It was during the Battle of Leyte Gulf that Japanese naval airmen first adopted kamikaze tactics. On 19 October 1944, Admiral Takijira Ohnishi, commander of the First Air Fleet, suggested to commanders based at Mabalacat airfield in the Philippines that “the only way of assuring that our meagre strength will be effective to a maximum degree” would be “to organize suicide attack units… with each plane to crash-dive into an enemy carrier.” Twenty-six pilots enthusiastically volunteered to form the first “special attack unit”. They were dubbed kamikaze (“divine wind”) after a typhoon that had miraculously saved Japan from Mongolian invasion in the 13th century.
Nothing was spared in the effort to bolster morale in men effectively condemned to death. Ohnishi assured them that they were “already gods, without earthly desires”. A ritual was improvised just before take-off: the kamikaze pilots drank a glass of water or sake, sang a traditional martial song, and donned the hachimaki headband once worn by the samurai. Thus encouraged, they went off to die for the emperor. On 25 October, a kamikaze pilot crashed a Mitsubishi Zero through the flightdeck of the escort carrier St Lo, dowsing the hangars in burning gasoline that ignited stored ammunition. Ripped apart by a violent explosion, the St Lo sank within an hour. It was a notable success for Japan amid abject failure. Over the following months, kamikaze tactics were adopted throughout the now land-based Japanese naval air force and the army air force.
There was a clear military logic to turning their aircraft into manned, guided missiles. Technologically inferior to the Americans and forced to throw poorly trained pilots into battle, the Japanese could see no other way of reaching and hitting their targets. Japan’s airmen had been flying off in their hundreds to die for the emperor without inflicting the slightest damage on the US fleet. Now they would still die, but not in vain. Kamikaze pilots were presented as an elite who proved through their sacrifice the superiority of the Japanese warrior spirit even in defeat.
The reality was different. As soon as kamikaze attacks became a general tactic, it was obvious that suicide missions would be an absurdly quick way of using up the limited number of experienced pilots. Inevitably, the suicide planes were entrusted to second-raters, dispensable and in more plentiful supply. The experienced pilots flew escort, using their skills to fend off the American fighters. So even in the early days, when suicide attacks were carried out by small groups of aircraft, the kamikaze pilot was hardly a member of an elite.
By April 1945, Japanese commanders were herding idealistic young men to slaughter in droves. As the Americans began their invasion of Okinawa, a force of over 2,000 aircraft dedicated to suicide attacks was assembled on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu under the command of Admiral Matome Ugaki. They were launched in mass attacks on the US fleet, hundreds of planes at a time attempting to overwhelm the American defences. The pilots for these kikusui (“floating chrysanthemum”) raids were often recently drafted students who barely knew how to fly. Kanoya, the main naval air-force base on Kyushu, was under constant threat from B-29 bomber raids. The pilots were housed in half-ruined buildings, bedding down on the bare floor. In these uncomfortable and insecure surroundings, they awaited their first and last mission, most convinced that their death would be honourable and worthwhile.
Kamikaze attacks undeniably had both a psychological and physical impact on the US fleet. The bewilderment and sheer terror experienced by American sailors when they first encountered suicide bombing cannot be quantified, although it never undermined their disciplined response. The physical damage inflicted is reckoned at 34 vessels sunk and 288 damaged – a considerable battering for the US Navy and, in the later stages, its British allies. After the war, the US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that if the attacks had been carried out “in greater power and concentration they might have been able to cause us to withdraw…”. But Japan did not have the resources to sustain mass suicide bombing for long. Whereas on 6 and 7 April 1945, at the height of the kamikaze frenzy, more than 300 planes a day attacked the US fleet, by June the Japanese were hard pressed to find 50 aircraft for a raid. Some 2,000 Japanese aircraft and pilots were lost in suicide attacks, far more than could be replaced.
In the end, pitting the samurai spirit of heroic self-sacrifice against overwhelming industrial might was bound to fail. The Americans organized better for production and for combat. Commanders who valued the lives of their men – and airmen who valued their own lives – fought more effectively than those who glorified death in battle.
When the Japanese emperor broadcast his country’s surrender on 15 August 1945, kamikaze commander Admiral Ugaki took off with ten other pilots on a final suicide mission. On his aircraft radio he announced: “I am going to make an attack on Okinawa where my men have fallen like cherry blossoms. There I will crash into and destroy the hated enemy in the true spirit of bushido…”. The admiral and his pilots were never seen again.