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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Kamikaze Attacks

Divine Wind of Death

Remains of kamikaze attack on the U.S.S. Bunker Hill, 11 May 1945.

The Kamikaze (神風), "Divine" or "spirit wind", officially Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (特別攻撃隊 "Special Attack Unit"), abbreviated as Tokkō Tai (特攻隊, used as a verb as Tokkō (特攻 "special attack") were suicide air attacks from the Empire of Japan late in World War II. While there may have been exceptions, they invariably targeted Allied naval vessels. The intent was to destroy or disable warships more effectively than was possible with conventional attacks, and also to sow panic and confusion in the enemy. The pilots were considered expendable, and there was no possibility of their surviving a successful mission except by some freak occurrence.

The first Kamikaze attack was not planned out far in advance. Captain Motoharu Okamura, a staff officer at the Tateyama Base in Tokyo, began studying the idea on 15 June 1944. An experimental attack by two planes was made on 13 September 1944 from the 31st Fighter Squadron on Negros Island. Nobody knows what happened to those planes, and the experiment was not soon repeated, but the idea remained alive.

About a month later, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima, the commander of the 26th Air Flotilla (part of the 11th Air Fleet) then personally led a large attack of about 100 Yokosuka D4Y Suisei ("Judy") dive bombers against the USS Franklin aircraft carrier. The attack was unsuccessful, as the Franklin was only lightly damaged (one bomb hit and killed three men, but the Franklin remained operational). Since Arima died during the attack, however, the Japanese propaganda services turned his death into a glorious suicide mission. This apparently gave others in the Japanese military ideas.

Takijiro Onishi and his sword.

Takijiro Onishi (2 June 1891 - 16 August 1945) institutionalized the practice. He was an admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II, the 1st Air Fleet commandant. He set up the first Special Attack Unit at Mabalacat Airfield (Clark Air Base) near Manila as the certainty of a US invasion became clear. On 19 October, Onishi told officers of the 201st Flying Group headquarters:
"I don't think there would be any other certain way to carry out the operation [to hold the Philippines], than to put a 250 kg bomb on a Zero and let it crash into a U.S. carrier, in order to disable her for a week."
As Onishi stated, many of the attacks were carried out in Zeros, at least until special-purpose planes became available. The initial objective was not even to sink the target, but just put it out of action. Due to the ultimate success of the program, Onishi came to be known as the father of the kamikaze. He committed ritual suicide (seppuku) with his sword in his quarters following the surrender of Japan.

The Nakajima Ki-115 Tsurugi was a one-man kamikaze aircraft developed by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force in the closing stages of World War II in late 1945.

While Onishi and the others certainly deserve the "credit" for the kamikaze innovation, the idea of riding your plane down to glory and certain death had been in the minds of Japanese pilots since the first day of the war. There were reports of Japanese pilots at Pearl Harbour who, when hit by antiaircraft fire or experiencing other issues, purposely turned their planes over and aimed at ships or land-based targets such as aircraft hangars. The Germans also considered using the idea against enemy bombers, but gave it up on the basis that a pilot who got close enough to crash into a bomber would already be close enough to shoot it down and still escape alive. There is no record of any organized German suicide missions despite a few tentative SS plans in that general direction.

Kamikaze pilots, May 1945.

Some sources state that the first kamikaze attack took place on 21 October 1944 against the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia. It killed 30 crewmen, including the Captain. However, that this was a kamikaze attack at all is disputed, and the first attack actually may have come later. Onishi's Special Attack Force certainly launched an attack a few days later, on 25 October, so that month marks a definitive start to the kamikaze campaign. Some think that the Australians have not been given enough credit for being the first official target of the kamikaze campaign and that this is a sign of a larger U.S. conspiracy to minimize Australia's contribution to the war effort. The idea seems a bit far-fetched to me, but I put it out there so you can decide.

Kamikaze pilot with cherry blossoms.

