Japanese Commanding Officer: "No… you must die."
Being a child of the 1960s and a student of all eras of history, two of the things that initially attracted me to Japan was its participation in World War II—particularly the atomic bombings and its kamikaze. In fact, I told the JET Programme people interviewing me that I really wanted to talk about the war with the elder folks... to get a different insight on war, rather than what was written by the winners
I don't believe I have actually written anything about the kamikaze, except perhaps a pretty damned detailed article on the Ohka, Japan's suicide rocket planes, a little known forerunner to the kamikaze plane attacks that the rest of the world actually knows about.
So… let's look at the kamikaze.
I recently (Sunday night) watched a well-done documentary released in 2008 called Day Of The Kamikaze, which tries to explain just how it is that the country could elicit such rampant devotion as to be willing to go on suicide missions. It's on NetFlix, if you have that available.
What do we know about the kamikaze (translates to 'God Wind or Divine Wind')? We (non-Japanese) tend to think of them as insane suicide pilots willing to fly and crash their airplanes into Allied ships during WWII.
That much is true, but they were anything but insane.
And yet, many an Allied military person who felt the wrath of the kamikaze, would have this singular opinion: "That's not the way you are supposed to fight a war."
What could make entire squadrons of Japanese aircraft fly to their deaths? Brainwashing? Of a sort.
It had more to do with the fact that the Japanese were firm believers in their own history of samurai traditions.
Death before dishonor. I know that's not known as a Japanese statement, but where do you think the US took it from? It was a Japanese idiom.
Let's go back to the Spring of 1945. Japan is already on the brink of defeat after a plethora of air-raids have done some major damage to its mainland cities.
Saipan (which I have visited - see my photo photo directly below), was an important Japanese stronghold. Rather than surrender, Japanese civilians and soldiers leaped to their death shouting 'Banzai'. More suicide. Death before dishonor.
|Atop Suicide Cliff in Saipan - the spot where many Japanese civilians and soldiers leaped to their deaths rather than surrender to the US. Photo by Andrew Joseph.|
But, if you didn't know it… a wounded and cornered animal can also be the most dangerous, because it has nothing left to lose.
Just know that the U.S. plan (they did lead the Allied forces in the Pacific Theater) was to land on Japan's mainland and systematically take out out the Japanese forces city by city.
At this time, a US invasion of the Japanese mainland was only a matter of time as US planes had already decimated Japan's naval forces.
In fact… Japan pretty much only had an air force left.
After the kamikaze strategy was devised, it was left up to vice-admiral Ugaki Matome (surname first) (宇垣 纏, b: February 15, 1890 – d: August 15, 1945) to lead a new division called Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (特別攻撃隊 literally: "Special attack unit) and abbreviated to Tokkō Tai.
At this time, the US naval forces were at the Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands (always wanted to be in there) south of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, with a force of 19 vessels, including many aircraft carriers, each carrying 100 planes each.
Ugaki's Tokkō Tai would require Japanese men who would be willing to sacrifice their life in order to save Japan from the anticipated US rape of its land (propaganda), but that if they could destroy Allied aircraft carriers, the Allied air supremacy would be lost.
|Mitsubishi Zero A6M5 Model 52c are sent back from Korea to Kyushû island, to take part in a Kamikaze attack.|
So… on March 11, 1945… an interesting date, eh? Japan launched its first kamikaze attack, in which a lone plane managed to dive and hit the USS Randolph aircraft carrier, killing from the US, 26 crewmen and injuring 105. However, despite the loss of life and damage, the vessel was not sunk and was still available for action.
Despite the losses, the US, at this time, learned that Japan will stop at nothing to win, or rather, to not lose the war.
So… who are these insanely devoted kamikaze that would so willingly give up their life in a suicide run?
Pilots were asked to volunteer from their regular squadrons, to join the Tokkō Tai.
Here's the thing… then, as now, young men were made to feel guilty if they did not volunteer.
