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[October 1944 to August 1945]

Halsey: After Leyte Gulf: Kamikaze: Individual Beginnings: The Formal Adoption of a Kamikaze as a Strategy: Recruitment, Motivation and Training: Japanese Government Propaganda: Developments in Kamikaze Technology and the US Response: Naval Kamikaze and Yamato’s Suicide Mission: US Defense Tactics: Fight to the Death and Operation KETSU (Decisive): Admiral Ugaki, The Last Kamikaze: The Cost and Effectiveness of the Kamikaze Campaign: Kamikaze: A Unique Japanese Phenomenon?

Special Attack Units (Tokubetsu Kogekitai), which later became know by the Japanese as kamikaze, were launched at the time of the almost complete annihilation of the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, arguably itself a suicide mission by the Japanese Navy, when it was clear to most senior Japanese commanders that the war was well and truly lost. Nevertheless, there remained the belief that if enough casualties could be inflicted on the US, there was scope for a favourable negotiated peace that would fall well short of complete surrender. This view permeated the upper echelons of Japanese command and continued right up to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Halsey: After Leyte Gulf: The overwhelming victory at the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 26 October should have provided a period of respite for Halsey’s battle weary ships and sailors. Furthermore it should have given Halsey, chastened by his mistakes at Leyte Gulf, time to plan for the first strikes to be made against Japan’s home islands since his daring ‘Doolittle Raid’ two and a half years earlier. However, these plans were interrupted. Torrential rains and topographic problems on Leyte Island put back the Seabees’ construction of airfields, which prevented General Kenney from advancing his Air Force to their planned bases. As a result the Third Fleet remained stationed off the Philippines to provide air cover.

Between 5 and 25 November 1944, Halsey mounted seven mass attacks on Luzon’s airfields. 800 Japanese aircraft were destroyed. In addition five enemy transports were sunk with the loss of 10,000 Japanese troops along with their three escorting destroyers. Even by sea, by 1944, the US could deliver devastating air power against Japan’s land based forces. The old shibboleth that aircraft carriers should always stay out of range of land-based airfields had been reversed. It was a superiority that reflected massively improved American equipment against a Japanese Air Force that was never able to produce a mass produced fighter plane to succeed the Zero; in just three years, the Mitsubishi Zero had become technologically outdated. As an American ace pilot wrote, “The Corsair was a sweet-flying baby if I ever flew one. No longer would we have to fight the Nip’s fight, for we could make our own rules.”1 [The Vought F4U Corsair, mainly built under contract by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, was designed principally as a carrier aircraft though, because of its poor landing characteristics, it ended up mainly being used by the Marine Corps land based forces. It was introduced at the beginning of 1943. Heavily armed with six machine guns and four cannon, the Corsair was also faster (+37 mph) and had a 5.5 per cent faster climb rate than the American carrier fleet’s Grumman F6F Hellcat, itself a replacement for the Grumman F4F Wildcat, that was already significantly outperforming the Japanese Zero.]

Such was the success of Admiral Halsey’s mission and the increasing paucity of the Japanese opposition that the last major air strike against Luzon took place on 18 November. Halsey cancelled further major operations and set up a system of patrols. “Bull Halsey’s Third Fleet has been doing quite a job on the Japs on Luzon,” gloated Seaman James Fahey.2 But, in spite of Halsey’s air superiority over the Philippines, a new threat emerged to quickly dampen any lasting joy from the victory at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Kamikaze: Individual Beginnings: Admiral Halsey confided that the Japan’s suicide pilots were the only weapon that he really feared. Kamikaze (literally ‘God Wind’ or normally translated as ‘Divine Wind’) was named after the storms that wrecked the Mongol fleet during its attempt to invade Japan in the thirteenth century. Such was the effect of the kamikaze attacks on the US Navy, that crewmen and pilots, returning to the United States, were instructed to be highly circumspect about what they revealed about the scale of devastation caused by suicide attacks. Kamikaze strikes on the Allied fleets were not simply the occasional sacrifices of a few fanatical pilots. The development of the kamikaze units became a conscious and coherent plan by the Japanese armed forces to turn the tide of the war.

Ad hoc pilot suicides had occurred from the earliest stages of the Pacific War. Even at Pearl Harbor, First-Lieutenant Fusata Iida, who had declared to his colleagues that he would deliberately crash his plane if it became seriously damaged, was believed to have piloted his aircraft into the Kaneohe Naval Air Station after taking a hit. On various occasions, when faced with almost certain death, various US pilots acted similarly. As part of their training exercises, Japanese pilots did ‘suicide dives’ as part of their normal routine. After the war a pilot explained: “It was taken for granted that any pilot with a disabled plane would die in the samurai tradition… He would dive into an enemy ship or plane, taking as many of his adversaries with him as possible.”3 But, suicide attacks appeared to increase as the war turned decisively against Japan.

It soon became clear that Kamikaze attacks were devastating. On 21 October, a Japanese bomber crashed into the upper deck of the HMAS Australia, a heavy cruiser: “I thought we’d been hit by… a bomb or something, I didn’t know what it was at the time…” recalled seaman Reg Walker. “…it crashed …onto the bridge or the compass platform, and down past B turret, and onto the deck, and the foredeck, and then went over the side.”4 Captain Emile Dechaineux “had this hole in his stomach, and he was burnt a little, his lips were rather swollen.”5 Although he was removed to the ship’s medical center, Dechaineux subsequently died. The Australian force commander, Commodore John Collins, was killed outright. Twenty-nine other crewmembers, including many of HMAS Australia’s officers were also killed while sixty-four were wounded. Three days later, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a Mitsubishi G4M crashed into the USS Sonoma and sank it.

The Formal Adoption of a Kamikaze Strategy; While Australian histories usually describe these attacks as the first kamikaze, the accuracy of this view is challenged, perhaps pedantically, by historians who only ascribe the description kamikaze to the formally established Special Attack Units. Leaving aside arguments of definition it is clear that the propensity of Japanese forces to commit suicide, and encouragement for this course of action, increased as the home islands became threatened.