The kamikaze pilots were said to be volunteers, but in fact some are known to have been ordered to participate. Discipline in the wartime Japanese armed forces and society in general was so strict that disobeying a "suggestion" by a superior officer to become a kamikaze would cause problems for families back home in addition to the pilot's own dramatic loss of face and other possible consequences. One could say that the idea was very strongly suggested to prospective candidates, and then they volunteered. To state that all kamikaze pilots cheerfully volunteered purely out of love of country and/or a desire for glory is a gross mis-characterization. The pilots went through brief training course that lasted about a week, participated in certain rituals such as a tea service with other pilots and a visit to a shrine, and then either took off or were air-launched from a bomber on their mission.

A 1944 Japanese magazine showing a pre-flight tea party for kamikaze pilots.

Since they were based far from home, pilots intended for suicide missions were taken in by families in the days prior to their missions as a sign of honor. Women would sew dolls or thousand-stitch belts for the pilots to take with them. After elaborate ceremonies, there would be a big send-off. Even the concept that a mission could be unsuccessful and that the pilot might return home was unthinkable - if the pilot returned, he would just be given another plane. Kamikaze missions were one-way tickets. Returning from a kamikaze mission would expose the pilot (and his family) to unthinkable shame and danger. There were some odd occasions when pilots sent on kamikaze missions did survive and later told their tales, but those were rare and certainly not planned out to end that way.

High school girls from Chiran, Kagoshima waving cherry blossoms as Lt. Toshio Anazawa takes off on 12 April 1945. Anazawa was a member of 20th Shinbu Special Attack Unit, Ki-43 Hayabusa. My source suggests this is a genuine photo, but it appears to me that the girls and saluting officer on the left were added in later, or "shopped." Notice - aside from their different shading - that the girls and officer don't even appear to be looking at the plane. My conclusion is that this is probably a propaganda creation - but this is how the government wanted people to think the operations went off. It is included solely to illustrate that purpose.

Originally, kamikaze planes were dispatched in twos and threes, as in the original September 1944 attempt. However, Allied anti-aircraft were reaching peak efficiency by late 1944. Since the kamikazes targeted capital ships, air defenses around them were massive. The kamikazes thus adopted pack tactics to swamp enemy defences. The staff would pick a target, then launch a co-ordinated assault from multiple directions at the same time.

As with Germany and its "Mistletoe" bombers, Japan sometimes used air-launches of parasite aircraft for kamikazes. This vastly extended their ranges. Here, a Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bomber launches a Yokosuka MXY7-k1 Ohka "cherry blossom" kamikaze plane.  

It is estimated that a third of all kamikaze hit a ship. This was about ten times the success rate of conventional attacks, which themselves usually led to major Japanese aircraft losses. Thus, the kamikaze attacks were cost-effective from every angle except the individual pilot's perspective - and that didn't count for anything in Imperial Japan.

Kamikaze attack on the USS Yorktown. Shells would be purposely fired into the sea to form a "curtain of water" that could down a plane.

The Allies, of course, soon figured out what was going on. Several defensive tactics were adopted. Successive lines of picket destroyers would be set up at up to 50 miles from a capital ship to alert defenses. Round-the-clock air patrols were set up, and ground-air communications were improved. Japanese airfields were bombed until rendered inoperable. During the later stages of the kamikaze campaign, the number of attacks dwindled, and (expendable) picket destroyers suffered disproportionate losses.

Close-up of Japanese Kamikaze just before he crashed on USS Essex, November 25, 1944 Photographed by Lt. Comdr. Earl Colgrove, USNR.

Kamikaze attacks, though producing fewer results due to counter-measures, continued to the last day of the war, on 15 August 1945. That day, Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki sent "Judys" from the 701st Air Group against the Allied fleet at Okinawa. The official Japanese surrender was communicated that afternoon.

A Japanese Kamikaze plane smashes into the side of the Battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) during the invasion of Okinawa.

