A major turning point in the Second World War was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Not only did December 7th, 1941 see the death of 2403 Americans, but it marked a new chapter in the war – the United States joined the fight immediately after the Japanese assault.
The ensuing conflict between America and Japan led to numerous innovations in tactics and technology, but one strategical development stands out in particular: Kamikaze attacks. Of course, the infamous suicide missions carried out by Japanese pilots weren’t enough to defeat the US.
Still, here are five facts about one of the most deadly military strategies used during the Second World War.
Kamikaze” Means “Divine Wind
The word Kamikaze translates literally as “Divine Wind”. Though the phrase is now associated primarily with the deadly suicide pilots of the Second World War, its origin is much older.
In fact, the concept of the Divine Wind comes from a 13th Century typhoon that wrecked a Mongolian fleet, saving Japan from an imminent invasion.
It was seen at the time as the work of the gods, who had heard and answered the prayers of the Japanese Emperor.
Most Kamikaze Attacks Missed Their Target
Incredibly, despite the immense sacrifice involved, it’s estimated that only 14% to 19% of Kamikaze aircraft succeeded in hitting their targets.
Many were shot down before they could get close to the ships they were attempting to damage, while others missed through the pilots’ error.
Even with this poor success rate, however, the Kamikaze pilots were still able to earn themselves a place in history as one of Japan’s most dangerous weapons from the Second World War.
Throughout the conflict, at least 47 Allied ships were sunk by Kamikaze fighters, while a further 300 were seriously damaged.
Masafumi Arima Invented The Kamikaze Strategy
One man, in particular, is credited with inventing the tactic of Kamikaze attacks.
Masafumi Arima was a pilot himself, and an Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral in the Second World War.
Apparently, before an attack on a US aircraft carrier, he took off all symbols and insignia of his rank and informed the men under his command that he did not intend to come back alive.
While some historians claim that he didn’t actually hit his target – no damage was reported on any American ships in the area that day – he was never seen again. Following his apparent death, Arima was given the rank of vice admiral.
Leyte Gulf: the first attacks
Several suicide attacks, carried out during the invasion of Leyte, by Japanese pilots from units other than the Special Attack Force, have been described as the first kamikaze attack.
Early on 21 October, a Japanese aircraft, possibly a Navy Aichi D3A dive-bomber or an Army Mitsubishi Ki-51 of the 6th Flying Brigade, Imperial Japanese Army Air Force deliberately crashed into the foremast of the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia.
The attack killed 30 personnel, including the cruiser’s captain, Emile Dechaineux, and wounded 64, including the Australian force commander, Commodore John Collins.
The Australian official history of the war claimed that this was the first kamikaze attack on an Allied ship, although other sources disagree because it was not a planned attack by a member of the Special Attack Force, but was most likely to have been undertaken on the pilot’s own initiative.
The sinking of the ocean tug USS Sonoma on 24 October is listed in some sources as the first ship lost to a kamikaze strike, but the attack occurred before 25 October, and the aircraft used, a Mitsubishi G4M, was not flown by the original four Special Attack Squadrons.
On 25 October 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Kamikaze Special Attack Force carried out its first mission. Five A6M Zeros, led by Seki, and escorted to the target by leading Japanese ace Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, attacked several escort carriers. One Zero attempted to hit the bridge of USS Kitkun Bay but instead exploded on the port catwalk and cartwheeled into the sea.
Two others dived at USS Fanshaw Bay but were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire. The last two ran at USS White Plains. One, under heavy fire and trailing smoke, aborted the attempt on White Plains and instead banked toward USS St. Lo, plowing into the flight deck. Its bomb caused fires that resulted in the bomb magazine exploding, sinking the carrier.
By day’s end on 26 October, 55 kamikazes from the Special Attack Force had also damaged the large escort carriers USS Sangamon, Suwannee which had also been struck by a kamikaze at 08:04 forward of its aft elevator on 25 October, Santee, and the smaller escorts USS White Plains, Kalinin Bay, and Kitkun Bay.