You know… honor… it's all about maintaining face in Japan… if you were a samurai and it was your task to defend your master… should that master be killed in battle, you were expected to kill yourself in shame to maintain your family honor.
Upon signing up for the Tokkō Tai, pilots were given a choice… they could sign their name beside one of two boxes: Eager or Very Eager.
For a generation of patriotic youth whose heads had been filled with traditions of honor, love of country and family (which I'm sure sounds familiar to most of us in our own country), the whole kamikaze was impossible to resist… in fact, as part of the recruitment, pilots were told that dying as a kamikaze would make them gods.
But romantic notions aside, not everyone thought that was a good idea… that it was a matter of choice.
Hamazono Shigeyoshi (surname first) was a Navy Special Attack pilot, who says that "In a war… who could say they did not want to go… and look like a coward?"
Following that March 11, 1945 run, which the Japanese considered a failure, they decided to utilize something called the Ohka, which was, as previously mentioned, a suicide rocket. You can read my article on it HERE.
Before this could happen, the US forces took Iwo Jima (you all know that classic image of the soldiers planting the flag - see HERE and HERE).
Here's a Wikipedia on The Battle of Iwo Jima: FLAG.
The US plan after taking Iwo Jima was to take Okinawa before launching an all-out ground attack on the main islands of Japan.
But now it's March 21, 1945… and now with the US forces on Okinawa, the Japanese know that they are in range of the Ohka… and so launch 16 bombers carrying 16 Ohka rocket bombers… but only 30 fighters to act as an escort thanks to recent US attacks.
Fifty US fighter planes intercept the attack (one Japanese fighter pilot says that his heavily laden bomber must have been) "like attacking a fat old lady" for the US fighters, as the Japanese were easy pickings: 160 Japanese killed in 10 minutes.
The Thunder Gods (Ohka pilots) did not manage a single attack.
For reference, under orders from above, the captains of the Thunder Gods squadron were not allowed to fly, and thus survived… and… even to this day, they still feel shame at having survived… at having not flown with their men.
On April 1, 1945, Allied troops landed on Okinawa… expecting a deadly battle every bit as vicious as that experienced on Iwo Jima.
Here's a Wikipedia article on the Battle of Okinawa: BLOODY.
Instead, aside from a token shot or three, there was no Japanese resistance. So, 50,000 troops landed on Okinawa.
But Japan had a plan… leaving the beach unattended, it had moved its troops farther inland, seeking higher ground to pin the Allies down. Suffice to say, this would be the start of a bloody series of battles for both sides.
With the feeling that Japan would be occupied, defenses were dropped a bit, as Britain's navy (people didn't know there was a British navy in the Pacific) had moved in to join the US near Sakishima Islands - part of the disputed stuff with China nowadays.
Truthfully the US did not require British aid, but Britain needed to be there to show its lost colonies that they were still there for them: Singapore and Hong Kong, for example.
Japan launched a kamikaze attack on the British carrier HMS Indefatigable, killing 14 men.
This was the second actual kamikaze hit on vessel, and with apologies to those people, the attack again failed to do much damage.
While US troops are performing ground attacks, US ships are sending long range ammunition onto Okinawa… and Japan was prepping for another attack.
On April 4, 1945 the first of new plan was undertaken… a plan to send hundreds of kamikaze pilots and planes into the air at a single time to attack the US ships at Okinawa…
To train for this, kamikaze were trained how to do a proper kamikaze attack. Some were taught how to skim low across the surface of the water to puncture a hull with the speeding plane; other were taught how to dive.
Diving pilots were taught to fly to a height of 3,000 meters (and to fly with the sun behind them to blind the Allies), dive at an angle to a height of 1,500 meters, and then to fly in a vertical dive into the enemy. For training purposes pilots were encouraged to pull up at the 200 meter mark.
As usual, aircraft carriers were always the main target, though battleships and cruiser-class vessels were next on the pecking order.
And still… according to surviving members of the Special Attack Unit, to speak out against the tactics of the kamikaze was to be branded a traitor.
