Monday, March 2, 2015
KAMIKAZE “Divine wind.”
The original kamikaze was a typhoon that destroyed a Mongol invasion fleet in 1281. The term was revived in reference to Japanese suicide pilots who crashed planes loaded with ordnance into enemy warships starting in 1944 in the skies around the Philippines. A strictly military reason for deploying kamikaze was that the tactic could make use of trainer aircraft and outmoded “Zeros,” “Kates,” and “Vals.” That spoke to the overall inefficiency of the Japanese aircraft industry and its dramatic decay and decline in warplane production during 1944. While militarily ineffective, kamikaze addressed Japanese national morale, which was badly in decline by late 1944 but rallied to some degree around the sacrifice and symbolism of the young kamikaze. On the other hand, it is important to note that not all kamikaze were volunteers: attack squadrons were escorted by fighters ready to shoot down those who faltered, while any pilot who returned to base was imprisoned. Even among those who were volunteers, social shame and peer pressure on young men heavily conditioned their choice. Moreover, many officers in the Army and Navy air forces regarded the exercise as morally vulgar and militarily wasteful. The Navy founded its suicide wing, the “Special Attack Corps,” in 1944. The Army followed suit, founding its “Banda unit”—or the “Ten Thousand Pilots”—in October 1944. Kamikaze and Banda tactics formed part of a larger pathology of death that saturated Japan in the closing months of the war, conducing to many other types of suicide attacks, slaughtering of prisoners of war, and a pervasive fatalism and resignation about looming individual death and national defeat, all mixed with rising popular dissatisfaction with Japan’s war leaders and growing elite unease over possible rebellion.
The first kamikaze attack may have been made on October 21, 1944, against an Australian cruiser. Attacks against U.S. warships four days later during the fight at Leyte Gulf were certainly official kamikaze, and scored the first ship kill: a U.S. escort carrier. By the end of the war, 1,388 Japanese Army pilots died in suicide attacks. Thousands more naval aviators died, 4,000 or more. Few kamikaze pilots were military professionals. Most of the original group of 1,000 “tokkotai” (“special attackers”) were college students in their early 20s, drawn directly from officer candidate programs of Japan’s elite universities. Later groups were mostly lower-class boys, often as young as 16 or 17 years old, enlisted directly out of high school air cadet programs. Tactics were simple: a high, unrecoverably steep dive that targeted the enemy amidships; or a low-level, water-skimming approach that came in beneath defending anti-aircraft guns, then popped up at the last second to ram the ship while carrying a 500 lb bomb. Kamikaze attacks were often part of larger air assaults that included conventional bombing runs by pilots and air crew who fully expected, or hoped, to return to base.
The greatest kamikaze effort was made against the invasion fleet off Okinawa from April to June, 1945. Kamikaze attacks sank 38 warships, though none larger than a destroyer; they damaged nearly 200 more, while killing 4,907 U.S. sailors. The Japanese plan was to allow an initial landing, then isolate and destroy it by driving away the supporting fleet. A naval task force centered on the giant battleship IJN Yamato sailed south with only enough fuel to reach and attack the invasion fleet. Some dispute that its mission may be fairly characterized as a suicide run as the apparent intention was to beach “Yamato” and fight it out with its massive deck guns. Before that could happen the task force was met by several hundred U.S. naval aircraft and the “Yamato” and its escorts were sunk with great loss of life. About 25 percent of all enemy ships struck by kamikaze were sunk. Kamikaze hit 402 enemy warships in all, putting 375 out of action for some period of time, including 12 carriers of various type. That still left thousands of enemy warships and transports hovering around Japan’s home islands, readying to support invasion. After the surrender, Allied inspectors found over 5,000 aircraft ready for kamikaze service.
Allied countermeasures against kamikaze were highly effective. They included deploying decoy ships to steer inexperienced pilots away from major capital warships, increased anti-aircraft guns on all ships, and provision of an especially heavy Combat Air Patrol (CAP) by dozens of carriers. The CAP was maintained over the fleet at Okinawa to shoot down suicide attacks at safe distances. It also should be remembered that the vast majority of unskilled kamikaze pilots who tried to hit enemy ships instead missed and splashed, or were shot down during the attempt. The danger from kamikaze at Okinawa diverted a number of B-29 raids intended to pound Japan’s cities to instead bomb kamikaze and Banda airfields, although given the enemy’s overwhelming superiority in the air that temporary shift of the strategic bomber force hardly mattered to the outcome. Some 10,000 obsolete old trainers, along with a few new aircraft, were held in reserve for use as kamikazes pending invasions of the home islands that never took place. They were captured and destroyed after the occupation of Japan.