The Emperor himself issued an Imperial Rescript encouraging civilians on Saipan to sacrifice their own lives. After the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, it had become clear to Japan’s aviators that they had fallen so far behind the United States in the development of weaponry, both in quality and quantity, particularly aircraft, that defeat was inevitable. Thus a weapon based on suicide, gave Japan an opportunity to allow ‘bushido’ spirit to compensate for its relative decline in armament. To this extent, the development of Special Attack Units was quite logical. As the Bushido code explains: “A Samurai lives in such a way that he is always ready to die.”6 Captain Eiichiro Jyo, Captain of the carrier Chiyoda submitted the idea of Special Attack Units after he witnessed the crushing defeat of Japanese naval air power at the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot; “no longer can we hope to sink the numerically superior enemy aircraft carriers through ordinary attack methods. I urge the immediate organization of Special Attack Units to carry out crash-dive tactics, and I ask to be placed in command of them.”7

Rear-Admiral Masfumi Arima is the senior officer usually credited with the idea of the kamikaze attack though it is hard to confirm this with any certainty. On 15 October, Arima led an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y ‘Judy’ dive-bombers on the new fleet carrier USS Franklin (CV-13). Arima’s plane, in what may or may not have been a suicide attack, crashed onto the Franklin and Hirohito’s government seized on the episode to laud his self-sacrifice. Arima was promoted posthumously to the rank of Vice-Admiral. Perhaps inspired by Arima’s death, on 19 October 1944 First Air Fleet Vice-Admiral Takijiro Onishi called his officers for a meeting at Mabalacat Airfield (later called the Clark Air Base under the Americans) and announced his intention to form Special Attack Units: “In my opinion,” Onishi told the packed room, “the enemy can be stopped only by crashing on their carrier decks with Zero fighters carrying bombs.”8 Discussions with squadron leaders produced an overwhelming response. Onishi’s suggestion of mass suicide by Japanese pilots was not the first time the strategy had been raised. Captain Motoharu Okamura had expressed his desire to lead suicide missions some months before Onishi. At an inspection of his 341st Air Group, Okamura demanded of Admiral Shigeru Fukudome that “In our present situation I firmly believe that the only way to swing the war in our favor is to resort to crash-dive attacks with our planes. There is no other way.”9


However, it was subsequent to the intervention of Admiral Onishi that Commander Asaiki Tamai was ordered to recruit a suicide unit from his group of student pilots. All twenty-three volunteered. As Onishi had argued, the armed forces could utilize “an enthusiasm that flames naturally in the hearts of youthful men.”10 The older pilots were generally more circumspect. When Tamai asked the experienced Lieutenant Yukio Seki to command the unit, Seki was doubtful about the enterprise; he later said, “Japan’s future is bleak if it is forced to kill one of its best pilots… I am not going on this mission for the Emperor or for the Empire… I am going because I was ordered to.”11 This first kamikaze unit was subdivided into four groups, Shikishima, Yamato, Asahi and Yamazakura. They were named after words taken from the patriotic death poem written by classical scholar, Motoori Norinaga: “If someone asks about the Yamato spirit (Spirit of old Japan) of Shikishima (poetic name for Japan) – it is the flowers of yamazakura (mountain cherry blossom) that are fragrant in the asahi (rising sun).”12

The first ‘planned’ mission of the kamikaze took place on 25 October 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. One of the converted Zeros scored a glancing hit on the Casablanca Class escort carrier, USS Kitkun Bay (CVE-71), essentially an aircraft transport ship. Two Zeros were shot down by anti-aircraft fire from its sister ship USS Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70), while two more headed for an identical escort carrier USS White Plains (CVE-66). One of the Zeros was hit by anti-aircraft fire, banked towards yet another Casablanca Class escort carrier, USS St. Lo (CVE-63), and smashed into her flight deck. Its bomb crashed through the flight deck into the hangar below where aircraft were being fuelled and armed. Fires on board reached the central magazine that exploded, causing the carrier to sink in thirty minutes.

It was a spectacular start to the kamikaze campaign that could only have encouraged further expansion of the Special Attack Units. A further forty-nine kamikaze had made attacks by the end of the following day causing damage to forty ships, with twenty-three heavily damaged and five sunk. Escort carriers took a particular battering with damage to the large transport carriers USS Sangamon (CVE-26: built on the hull of a Cimarron Class oiler) its sister ship USS Suwannee (CVE-27) as well as the smaller escorts USS White Plains, USS Kalinin Bay (CVE-68) and USS Kitkun Bay.

On 29 October, Halsey, who witnessed an attack on the USS Intrepid (an Essex Class fleet carrier: CV-11), was appalled but believed that it was “a direct sign of weakness and desperation on the part of the Japanese’ and ‘that the beginning crack in the Japanese armor had become apparent.”13 The next day, 30 October, Halsey’s fleet suffered yet more attacks. Kamikaze pilots, damaged the USS Enterprise (CV-6), tore a 45 ft hole in the deck of USS Franklin (CV-13) and killed 100 men on the Independence Class light carrier, USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24). In this last attack a further 165 men were injured. Sixty-five American aircraft had been destroyed by a single Japanese kamikaze. Kamikaze attacks continued in November. On 20 November another mass attack caused damage to fleet carrier USS Hancock (CV-19) and the light carrier USS Cabot (CVL-28), whose flight deck was hit causing sixty-two casualties. On the fleet carrier USS Intrepid (CV-11), whose deck was also struck, sixty-four men were killed in two successful kamikaze strikes. Aboard the USS Essex (CV-9), torpedo plane pilot Gerald Thomas was having lunch and recalled, “As I was eating my dessert, I could hear the increased intensity of our AA guns as they were firing at the Japanese planes. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion, the paint jumped off the wall, and the room filled with smoke. Sixteen men and the kamikaze pilot lost their lives in the attack.”14

One fireman recalled that he

started across the deck. There lay a man’s leg, crudely chopped off… The magazine for the 20mm (machine gun) was going off. Bullets were whizzing everywhere. Smoke was dense and suffocating. Men were hollering for help. If you tried to put them on a stretcher, the flesh would come off the bone. The ones living soon died. Sad as it may seem, some, which were mostly in pieces, had to be washed over the side.15


It was later discovered that the pilot was Lieutenant Yoshinori Yamaguchi flying a Yokosuka D4Y3 ‘Judy’ dive-bomber from the Yoshino Special Attack Corps stationed at Malabacat Airfield in the Philippines.  

It was clear from the first wave of attacks by the coordinated Special Attack Groups that it had produced spectacular results. Senior commanders from both the Imperial Japan Navy Air Force and the US Navy soon realized that a formidable new weapon had appeared. The Japanese believed that their new weapon was capable of not only slowing the US advance toward the home islands but might possibly force the US to the negotiating table. As for America’s fleet admirals, particularly Spruance, Halsey, Mitscher and McCain, after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, their key naval concern ceased to be the Japanese Navy and instead became almost entirely focused on how to deal with the threat of the kamikaze. Japanese suicide pilots clearly posed an existential threat to America’s Pacific War effort.