In total, seven carriers were hit, as well as 40 other ships (five sunk, 23 heavily damaged, and 12 moderately damaged).
Main wave of attacks
Early successes – such as the sinking of St. Lo – were followed by an immediate expansion of the program, and over the next few months over 2,000 planes made such attacks.
When Japan began to be subject to intense strategic bombing by Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, the Japanese military attempted to use suicide attacks against this threat.
During the northern hemisphere winter of 1944–45, the IJAAF formed the 47th Air Regiment, also known as the Shinten Special Unit (Shinten Seiku Tai) at Narimasu Airfield, Nerima, Tokyo, to defend the Tokyo Metropolitan Area.
The unit was equipped with Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki (“Tojo“) fighters, with which they were to ram United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) B-29s in their attacks on Japan.
This proved much less successful and practical since an airplane is a much faster, more maneuverable, and smaller target than a warship.
The B-29 also had formidable defensive weaponry, so suicide attacks against the plane demanded considerable piloting skill to be successful, which worked against the very purpose of using expendable pilots.
Even encouraging capable pilots to bail out before impact was ineffective because vital personnel were often lost when they mistimed their exits and were killed as a result.
On 11 March, the U.S. carrier USS Randolph was hit and moderately damaged at Ulithi Atoll, in the Caroline Islands, by a kamikaze that had flown almost 4,000 km (2,500 mi) from Japan, in a mission called Operation Tan No. 2.
On 20 March, the submarine USS Devilfish survived a hit from an aircraft, just off Japan.
Purpose-built kamikaze planes, as opposed to converted fighters and dive-bombers, were also being constructed. Ensign Mitsuo Ohta had suggested that piloted glider bombs, carried within range of targets by a mother plane, should be developed.
The First Naval Air Technical Bureau (Kugisho), in Yokosuka, refined Ohta’s idea.
Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka rocket planes, launched from bombers, were first deployed in kamikaze attacks from March 1945. U.S. personnel gave them the derisive nickname “Baka Bombs” (baka is Japanese for “idiot” or “stupid”). The Nakajima Ki-115 Tsurugi was a simple, easily built propeller aircraft with a wooden airframe which used engines from existing stocks.
Its non-retractable landing gear was jettisoned shortly after take-off for a suicide mission, and re-used. During 1945, the Japanese military began stockpiling hundreds of Tsurugi, other aircraft, Ohkas, and suicide boats, for use against Allied forces expected to invade Japan.
The invasion never happened, and few were ever used.
Suicidal Banzai Charges Predate Kamikaze Attacks
While the suicidal attack strategy in the Second World War has become associated with the Kamikaze pilots, in particular, there was actually an earlier precedent than Masafumi Arima’s final mission.
The last-resort Banzai charges on the Marshall and the Gilbert Islands had already exhibited the Japanese soldiers’ willingness to face certain death for their nation.
Allied fighters named the action the “Banzai Charge” after they heard their enemies shouting “Tenno Heika Banzai” – marking their allegiance to the emperor as they rushed to meet their fate.
The suicide charge proved to be effective, and in one instance left roughly 1000 US Marines dead after a single charge.
Young Kamikaze Pilots Only Had 40 Hours Of Training
At the outset of the Second World War, Japanese pilots could often receive up to 500 hours of training. On top of this, many of the men already flying by the time war broke out were older and more experienced, with many years in the air already behind them.
The Kamikaze pilots, on the other hand, were usually much younger, since older men were needed to train the new recruits.
In fact, most of those flying suicide missions were under the age of 24 and, on average, received only 40 to 50 hours of training. Though they were usually escorted to their targets by more experienced pilots, it still seems an incredibly small amount of preparation before such a momentous task.
These five facts only scrape the surface of the Kamikaze tradition and tactics. Dying with honor has long been a strong cultural narrative in Japan, and the suicide attacks of the Second World War can be seen as a continuation of that.
Even though they often missed their targets and failed to turn the tide in Japan’s favour, the Kamikaze pilots remain a dark and fascinating topic.
*This article was originally published at www.warhistoryonline.com