Appendices - Hirohito's War
E. Typhoons and Divine Winds: Kamikaze
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 , 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 .
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’  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