Recruitment, Motivation and Training: For Japan’s political leaders, the kamikaze offered a weapon that seemingly gave them a way out of seemingly total annihilation. It was a straw to be grasped at. On 21 January 1945 Prime Minister Koiso admitted that “the military developments in the Pacific theater are in a state which does not necessarily admit of optimism” but he nevertheless grasped at hopes provided by the kamikaze:

the greatly extended supply lines of the enemy on all fronts are exposed to our attacks and in this fact, I believe, is to be found our golden opportunity to grasp victory. Now indeed is the time for us, the one hundred million, to give vent to our flaming ardor, and following in the footsteps of the valiant men of the ‘Special Attack Corps’, demonstrate even more spirit of sure victory in the field of production.16

The idea of the kamikaze was imbued with the idea that the ‘spirit of Japan’ (Yamato Damashii) could overcome all obstacles, particular Japan’s material deficiencies vis-à-vis the United States.

Captain Motoharu Okamura described the number of recruits who voluntarily came forward as being like a ‘swarm of bees’; he explained that ‘Bees die after they have stung.”17 The training of the kamikaze volunteers was often brutal. One volunteer pilot, Kasuga Takeo, described “torturous corporal punishment as a daily routine.”18 By thus dehumanizing the kamikaze volunteers, the trainers no doubt wished to make it easier to get their charges into the cockpit.

By the time that their missions were due, many were reconciled to their fate. Miss Mie Yuhashi, a young canteen worker at a base in Kyushu, wrote to the parents of Lieutenant Shunsaku Tsuji, “I wish to tell you that all the Special Attack pilots I have met are pure-hearted and jovial… I have yet to encounter any of them who walk with an air of gloom.”19 As for Lieutenant Tsuji, Mie Yuhashi reported that he came to visit her and her mother to partake of a last meal of udon (Japanese noodles). He ate three helpings.

Then Shunsaku said to me in a serious voice: “I have a favor to ask of you. After my death is confirmed, would you inform my family that I departed on my last mission full of joy after I feasted on udon? My last thoughts go to my parents. They would be consoled by knowing how I had departed.” I promised Shunsaku I would do so and he gave me a broad smile while shedding some tears.20

Lieutenant Tsuji perished on 17 May at 7.35 p.m. after crashing into an American ship. He had ordered his uniform and sword to be sent to his parents.

In one recorded incident, a mother and fiancée performed seppuku (ritual suicide with dagger) in the presence of their son and fiancée, Second Lieutenant Teruo Iwasa, before he set off on his mission. Other reports from Jinxian in northern China, describe how, on another mission, at the end of the war, Lieutenant Tetsuo Tanifuji’s wife squeezed into her husband’s cockpit on a mission to crash dive into advancing Russian tanks. On the same mission Sumiko, the fiancée of Second Lieutenant Iwao Okura, sat in his lap. Even well-known public figures became kamikaze pilots. Twenty-two year old Ensign Shinichi Ishimaru, a pitcher for Nagoya’s baseball team (now the Nagoya Dragons), died in a kamikaze attack at the Battle of Okinawa. His friend, Oiichi Honda, a first baseman for Hosei University, died as a kamikaze three days later.

For many the ideological training in Shinto nationalism with emphasis on Emperor worship may have been enough for the kamikaze volunteers to complete their missions, but others were clearly less persuadable. It was one thing to volunteer suicide in a moment of patriotic fervor but in the cold light of day it was another thing for large numbers of men to actually kill themselves. Many pilots were equivocal about their fate. Sasaki Hachiro wrote, “One of my souls looks to heaven, while the other is attracted to the earth.”21 Even more skeptically, kamikaze pilot Hayashi Ichizo wrote that

It is easy to talk about death in the abstract… But it is real death I fear, and I don’t know if I can overcome the fear. Even for a short life, there are many memories. For someone who had a good life it is very difficult to part with it. But I reached a point of no return. I must plunge into an enemy vessel. To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the Emperor is genuine… However, it is decided for me that I die for the Emperor.22

Reportedly some kamikaze pilots before take-off “were unable to stand up and were carried and pushed into the plane by maintenance soldiers.”23 Elaborate group ceremonies, involving the reading of death poems, prayers and ritual drinking of sake, were also designed to encourage a strong group psychology towards individual self-destruction. The fostering of loyalty to the group was designed to enable the kamikaze to complete their mission. One Ensign, Yasunori Aoki, who survived his kamikaze attack because his plane hit the water and did not explode, later admitted that he had volunteered to join a Special Attack Force because he felt it would be cowardly not to commit suicide and because he was likely to die in the war anyway. Not all pilots were fanatics who blindly supported Japan’s government. Lieutenant Ryoji Uehara wrote before going on his suicide mission: “Tomorrow, one who believes in democracy will leave this world,” he wrote. “He may look lonely but his heart is filled with satisfaction. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany have been defeated. Authoritarianism is like building a house with broken stones.”24 Whether he flew his kamikaze mission for reasons of peer pressure, family honor or of love of country is unknown.

Some selected for kamikaze missions survived. Second-Lieutenant Ryozo Ban recalls being selected for a Special Attack Unit. Taken by surprise he “thought: this is my death sentence. It is an order to die. I heard myself say ‘Hai’ (yes) in a choking voice.”25 Feelings of guilt at the thought of betraying comrades-in-arms and friends must have driven many to their deaths. Kamikaze frequently returned to base; if no suitable targets could be found this was required. Lieutenant Ban duly set out on his suicide mission but thick clouds prevented his squadron from finding any targets. Ban was lucky. The arrival of a new type of fighter, the Nakajima Ki-84 ‘Frank’, designed to replace the ageing ‘Oscar’ needed experienced officer pilots to lead new squadrons and Ban was removed from the Special Attack list. Others were less fortunate; on one occasion a kamikaze pilot who returned to base nine times was shot and executed. It was also noted from the wreckage of a kamikaze plane that hit the Essex Class fleet carrier USS Randolph (CV-15) on 4 March 1945, that the pilot had been shackled to his cockpit.