Nobody knows exactly how effective the kamikaze campaign was. Since the Japanese continued it until the cessation of hostilities, they obviously considered it more effective than any alternatives. Different sources give varying estimates of ships sunk by the kamikazes, those damaged beyond repair (numerous ships were scrapped after kamikaze attacks without being repaired due to the end of the war and their redundancy), and so forth. A US Air Force Historical Studies Office paper by Dr. Richard P. Hallion gives the following figures:

  • 2800 kamikaze attacks (planes), 14% attack success rate;
  • Approximately 8.5% of all ships hit were sunk;
  • 34 ships sunk;
  • 368 ships damaged (many, as noted above, never repaired);
  • 4900 sailors killed;
  • 4800 wounded.

While a 14% success rate was not very high, it likely was far higher than any alternative open to the Japanese in the final year of the war. The Historical Studies report concluded that "the Kamikaze had the potential to influence events all out of proportion to its actual strength."

Sonia Ki-51 special attack aircraft of Japanese Army Sekicho Squadron diving at USS Columbia in Lingayen Gulf, Philippine Islands, 1729 hours, 6 Jan 1945. Photo taken from the USS California.

By late 1944, the US Navy had a huge fleet that was well-protected and redundant. The US Navy was aided by allies such as the British and Australians who contributed their own capital ships, a process that accelerated with the swift decline of Germany from late 1944 onward (the sinking of the KMS Tirpitz in November 1944 alone freed up several British capital ships for transfer to the Pacific). Only three US capital ships are known to have been sunk by kamikaze during the entire war:

  • St. Lo (25 October 1944);
  • Ommaney Bay (4 January 1945);
  • Bismarck Sea (21 February 1945).

With literally dozens of escort aircraft carriers available, even the 12 aircraft carriers lost by the United States from all causes during the war were easily replaced. In essence, the kamikaze campaign was doomed to ineffectiveness in strategic terms.

USS Saratoga

Even successful mass kamikaze attacks often proved ineffective. For example, the USS Saratoga was struck by six kamikazes on February 21, 1945. The Saratoga (CV-3) was a Lexington-class aircraft carrier. Despite the attack, the Saratoga became one of just three prewar U.S. fleet aircraft carriers - along with Enterprise and Ranger - to serve throughout World War II. If six successful attacks on one target aren't enough to achieve your objective, it is time to consider other alternatives.

USS Randolph after a kamikaze attack, March 11, 1945, showing the massive hole in the stern deck.

USS Intrepid Attack

There is a good sequences of photographs taken of one particular attack, that by kamikaze on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid (CV-11) on 25 November 1944 north of Luzon. This was part of the conquest of the Phillipines.

The Air Group report from the incident states that shortly after noon that day, a large force of Japanese aircraft approached the carrier. Within five minutes, two kamikazes hit the carrier. The death toll was six officers and fifty-nine crew, though it didn't become clear until much later how many were lost (the actual report from Air Group 18 states "sixty were dead, fifteen missing, and about one hundred wounded.")

Incredibly, Intrepid remained fully operational throughout and stayed in station within the task group. Due to efficient fire-fighting practices, the blaze was extinguished in less than two hours and the carrier proceeded on with its mission, carrying out strikes within days. The carrier survived the war, helped recover space capsules for NASA in the 1960s, and now is on permanent display at the Hudson River in Manhattan, New York.

Taken from the Battleship New Jersey (BB-62). A Japanese kamikaze plane approaches the aircraft carrier Intrepid. 25 November 1944. (U.S. Naval Academy)

The flaming remains of the shot-up Japanese plane manages to hit the carrier Intrepid.

A few moments later, the Intrepid is hit. Notice all the anti-aircraft crew on the battleship - this is why not a single US battleship was put out of action by kamikazes during the war and less-protected ships were chosen as targets.

Caption: "U.S Navy sailors bury comrades at sea following two Japanese kamikaze strikes aboard the USS Intrepid (CV-11), an Essex-class aircraft carrier. On 25 November 1944..... two kamikazes crashed into the carrier killing six officers and fifty-nine crew.... Near the Philippines, en route to San Francisco, California, U.S.A. 26 November 1944. Image take by Barrett Gallagher."


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