weapons. It also convinced Americans that an invasion of Japan would involve heavy casualties.
Hoyt, Edwin. Japan’s War: The Great Pacific Conflict, 1853 to 1952. New York: Da Capo Press, 1986. A nice historical overview of Japanese militarism and warfare philosophies. _______. The Last Kamikaze. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993. A biography of the honor-bound admiral who led the Okinawa kamikaze air campaign. Inoguchi, Rikhei, Tadashi Nakajima, and Roger Pineau. The Divine Wind. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1958. A valuable classic, in which two kamikaze unit leaders tell their story, focusing primarily upon Admiral Onishi’s efforts. Millot, Bernard. Divine Thunder. Translated by Lowell Blair. New York: McCall, 1971. A good short survey of the overall kamikaze effort. Naito, Hatsuho. Thunder Gods. Translated by Boye De Menthe. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1989. The Okha units’ human side, including the stresses and internal frictions that sometimes shook the pilots’ attitudes toward their mission and leaders. Seno, Sadao, Denis Warner, and Peggy Warner. The Sacred Warriors. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982. A very good detailed survey of the kamikaze campaign from both American and Japanese perspectives.
Navy pilots, U.S.
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bombing
World War II
A Japanese kamikaze pilot swoops over a U.S. warship during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October, 1944.