To make sure that there was no last minute backsliding, senior officers would exhort pilots to do their duty. In the Philippines, Lieutenant-General Kyoji Tominaga, commander of the Fifth Air Army, waved off many of the kamikaze pilots. Tominaga was a cultured man who enjoyed showing off playing piano pieces by Chopin, Tchaikovsky and, his favorite, Brahms. With his charges he developed an inspirational patter to help them on their way often saying, “I will not let you go alone!” and “I shall board the last plane and shall (also) smash into an enemy ship!’26 Later described as vain and flamboyant”27 by pilot, Hichiro Naemura, Tominaga often brandished his sword as kamikaze took off; an act that was considered vulgar and inappropriate by some. Of course, Tominaga never did make the ‘last plane’. However did come to a sticky end when he was captured by the Soviets in Manchuria at the end of the war and sentenced to seventy-five years imprisonment, though he was eventually released and sent back to Japan in 1955.

Kamikaze pilots were trained to make their final dive to hit the point between the bridge and a ship’s smokestack. Going down the smokestack was also considered to be very effective. With a low level attack toward the side of a ship, pilots were encouraged to aim for just above the waterline. With aircraft carriers, pilots were trained to aim for the deck elevators that brought planes up to the decks from the two hangar decks below. It was recommended that eyes be kept open to the end to ensure that a hit was achieved. For Japanese commanders one of the problems of kamikaze strategy was that it was difficult to gauge success. For obvious reasons there were few Japanese observers to the kamikaze attacks. To record them , accompanying spotters could pick up a pilot’s final radio communication. In order to get feedback on the success of missions, the training manuals suggested that the word hissatsu (certain kill) should be shouted at the last moment.

Even a near miss could cause devastation. In one case, USS William D. Porter, a modern Fletcher Class destroyer launched in 1942, was attacked by a ‘Val’ dive-bomber on 10 June 1945. The plane missed its target, but sank underneath the destroyer before exploding, lifting the ship out of the water. Fires broke out and three hours later the William D. Porter heeled to starboard and sank.

Japanese Government Propaganda: Far from denying the existence of kamikaze, whose very existence might have been proof of desperation in defeat, the Japanese government openly promoted the existence of the Special Attack Groups. Articles and individual stories on the subject became commonplace from the autumn of 1944. Lieutenant Sekio Nishina was quoted in the Nippon Times as saying, “The spirit of the Special Attack Corps is the great spirit that runs in the blood of every Japanese… the crashing action which simultaneously kills the enemy and oneself without fail is called the Special Attack… Every Japanese is capable of becoming a member of the Special Attack Corps.”28

It seems likely that many of the kamikaze attack stories were either completely invented or at least greatly exaggerated. However, not every publication followed the government line. In Taiyo (Ocean) magazine in March 1945 an article was published in which Lieutenant-Commander Iwatani commented that “The right way is to attack the enemy with skill and return to the base with good results. A plane should be utilized over and over again. That’s the way to fight a war. The current thinking is skewed.”29

Developments in Kamikaze Technology and the US Response: As the kamikaze campaign developed so did the weaponry that they used. At first, the airplanes used were Mitsubishi Zero fighters or Aichi D3A dive-bombers loaded with heavy bombs. Later, sophistication was added by the special packing of the Japanese kamikaze aircraft with explosives. In addition Yokosuka D4Y ‘Judy’ bombers and Kawasaki Ki-48s, with their bigger payloads, were converted for use as suicide aircraft. Seven of the latter aircraft were launched from Palembang in Sumatra and aimed at the British fleet on 29 January 1945. Twin-engine Mitsubishi Ki-67 Hiryu ‘Peggy’ bombers based in Formosa were also used.

Special kamikaze aircraft were also developed. Mitsuo Ohta, an ensign, had suggested that a mother plane, a twin-engine ‘Betty’ bomber should launch kamikaze pilots in glider bombs. His idea was taken up by the First Naval Air Technical Bureau in Yokosuka, which developed rockets that could be launched from the underside of Japanese bombers with pilots strapped to them like jockeys, who were provided with rudimentary steering controls. These Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka (cherry-blossom) rocket planes, carrying a ton of tri-nitro-anisol explosive, looked like torpedoes with wings. They were nicknamed Baka bombs (idiot bombs) by American sailors.

They were first used on 11 March 1945. Admiral Mitscher’s interceptor pilots noticed that the ‘Betty’ bombers were slower than usual and looked odd. When intelligence photos revealed that there was a winged bomb under each wing, the American Admiral realized that they had a new kamikaze weapon to deal with. Faster than conventional aircraft, the Ohka could travel at 500 knots and was extremely difficult to shoot down. On the 9 April, at the opening of the Battle of Okinawa, a baka hit the destroyer USS Mannert L. Abele, lifted it out of the water and broke it in two. The US destroyer sank in minutes. In addition a cheaply built wooden framed plane built around a Nakajima engine, the Ki-115 Tsurugi (sabre), was specifically designed for kamikaze pilots. Its simple, non-retractable landing gear, surplus to requirements after takeoff, was jettisoned and could be reused. The Japanese Army began to stockpile Ki-115 Tsurugis on Kyushu Island, the third largest of the home islands, when it became evident that this would be the likely next invasion point for US forces.

Naval Kamikaze and Yamato’s Suicide Mission; [Map: 33.2] In addition to kamikaze planes, the Navy also developed kamikaze mini-subs known as kaiten. These one-man kamikaze submarines carried a 3,418lb warhead. In September 1944 the Imperial Japanese Navy opened a new school for torpedo boats in Kawatana (Nagasaki Prefecture). The school specialized in the training of frogmen and crews for midget submarines. To this list of specialties was added suicide boats (shinyo) and manned torpedoes, a naval equivalent of the ‘baka bomb’.

In October, Captain Miyazaki, who was sent to Kawatana as chief instructor offered his 400 students the choice of volunteering for training as kaiten or shinyo pilots; addressing his students he told them ‘I have new orders for you. You came here to prepare yourselves for conventional torpedo boats. You have just learned of two other weapons that have been authorized for study in this school. Starting tomorrow either of three courses of study will be open to you.’30 150 of his students chose to train as kaiten operators.

At Lingayen Gulf on Luzon, seventy suicide boats attacked MacArthur’s amphibious forces on the night of 9 January 1945. Most of them were sunk by gunfire but six got through and struck transport ships, four LSTs and two LCIs. One of the latter was sunk. A similar attack sank a US submarine chaser on 31 January. The amphibious invasion of Okinawa in March saw further attacks but only one suicide boat got through and managed to sink an LSM-12. Although the kaiten were a largely ineffective weapon, they did carry out a surprise attack on the US logistical base at Ulithi Atoll that accounted for the sinking of the tanker USS Mississinewa in a massive explosion that killed sixty-three sailors. In hindsight it is now known that the biggest test of the shinyo and kaiten would have come had the Japanese mainland been invaded. Most of the Navy pilots trained for these suicide vehicles were being prepared for this eventuality.

