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