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