Perhaps the ultimate suicide mission was the last voyage of the super-battleship Yamato. The great ship, which had survived the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was lurking in Japan’s heavily defended Inland Sea, safe from the ravages outside. Admiral Toyoda ordered the Yamato, and the accompanying heavy cruiser Yahagi, to set out for Okinawa. Toyoda informed his commanders that

The fate of our Empire truly rests upon this one action. I have called for the organisation of a surface special attack unit for a breakthrough operation of unrivalled bravery so that the power of the imperial navy may be felt in this one action in order that the brilliant tradition of the Imperial Navy’s surface forces may be exalted and glory handed down to posterity.31

Other commanders were more realistic. Rear-Admiral Keizi Komura, aboard the Yahagi addressed his commanders and skeptically told them that they had been ordered “to engage in a kamikaze mission. No, this is not even a kamizake mission, for that implies the chance of chalking up a worthy target… such an operation would be a genuine suicide sortie.”32 In the discussions that followed there was rancorous debate between those who agreed with the mission while others openly attacked the stupendous, senseless waste of life. It was a meeting that showed that huge cracks were now appearing in the previous façade of blind obedience. The mission would go ahead nonetheless. As Vice-Admiral Ryunosuke Kasaka argued, “the whole nation would hate the Navy if the war should end with Yamato intact” and argued that the great battle ship was being spoken of as “a floating hotel for idle, inept admirals”.33

Having scraped together the 4,000 tons of fuel needed to make a one-way voyage, the Yamato set sail early from Tokuyama on 6 April 1945. At midday, reconnaissance planes from the USS Enterprise’s carrier group spotted the Yamato and Admiral Mitscher launched a series of airstrikes that caught Japan’s great battleship some 175 miles south of Kyushu. The Yamato attempted to dodge torpedoes and she and her escort ships blazed away at the incoming aircraft for several hours before finally keeling over and sinking at 2.17 p.m. in the South China Sea after being riddled with dozens of hits. Over 3,000 Japanese sailors perished. Accompanying destroyers picked up just a handful of Yamato’s crew.

US Defense Tactics: As it became clear that the kamikaze were becoming the main Japanese offensive weapon against the advancing US Navy, new defense tactics were adopted. Carriers deployed permanent air patrols to be fully prepared for incoming kamikaze attacks. Constant patrols were also maintained over Japanese airfields to block the kamikaze at source. Meanwhile destroyer pickets were deployed up to fifty miles away from the main fleet to provide early radar interception. Around the fleet carriers, battleships and cruisers provided a wall of anti-aircraft fire. On the fleet carriers, Halsey reduced the number of dive-bombers and torpedo planes to fifteen each so as to increase the number of fighters to more than sixty on the new Essex Class, each of which carried between ninety and 100 planes.

However, it was Vice-Admiral John ‘Slew’ McCain who developed the tactics that proved most effective at keeping the kamikaze at bay. After the US Navy’s adoption of long-range defense tactics, the Japanese kamikaze had begun to follow US flight formations back to their carriers. To combat this tactic McCain deployed destroyers about sixty miles off the flanks of his fleet carriers. US Navy pilots would make sharp turns around the ‘radio buoys’ put up by the so-called Tom Cat pickets. This would enable combat patrol stationed at these points to pick out the Japanese ‘mice’ (intruders). Mixing metaphors, Admiral McCain announced that his aim was to “delouse them (the Japanese intruders)”.34 In addition any low flying aircraft that failed to follow the prescribed return procedure were immediately treated as enemy bandits. McCain’s stratagems, introduced during the invasion of Mindoro Island, situated to the south of Luzon, became known as the Big Blue Blanket; the name of the football team at Annapolis Naval Academy. The Big Blue Blanket was designed by Commander John Thach, who had come to the attention of his superiors for his development of the Thach Weave, an air combat tactic that had neutralized the speed and manoeuvrability of the Zero. The smorgasbord of new anti-kamikaze tactics proved highly effective in reducing the losses experienced by the Third Fleet in early November, when kamikaze attacks had incapacitated almost a quarter of Halsey’s ships.

To help deal with Japan’s new weapon, Lieutenant-General Curtis LeMay was also ordered to cease firebombing Japanese cities to concentrate on the destruction of Kyushu’s airfields, from where the kamikaze were being launched. Admiral King bluntly informed the US Army Air Force commander, General ‘Hap’ Arnold, that if he failed to support the Navy to combat the kamikaze threat, he would withdraw Naval support for the troops on the ground in Okinawa. Albeit effective, the new counter measures developed by McCain and others could not prevent some 13 per cent of kamikaze from reaching their target.

Of significant help in combatting kamikaze was the development of analogue computer controlled anti-aircraft systems. Improved radar and faster motorized mounts significantly improved anti-aircraft gun accuracy. As a result, rapid-fire 40mm Bofors and 20mm Oerlikon cannons had become increasingly effective during the course of the Pacific War. Improvements in efficacy also reflected the better training of gunners. Furthermore heavier caliber 127mm shells for larger anti-aircraft guns started to be manufactured with proximity fuses. The VT fuse proved to be one of the most valuable technological developments of the war; new shells fitted with the VT fuse could be activated by electrical waves that bounced off the target’s surface. The new shells were highly effective when they were introduced after 1943; they were seven times more deadly than regular shells. It was a technology that Japan notably failed to develop.

The kamikaze campaign reached its apogee at the beginning of April 1945 as the US launched its invasion of Okinawa. Operation KIKUSUI (Floating Chrysanthemum) began on 6 April. In a mass attack on Task Force-58 by 400 kamikaze pilots, US fighters shot down 233 incoming bandits, while anti-aircraft guns shot down an estimated ninety Japanese airplanes. The destruction of this first wave of kamikaze was a testament to the hugely increased proficiency of both US fighter planes and the US ships’ anti-aircraft weaponry. Japanese commanders had been confident that with planned mass attacks the US invasion could be turned back. Although thirty US ships were either sunk or put out of action, the losses barely dented the, by now, vast American armada. No fleet aircraft carrier, battleship or cruiser was sunk. However, the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), Mitscher’s flagship, lost 389 men killed in a single attack with a further sixty-four wounded. Some 300 men, who had been blown into the water, or who had had to jump to escape the searing heat of the inferno that was raging above and below-deck, had to be rescued by escorting destroyers.