Welcome to Bushido… which translates to: "The way of the warrior"… something that encompasses over 400 years of battle and blood-stained tradition.
And… honor… it's ingrained in every single Japanese person… at least it was in 1945… you were taught to respect things… even if you didn't agree with them.
On April 6, 1945… that new round of flooding the skies daily with kamikaze began. On that day, 17 ships were sunk, but no aircraft carriers were destroyed, but 367 US men were killed.
Again… with the wave after wave of Japanese kamikaze attacks, the US learned that the Japanese "had no respect for life" and that if they were to land on the Japanese mainlands, it would be a long and dangerous war.
On April 6, still, three US aircraft managed to intercept a Japanese kamikaze pilot… and over the next 35 minutes took turns trying to take him out. The pilot says he did not want to die and was jerking his plane every which way he could in order to stay alive.
After that 35 minutes, the Japanese pilot was surprised to see the American planes wave its wings at him before departing. A sign of respect. The Japanese pilot says he returned the gesture. Both flew home… but the Japanese plane had some 78 holes in his plane, and if he looked down where his feet were, could see the water thanks to the bullet holes.
Although he crashed upon landing, and had a few bullet fragments in his leg, he survived.
Now… with Japan's navy a complete mess, it quickly built the Yamato… her and sister ship the Musahi (sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 24, 1944) were the heaviest and most powerfully-armed battleships the world had ever seen… sailing, with a host of escorts vessels towards the action at Okinawa… but it too was armed with suicide orders.
It was to attack the Allied ships with its guns… and when too badly damaged, it was to beach itself and then continue fighting, with its men engaging the enemy on land.
This was an order. Not a volunteer mission.
Luckily enough, long before it got near Okinawa, Allied subs saw the Yamato on April 7, 1945, and with 11 torpedoes and eight armor piercing bombs making hits, the Yamato was sunk, along with the other escort vessels.
|Japanese battleship Yamato blows up, following massive attacks by
U.S. Navy carrier planes north of Okinawa. An escorting
destroyer is at left.|
Photographed from a USS Yorktown (CV-10) plane.
Collection of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN.
For reference… the deaths suffered by the Japanese on this naval attack was about double that as what the US suffered at Pearl Harbor…
The Yamato and its escorts were essentially the last Japanese naval vessels on the sea. And… now Japan had no way of getting reinforcements to Okinawa.
But… Japan still had more kamikaze. There are always people willing to die for a cause.
Knowing that Japan lacked ships to bring more troops, fuel or food to Okinawa, the US set up 14 naval destroyers around the island - armed with radar - to provide its attacking forces on the island a heads up. Being on the outside around Okinawa, these radar-carrying US destroyers were quite vulnerable.
On April 12, the second heavy wave of kamikaze attacks began. After the initial wave of attacks involving regular kamikaze airplanes, an Ohka rocket blasted into the USS Mannert L. Abele destroyer, sinking it.
On May 8, 1945 while people celebrated VE Day - Victory in Europe day, the Pacific Theater seemed to be forgotten… but the Japanese kept on attacking with their kamikaze runs.
On May 11, 1045, the US flag bearer USS Bunker Hill, an Essex-class aircraft carrier with 90-100 aircraft on-board was very badly damaged when two kamikaze craft hit it killing nearly 400 men.
|USS Bunker Hill hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on May 11, 1945 off Kyushu. From Archival Research Catalog.|
Despite these heavy losses, Japan's Special Attack Unit was racking up heavy losses of its own, with an average of less than two planes per 100 kamikaze actually hitting am Allied vessel… and that was with experienced Japanese pilots.
|Kamikaze pilot Ensign Ogawa Kiyoshi (surname first), who damaged the carrier USS Bunker Hill during Operation Kikusui No. 6 on May 11th, 1945.|
But by this time, Japan was running out of experienced pilots, and was being forced to take raw rookies, who were only too happy to continue volunteering to die for their country thanks to some well-done propaganda.
