For the alcoholic beverage, see Kamikaze (drink)
Kamikaze (Kanji: 神風) were suicide attacks by Japanese pilots who towards the end of the World War II crashed their airplanes into enemy ships. The attacks began in October 1944 and continued to the end of the war, and did significant damage to the American fleet.
The name is translated into "Divine Wind", which refers to major typhoons in the years 1274 and 1281. These typhoons dispersed Mongol armadas on their way to an invasion of Japan. As the typhoons were believed to be gifts from the gods, they were given the name kamikaze, from the words kami for "god", "spirit", and "divinity",; and kaze for "wind".
In 1944, as Allied forces were advancing towards Japan. Japan's military aircraft, such as the Mitsubishi Zero, were completely outclassed by Allied aircraft, including the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair. Japan had lost most of its best pilots in air battles against the Allies. Finally, in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Japan lost a huge number of carrier-based planes, as well as their pilots. These problems, as well as shortages of fuel and spare parts, led Japan to develop kamikaze tactics, with planes full of explosives, enough fuel for a one-way trip, and a pilot psychologically prepared to die. The Kamikaze attacks worked because the pilot aimed directly at the ship, and did not worry about the trajectory of a bomb, or his escape route. Even if hit his plane continued toward the target.
Most aircraft used in kamikaze attacks were converted obsolete fighters and dive-bombers. However, purpose-built kamikaze aircraft were also constructed. These included the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka (桜花Cherry Blossom), nicknamed the "baka bomb" (baka is Japanese for "idiot"), and the Nakajima Ki-115 Tsurugi. The Ohka, effectively a manned cruise missile, was a rocket-powered aircraft which was launched from a bomber aircraft, most commonly the Mitsubishi G4M "Betty". The Tsurugi was an extremely simple aircraft with a wooden fuselage and a reusable undercarriage, designed to use up obsolete engines. In 1945, Japan stockpiled hundreds of planes, Tsurugi, suicide boats, and Ohka for use against the Allied invasion of Japan expected in fall 1945.
If the Americans valued lives over victory, and the Japanese were ready to die for their Emperor, then one radically new and astonishingly effective doctrine suddenly became available to Japan, the Kamikaze attack. Tokyo realized that the old orthodoxy of mass air attack that worked so well at Pearl Harbor now was totally ineffective against superior equipment and tactics; it was therefore necessary to try a desperate doctrine. It could not win the war, but it might lead to a negotiated peace. It capitalized on what Japan considered the sentimental psychological weakness of the Americans. While it failed in the end, it enraged the Americans and indicated that an invasion of Japan would involve hundreds of thousands of casualties on the American side, and millions on the Japanese. Kamikaze pilots were special volunteers, many of them elite students who had just joined the Navy or Army. They were given only rudimentary flight training. After ritual preparation, an experienced escort flyer (who was not a Kamikaze) would lead them toward American ships. Their planes became guided missiles, and only had to be steered at and crashed into a ship.
Kamikaze attacks were most important at the Battle of Okinawa in spring 1945; during the three-month battle, 4000 kamikaze sorties sank 38 US ships and damaged 368 more, killing 4,900 sailors in the American 5th Fleet. Expecting far more Kamikaze attacks once the main islands of Japan were invaded, the U.S. high command rethought its strategy and used atomic bombs to end the war instead of an invasion.
The suicide doctrine nearly worked. Destroyers and destroyer escorts, doing radar picket duty, were hit hard, as the inexperienced pilots dived at the first American ship they spotted instead of waiting to get at the big carriers. Task Force 58 analyzed the Japanese technique at Okinawa in April, 1945:
- Rarely have the enemy attacks been so cleverly executed and made with such reckless determination. These attacks were generally by single or few aircraft making their approaches with radical changes in course and altitude, dispersing when intercepted and using cloud cover to every advantage. They tailed our friendlies home, used decoy planes, and came in at any altitude or on the water.
Only once in the entire operation did the enemy attack in classic fashion. By attacked in large numbers from different directions at different altitudes, Kamikazes could saturate the CIC command system; there would not be enough Hellcats to shoot them all down. If they managed to get through they could gravely damage a carrier or sink a smaller ship. In the first place they were not planning to return--therefore they were less distracted by AA fire. Hurtling directly at a ship, they were easy to hit, but the dead pilot and crippled plane would still be crashing down toward the target.