Mitscher, who had been persuaded to take refuge behind the steel battle shields of the Flag Plot, the chart and control room of a capital ship, had been no more than a hundred feet from where a kamikaze Zero crashed into the middle of a group of fighters preparing for takeoff. Although the Bunker Hill made it back to the US, the American Navy, now flush with new carriers, decided to scrap her. Earlier in the war it would have been a disaster; by 1945 it was no more than an unfortunate loss. The cost to Japan for Operation KIKUSUI was 1,465 planes and their pilots. It was a high price to pay for a defensive strategy that achieved little payback in terms of slowing, let alone halting the American advance. Mitscher transferred to the famed USS Enterprise, the most decorated ship of World War II; the Enterprise fought through the entire war until 14 May 1945 when, patrolling off Kyushu, she too was forced out of action by a kamikaze attack that left a hole in her flight deck. Commander James Flatley, Chief Operations Officer, ordered everyone in Flag Plot to “hit the deck”35; this time Mitscher, uncowed by the kamikaze attack, stood erect with his arms folded. After the explosion he remarked, “Flatley, tell my task-group commanders that if the Japs keep this up they’re going to grow hair on my head yet.”36

[The Enterprise took part in eighteen out of twenty major actions during the course of the war including four of the five epic carrier-to-carrier engagements including the battles of Midway, East Solomon Sea, Santa Cruz Islands, Philippines Sea (Great Marianas Turkey Shoot) and Leyte Gulf. On three occasions the Enterprise was reported sunk by the Japanese Navy who came to refer to her as ‘the Grey Ghost’. The carrier and her aircraft were responsible for shooting down 911 Japanese aircraft; the Enterprise also sank seventy-one ships and damaged or destroyed 192 others. She was awarded twenty-one battle stars. In modern times America’s greatest capital ship has been memorialized in fiction as the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie series Star Trek.]

It was at Okinawa that the design of British fleet carriers, which were considerably smaller than the US Navy’s main attack carriers, came into its own. The Royal Navy’s five carriers took eight hits from kamikaze. On 4 May a dive-bomber crashed into HMS Formidable’s steel plated decks. Although the impact made a two-foot deep and three yard long dent in the deck and temporarily started a fire and ruptured the main boiler, the Formidable was soon back in action and able to land aircraft. Unlike the all-wood American carrier decks, the British decks could be quickly filled with concrete and plated over. As a US observation officer aboard the Formidable wryly noted, “When a kamikaze hits a US carrier it means six months of repair at Pearl. When a kamikaze hits a Limey carrier it’s just a case of ‘Sweepers, man your brooms.’”37

Fight to the Death and Operation KETSU (Decisive); By June 1945 the sense of helplessness felt by Vice-Admiral Ugaki, who as head of the Kyushu based Fifth Air Fleet had primary responsibility for the defense of Okinawa, had become unbearable. From his base at Kanoya, Ugaki even watched as a US flying boat landed in Kagoshima Bay to pick up an American bomber crew that had been shot down. In his diary, he noted that “I can’t stand even to see an enemy submarine picking up survivors off shore, much less this arrogant behavior right in the middle of Kagoshima Bay.”38

A despairing Ugaki started to prepare for his own death. Completed parts of his war diaries were sent to his home in Okayama, halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima on Japan’s main island of Honshu, where he had been born. In pantheistic reflection, his diaries turned increasingly to nature with comments about crops, the weather, fireflies and cuckoos.

By the end of June the lack of fuel, ammunition and skilled pilots meant that Ugaki’s Kyushu airfields were practically defenceless. Ugaki noted in his diary that while on a walk near his base, he saw ten American fighters attacking without any anti-aircraft fire or a single Japanese fighter to intercept. On 2 August 1945 Ugaki moved his headquarters from Kanoya to an underground bunker in Oita. Ugaki tried to work out what countermeasures could be taken and for the next few days worked on plans to deal with the expected Allied landings on Kyushu. Five days later the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. To add to Japanese misery, the Soviets declared war on 9 August while he was seeing a dentist at Beppu Naval Hospital. “Now this country is going to fight against the world”39 was his immediate reaction. Ugaki still believed that Operation KETSU (Operation Decisive) needed to make the American invasion so expensive in blood that they would be forced to come to terms; he asserted that “we can make the enemy finally give up the war after making it taste the bitterness of a prolonged struggle”.40 He intended to fight to the end. As an Imperial General Army Staff officer had boasted in July 1945:

We will prepare 10,000 planes to meet the landing of the enemy. We will mobilize every aircraft possible, both training and ‘special attack’ planes. We will smash one third of the enemy's war potential with this air force at sea. Another third will also be smashed at sea by our warships, human torpedoes and other special weapons. Furthermore, when the enemy actually lands, if we are ready to sacrifice a million men we will be able to inflict an equal number of casualties upon them. If the enemy loses a million men, then the public opinion in America will become inclined towards peace, and Japan will be able to gain peace with comparatively advantageous conditions.41

In fact by August 1945 the Army still had 5,651 airplanes while the Navy had 7,074. Most of these had been turned into kamikaze aircraft. Although there were 8,000 Japanese pilots, they were barely trained and could not have fought as conventional pilots and aircrew. By mid-1945 the air-schools were turning out pilots who were only trained for one-way flights. Sufficient fuel had been set aside so that all the planes produced could make a single flight.

Admiral Ugaki, The Last Kamikaze: In the late evening of 14 August 1945, in the aftermath of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but before Emperor Hirohito’s surrender, Admiral Ugaki ordered planes to be prepared for an attack on Okinawa. It was clear that he intended to accompany the attack. Informed of Admiral Ugaki’s intentions, Fifth Air Fleet chief of staff, Captain Takashi Miyazaki tried to dissuade him. A further attempt to convince him not to become a kamikaze was made by Rear-Admiral Toshiyuki Yokoi, Ugaki’s own chief of staff. “Please allow me the right to choose my own death,” Ugaki told them. “This is my chance to die like a warrior.”42

At noon the next day, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender in a public radio address. Ugaki was undeterred. On the basis that he had been given no formal order to cease fire, Ugaki pressed ahead with his kamikaze mission. While handing over his papers to his staff officers, Ugaki, defiant to the last, made his final address to them, urging that “all the Japanese people will overcome all hardships expected to come in the future, display the traditional spirit of this nation more than ever, do their best to rehabilitate this country, and finally revenge this defeat in the future.”43 Just three kamikaze aircraft were ordered to be prepared by Lieutenant Tatsuo Nakatsuru, but when Ugaki arrived at the airfield he found eleven dive-bombers ready to fly a suicide mission. Nakatsuru, choking with emotion, explained, “Who could stand to see the attack limited to only three planes when our commander himself is going to lead in crash dives against the enemy?”44 Ugaki asked all the twelve pilots and crewmen if they wanted to die with him. They did. Warrant-Officer Akiyoshi Endo, whose place Ugaki had taken, refused to be left behind and squeezed into the cockpit with the Admiral.