On May 14, 1945, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) - and the new US flag bearer - was hit for the second and last time by a kamikaze… (The first was on March 11), destroying its forward elevator and killing 14 and wounding 34, and effectively taking her out of the war.
That's two aircraft carriers down, but Japan no longer had the aircraft to sustain the kamikaze offensive with large attacking raids.
Still… they did what they could, and continued raids through June and into July, though the results were not as effective:
3,000 US men dead in April and May 1945.
300 US men dead in June and July 1945.
1,900 kamikaze men died and aircraft lost, sinking or taking out a total of 47 vessels:
• three escort carriers: USS St. Lo, USS Ommaney Bay and USS Bismarck Sea
• 14 destroyers, including the last ship to be sunk, USS Callaghan (DD-792) on 29 July 1945, off Okinawa
• three high-speed transport ships
• five Landing Ship, Tank
• four Landing Ship Medium
• three Landing Ship Medium (Rocket)
• one auxiliary tanker
• three Canadian Victory ships
• three Liberty ships
• two high-speed minesweepers
• one Auk class minesweeper
• one submarine chaser
• two PT boats
• two Landing Craft Support
On June 21, 1945, Okinawa is finally taken by Allied forces - a terribly bloody battle for both sides:
12,000 Allied dead;
200,000 Japanese dead.
With such ferocious fighting by the Japanese, the US wondered aloud just how the Japanese would react when faced with an invading Allied attack force on its main island.
They were worried their own US/Allied casualties would be so heavy… that the Japanese army and the Japanese civilians would never give up…
They knew that the Japanese did not know how to lose... that they did not know how to surrender.
And yet… the Japanese were secretly brokering peace (though in its infancy)… while still publicly being defiant urging its 100 million citizens that they should be willing to die defending their country as the kamikaze did.
As such, the Japanese government trained common citizens to use bamboo poles in an effort to kill or be killed.
But the U.S. didn't know that despite Japan's out of control defiance, that there were cracks in the Japanese psyche… that it wasn't sold on the do-or-die routine. All the US knew was that the Japanese would fight to the death.
It was this fear that led to the US to use the atomic bomb in an effort to end the war quickly.
On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima killing some 90-166,000 people… mostly all civilians, though Hiroshima did have a large squadron of military present.
Hiroshima's health department estimates: 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling debris and 10% from other causes.
US estimates, over the following months suggest: total immediate and short term cause of death, 15–20% died from radiation sickness, 20–30% from burns, and 50–60% from other injuries, compounded by illness.
Not surrendering yet, Japan remained defiant. A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, killing between 60,000-80,000 people, again mostly civilians.
On August 15, six days after Nagasaki was bombed, Japan surrendered. Not knowing how to surrender… remember I said that? It took six days after two of its cities were annihilated!
On that date, for the first time ever, the people of Japan heard its Emperor speak.
However… Ugaki Matome - the leader of the Special Attack Unit - had plans of his own. Citing that he never actually heard an order to lay down its arms, he proposed to take off with a squadron of kamikaze on a mission of his own… to achieve glory and godhood....
And so, Ugaki Matome, escorted by 11 fighter escorts (and 22 men), decided to attack Allied forces at Okinawa… even though he knew that Japan had surrendered.
"…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.—Moby-Dick, Chapter 135. "The Chase.—Third Day"
That would be Captain Ahab or Khan and his maniacal pursuit of the White Whale, Captain Kirk.
|Ugaki Matome (surname first) - moments before his ill-advised attack - the last kamikaze raid. He looks happy.|
And there you have it… the story of the kamikaze… truncated by my self, to be sure…
It's how the ferocity and sacrificial attacks of suicide led to the only usage of atomic weaponry ever… leading to a fearful new world of MAD (mutual assured destruction) hanging over the world since then as countries and so-called terrorist factions seek a nuclear advantage to shape the world in an image forever sullied.
Bushido…. the way of the warrior…. kamikaze… the divine wind… atomic bombings…