The desperate Japanese suicide missions flown during the last stage of World War II in the Pacific, carried out by what was officially known as the Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (“Special Attack Unit”), are much better known under the name kamikaze (“divine wind”) attacks.
The word originated in the Middle Ages, after two major typhoons destroyed and dispersed the Mongols under Kublai Khan as well as their Korean and Chinese vassals attempting to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281, forcing the attackers to abandon their attempt and fortuitously saving Nippon from foreign conquest.
Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi (born 1891) is widely regarded as the father of the kamikaze. On Mabalacat Airfield near Manila he said on October 19th 1944: “In my opinion, there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to a maximum degree. That is to organize suicide attack units composed of A6M Zero fighters armed with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-dive into an enemy carrier.”
On August 16th, 1945 Ōnishi offered his death as a penance to the pilots and their families. He died of self-inflicted injuries over a period of 15 hours, after apologizing in his suicide note to the almost 4,000 young man whom he had sent to their deaths.
Then again, Motoharu Okamura (born 1901), a naval aviator who had served as a test pilot in the 1930s and at the time was in charge of the Tateyama Base in Tokyo, on June 15th, 1944 expressed his desire to lead a volunteer group of suicide attackers as the only way to save his native country and turn the tide of war.
Therefore, in August of 1944 the Naval Air Research and Development Center instituted an emergency development program of a special piloted, rocket-powered glide bomb.
852 Yokosuka MXY-7, named Ohka after the cherry blossom, were built in total. Their operational record during the Battle of Okinawa from April 1st to June 22nd, 1945 includes three ships sunk and three others greatly damaged, but no major warships hit.
After accelerated flight tests were held in late October to November 1944, Okamura as commander of the new unit compared the great number of volunteers for suicide missions with a swarm of insects: “Bees die after they have stung.” Overwhelmed by feelings of late guilt, Okamura shot himself on July 13th, 1948.
The exact date on which this concept was put into practice also remains disputed. Some claim that it happened on September 13th, 1944, when First Lieutenant Takeshi Kosai and another sergeant from the 31st Fighter Squadron left Negros Island in the Philippines equipped with two 100 kilogram bombs determined to crash into aircraft carriers. Although they went missing, no record exists of an enemy plane hitting an American ship on that day.
Admiral Masafumi Arima (born 1895) personally led an air attack against US forces during the Air Battle of Formosa from the 12th to the 16th of October, 1944. On October 15th, he took off in a Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine bomber after declaring his intention not to return alive. While that day the aircraft carrier USS Franklin was damaged, there’s no evidence that Arima’s formation succeeded.
Early on October 21st, a Japanese plane deliberately crashed into the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia, killing 30 personnel and wounding 64. Others consider the fleet tug USS Sonoma, sunk on October 24th with no casualties, as the first ship lost to a kamikaze strike, though the used aircraft didn’t belong to the original four Special Attack Squadrons either.
Notwithstanding that suicide attacks did happen shortly before the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the amphibious invasion of the Filipino island which lasted from the 23rd to the 26th of October, 1944, they were carried out by pilots from units other than the Special Attack Force.
The first official attack by Yoshiyasu Kunō (born 1921) on October 21st, 1944 failed when he was shot down and crashed into the sea. During the second attempt on October 25th, Lieutenant Yukio Seki (born 1921), crash-dived his Mitsubishi A6M Zero bomb-armed fighter deliberately into the USS St. Lo, which caught fire and sank. Of the 889 men aboard, 143 were killed or went missing.
Destroyer USS Callaghan sank on July 29th, 1945 with the loss of 47 crew members, as a result of the very last successful kamikaze strike. After the United States detonated two nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945, Japan unconditionally surrendered on August 15th at noon.
A few hours later, Admiral Matome Ugaki (born 1890) committed suicide by flying the very last kamikaze mission of the war north of Okinawa, near Iheya Island.
17 years old at graduation, 10% of the 240,000 Naval Aviator Preparatory Course Trainees (Yokaren) saw combat. Many died as kamikazes to save more experienced pilots.
While 19% of approximately 3,800 kamikaze attackers were successful, damaging 368 ships, 8.5% managed to sink 34 vessels, killing around 4,900 sailors and wounding over 4,800.
Most Westerners still perceive kamikaze pilots as faceless fanatics who were yearning for death. In fact, most of them were just brave young pilots who suffered tragic deaths in defense of their homeland.
The letters, poems and diaries they left behind are extremely touching documents that reflect no anger or fear, but a strong sense of duty and immense love for their fatherland and their families. These values didn’t die with them.