Ugaki had a final photograph taken in front of his aircraft. He wore a plain dark green uniform stripped of insignia and carried only a short sword that had been given to him by Admiral Yamamoto. In a last radio message, Ugaki again urged his colleagues to “rebuild a strong armed force, and make our Empire last forever. The Emperor, banzai”.45 Next day the American crew of a landing craft found the remains of a cockpit and three dead crew on the beach of Ishikawajima. Ugaki, minus his right arm, was found in his green uniform with his head crushed; his sword was found nearby. They were buried in the sand.

The Cost and Effectiveness of the Kamikaze Campaign; Kamikaze attacks caused most of the losses suffered by the Americans in the last months of the war. Even more than the Long Lance torpedo, the kamikaze was perhaps the most feared weapon deployed by Japan against the US Navy. Kamikaze killed some 4,900 sailors and wounded a similar number. In total, kamikaze accounted for some forty-seven ships sunk although a further twenty-three more were damaged beyond repair. In total about 300 Allied ships suffered some form of damage. Given that the main kamikaze onslaught was planned for when American forces invaded Kyushu, it can be imagined what scale of devastation might have been caused to the Allied naval forces if the atom bomb had not been dropped.

Ships sunk included fourteen destroyers; as for aircraft carriers, the main targets of the kamikaze, only three relatively minor escort carriers were lost. But small ships could be devastated by a kamikaze attack. A crewman aboard USS Lipan recalled a Japanese plane that “slammed into the small LSM 59 (Landing ship, Medium) and hit it directly amidships. The resultant explosion blew the ship into the hereafter and there was not one recognizable part left floating and at least sixty sailors met their demise.”46 Perhaps the greatest damage the campaign did to the Allied forces was to create unique levels of anxiety and fear. Gerald Thomas, a pilot, recalled seeing “our ship’s gunners so jittery by the presence of kamikazes that they fired on our planes returning from strikes on the Japanese targets”.47 Other US sailors viewed the kamikaze with awe. ‘We watched each plunging kamikaze with the detached horror of one witnessing a terrible spectacle rather than as the intended victim,’ noted Vice-Admiral C.R. Brown. “We forgot self for the moment as we groped hopelessly for the thought of that other man up there.”48

Perhaps the biggest problem caused by the kamikaze was the physical and psychological exhaustion it caused officers and crewmen of the Third Fleet. By the end of October 1944, many of its crews and pilots had not been ashore for months. After three months of fighting, the condition of Halsey’s personnel was in decline. Carriers, the kamikaze’s main targets, were particularly badly affected. In late October, the USS Wasp’s air group was reported by the carrier’s surgeon to be down to its last thirty fit fliers out of a complement of 113. Continuing round the clock patrolling to keep out kamikaze inevitably took its toll. According to Lieutenant Solberg, Halsey was constantly pre-occupied by the kamikaze problem. He was heard to complain, “Damn it all, I know they’re tired and need a rest [pilots and crew]. So do all the carriers. I’d like to give it to them but I can’t – the morale of the fleet would be gone.”49

Halsey’s fleet would not get its rest until 5 December 1944 when MacArthur delayed his assault on Mindoro by ten days. It gave Halsey’s exhausted crews over a week of relaxation on Ulithi Atoll. The relief from daily fear led to an explosion of exuberance. The ensuing festivities became legendary for their copious consumption of alcohol. Halsey hosted parties with the same spirit and energy that he took into battle. A Signal Officer remembered taking messages from the battleship USS New Jersey demanding that a hospital ship “Send 20 nurses to flagship.”50 Halsey was always partial to female company though this does not seem to have been a problem for his wife to whom he reported his high jinks. Halsey was not the only admiral to express concern about the exhaustion of the crew. Admiral Mitscher after handing over Task Group-38 to Admiral McCain on 30 October, noted in his action report that during the previous three months the task force had flown 17,285 sorties. His report also commented on the condition of the crews: “Attention is invited to the fact that the ships of TF 58/38 have been under constant pressure in the tropics for over ten months. Probably ten thousand men have never put foot on shore during this period.”51

The price Japan paid for the physical and psychological damage to the American Fleet was 2,525 kamikaze crew from the Imperial Japanese Navy and 1,387 pilots and planes from the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force. Although the kamikaze were an offensive weapon that caused extensive damage and created unparalleled levels of anxiety within the US invasion forces, the bare statistics reveal that it was a strategy that failed. Nevertheless the organization of Special Attack Groups was not without logic. Between January 1944 and October 1944, when the Imperial Japanese Navy began to coordinate kamikaze attacks, they lost 5,200 pilots, some 42 per cent of all pilots in service at the start of the year. The scale of the losses was indicative of the degree to which America had established complete air superiority in the Pacific by 1944. Better airplanes, better armament, better radar and better trained pilots had enabled the Air Forces of both the US Army and Marine Corps to reach a point where Japanese pilots were facing wholesale annihilation in conventional combat. However kamikaze attacks were not conventional. At the Battle of Okinawa alone, the US Navy suffered over 4,900 dead from kamikaze attacks, its greatest losses in a single naval battle in its entire history. Thus the kamikaze may not have turned America back from the invasion of Japan, but they certainly performed better than the alternative.

There may have been unintended consequences of Japan’s kamikaze campaign. Combined with the suicidal banzai charges during Nimitz’s Central Pacific island hop campaign, and the coercion of the inhabitants of Saipan and Okinawa to mass suicide, the kamikaze attacks merely reinforced fears of among US planners about the human cost of the conquest of the Japanese mainland. They duly calculated the vast cost to human life for their own forces and that of the enemy with regard to the impending Operation OLYMPIC, the name given to the planned October 1945 invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main four home islands. American casualties were various calculated as being likely to be between 1m and 1.7m. Indeed the Japanese had stockpiled some 13,000 aircraft and trained their crews to defend Kyushu with kamikaze attacks. As a result the use of the atom bomb against Japan became ever more attractive.

Kamikaze: A Unique Japanese Phenomenon? For American combatants, the kamikaze pilots were viewed as a weird phenomenon. Destroyer officer Ben Bradlee (later the legendary editor of the Washington Post) reflected, “I could imagine myself in the heat of battle where I would perhaps instinctively take some sudden action that would almost surely result in my death. I could not imagine waking up some morning at 5 a.m., going to some church to pray, and knowing that in a few hours I would crash my plane into a ship on purpose.”52 British seaman Ronald Wren recalled, “When I was 20 years old serving in the Pacific, all I could see was idiots (kamikaze pilots) killing themselves.”53 US Admiral Morton Deyo wrote, “The kamikaze planes flew towards our ships like lonely frightened ducks.” 54 These were typical Allied reactions to the kamikaze threat.

Yet was the Japanese willingness to commit suicide in battle so different from Western ideals? Or were Japan’s kamikaze pilots much more a phenomenon of war in general rather than a unique Japanese practice. Although in the West, the kamikaze have usually been viewed as part of a bizarrely demented Japanese culture, it should perhaps be remembered that the reverence for the suicide mission is also very much part of Western culture. Leonidas, the Spartan King, has been an iconic figure in European culture since he and his three hundred Spartans in an act of suicidal bravery held up the invasion of Greece by the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. Indeed Nazi Germany’s volunteer suicide pilots were known as the Leonidas Squadron. Similarly Stalin ordered fighter pilots to ram German bombers attacking targets around Moscow. On 22 June 1941 a radio message from Moscow solemnly announced, “Flight-Leader Junior Lieutenant Leonid Butelin rammed a German Junkers-88 bomber, severing the tail with the propeller of his fighter. This is the first ramming of the war.”55 Hundreds followed. Life magazine even ran a laudatory photo essay on the subject of Russian Rammers.

To die for love of country, of which the kamikaze is a spectacular example, is as much a tradition of Western culture as for Japan. Like the idea of love itself, suicide for a cause or for a country is a universal phenomenon and the romanticization of kamikaze death, sometimes seen as peculiarly Japanese, is as much a mark of Western culture. Americans are taught to revere the suicidal sacrifice of those men who fought at the Battle of the Alamo [1836], part of the mythology of American nationhood. In Britain the blind obedience to the mistaken order that sent Lord Cardigan and the Light Brigade on their suicidal frontal charge against Russian artillery at the Battle of Balaclava, is revered in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem The Charge of the Light Brigade [1854].

The suicidal attacks by Commander John C. Waldron and the other torpedo plane pilots at the Battle of the Midway are treated with similar reverence. Ironically the first confirmed kamikaze attack of the Pacific War was recorded by Japanese observers who saw a damaged British aircraft dive into a Japanese troop barge off the north eastern coast of Malaya, killing all of its occupants on 8 December 1941, the opening day of the Pacific War. Also the single Medal of Honor winner at the Battle of Midway was Richard Fleming who made a near suicidal low glide-dive on a Japanese carrier on 4 June and again the following day in a dive on the heavy cruiser Mikuma. On the second occasion he released his bomb but was shot down and killed.

Lieutenant-General George Kenney labeled the Japanese as ‘tough fanatics with a queer psychology incomprehensible to us’. Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey, who had witnessed a suicide attack on the carrier USS Intrepid from the bridge of the USS New Jersey half a mile away gave his opinion that “Their [Japanese] psychology behind it was too alien to ours; Americans, who fight to live, find it hard to realize that another people will fight to die.”56 Not surprisingly Halsey, who had a visceral hatred of the Japanese, came to the wrong conclusion. It should be noted that during the Pacific conflict in World War II most of the awards for gallantry in the Allied armies, many of them cited in Hirohito’s War, were for acts of selfless bravery bordering on the suicidal. Any doubters of the propensity of soldiers to suicidal self-sacrifice should read the citations of American soldiers who have been awarded the Medal of Honor in the recent Afghan War [2001-2015].

Halsey himself pinned the Navy Cross on the chest of young Marine, Joseph Champayne, for staying in a foxhole so that he could place a grenade in the tracks of a Japanese tank as it ran over him. Somehow, Champayne managed to get away without being blown up or shot. It was an act of seemingly suicidal bravery. Was this so different from the selfless act of the kamikaze? After the award ceremony Halsey’s speech concluded with, “I have never been more proud of you in my life. I wish to God that every man, woman and child in our great country could know and see what you are doing here. God bless you.”57 In part the alien-ness of the kamikaze reflects the west’s moral revulsion to the Japanese cause, implicit racism and our knowledge of their barbarity toward captured soldiers in the Pacific War. Similarly the self-sacrifice of twenty-first century Jihadist suicide bombers is reviled in part because of its association with a cause that is viewed as morally repugnant. Admiral Spruance, the calm, reflective intellectual, was one of the few sanguine voices on the subject of the kamikaze. He viewed their use by the Japanese as militarily ‘very sound’ and ‘economical’ and asserted that it was “a form especially suited to the Japanese temperament”.58

In conclusion the kamikaze should be seen as an extreme point on the scale of individual self-sacrificial behaviour in war, not as something alien to it. War is a relatively abnormal condition in which human beings sometimes have to operate. Individual reactions vary, but self-sacrifice is not abnormal in war. Individual and collective self-sacrifice is a recurring theme in the celebration of our histories, no more so than in the long tradition of Hollywood movies on the subject. Set on the Bataan Peninsula, the double ‘Oscar’ winning movie ‘So Proudly We Hail’ [1943] lauds the courage of an American nurse, played by Veronica Lake, who “places a hand inside her blouse... and walks slowly toward the enemy in her combat fatigues. As she nears them, she takes off her helmet, and releases her long, very blonde hair over her shoulders. When they come near her in obvious delight, she pulls the pin on her grenade...”59

The very act of participating as a combatant in national armed forces is predicated on the ‘potential of self-destruction for a cause’. Viewed in this context the development of kamikaze units, albeit established by the Japanese state on an unusually industrial scale, should not be regarded as a psychological phenomenon unique to Japan. Some Japanese cultural nuances aside, there was nothing intrinsically unique about Japan’s suicide squadrons in the Pacific War. Individual and collective self-sacrifice is and always has been an intrinsic part of the history and culture of warfare. Individual self-sacrifice may have been inculcated into ideology of pre-war Japan, but kamikaze missions were still on the scale of ‘normal’ in the context of war albeit at the end of the spectrum.

Far more unusual than the kamikaze was the refusal of Japanese officers and their troops to surrender – something that comes up again and again in Hirohito’s War. Captured Japanese troops were measured in handfuls. Around the South Pacific hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops either fought to the last or died of disease and starvation rather than surrender to the Allied armies. As General ‘Bill’ Slim noted in his typically down-to-earth manner: “Everyone talks about fighting to the last man, but only the Japanese actually do it.”60

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