Desperate high speed twists and turns saved many a ship, but the 20mm Oerlikon cannon proved too weak to knock them down, so 40mm-56 caliber Bofors guns were hurriedly added to ships. 5" guns with proximity fuzes were highly effective, so hundreds of factories across the USA began round-the-clock production of, with output reaching 40,000 a day.
The best defense against Kamikazes was to knock them out on the ground, or else in the air long before they approached the fleet. The Navy called for more fighters, and more warning. The carriers replaced a fourth of their light bombers with Marine fighters; back home the training of fighter pilots was stepped up. More combat air patrols circling the big ships, more radar picket ships (which themselves became prime targets), and more attacks on airbases and gasoline supplies eventually worked. Japan suspended Kamikaze attacks in May, because it was now hoarding gasoline and hiding planes in preparation for new suicide attacks if the Yankees dared to invade their home islands. The Kamikaze strategy allowed the use of untrained pilots and obsolete planes, and since evasive maneuvering was dropped and there was no return trip, the scarce gasoline reserves could be stretched further. Since pilots guided their airplane/missile all the way to the target, the proportion of hits was much higher than in ordinary bombing. The deaths were not much higher than Japan's conventional air warfare, and much lower than infantry suffered. Japan's industry was manufacturing 1,500 new planes a month, and old inventory was just as good as new. (Better, because the new planes were full of defects, and often crashed while being delivered.)
Japan's new tactics were amazingly effective, and would have been even more devastating but for a serious flaw--Kamikaze doctrine emphasized heroic individual suicide, and overlooked the necessity of saturating the defenses. In six weeks at Okinawa they sent in 1,900 Kamikazes in waves of 2 to 50 planes, sinking 17 destroyers and 19 smaller ships and damaging 368. Some 4,900 American sailors were killed and another 4,800 wounded. However, only four times did the Japanese send in more than 50 planes at one time. On April 6, 107 Kamikazes sank 4 ships and damaged 19, in the worst American defeat since Pearl Harbor. Against small-scale raids the Hellcats and anti-aircraft guns had the time to shoot down over 90 percent of the attackers. A few giant waves of 100+ attackers might have overwhelmed every American defensive system; most of the Kamikazes probably would have gotten through and could have sunk or badly damaged dozens of ships, with American casualties high in the tens of thousands. The Okinawa invasion might have failed. The puzzle is why Japanese Kamikaze doctrine was not fully developed. The coordination of highly complex multiple attacks (using unskilled pilots) would have been a major challenge which might or might not have succeeded, but it was never even attempted. Perhaps the reason was a bureaucratic obstacle. Most air commanders detested the new Kamikaze doctrine because it spelled the imminent end of their air forces; they were reluctant to release the necessary planes, pilots and irreplaceable gasoline reserves. Japanese intelligence failed, for Tokyo kept getting reports every few days that nearly all the American ships had been sunk--again and again! Psychology was a factor as well. The emphasis on ritual suicide for personal and national honor distracted from systematic planning and organization. The volunteers seemed willing enough if there was a reasonable chance of success, but repeated failures gave the lie to the stories about smashing victories, and soon eroded away their esprit. They were in practice not quite so willing to die for their Emperor.
Young, well-educated Japanese men volunteered to become kamikaze pilots to express their intense desire to protect their country at all costs and to enjoy the glory that such a sacrifice would afford them in the afterlife.
At first glance, the Kamikaze philosophy was totally opposite from the American cultural norm to stay alive and "let the other guy die for his country." Kamikazes contributed to the intense desire of Washington to end the war off as soon as possible, and lessened any reluctance Americans may have had to exterminate their foes. Notice, however, that while Americans have always been surprised by preplanned suicide attacks (like the truck-bomb that blew up a Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the 9-11 Attack in 2001, or the many suicide attacks in Iraq after 2003), the culture did allow for, and approved voluntary suicide. Popular (movie) legend had long glorified the wounded hero who sacrificed himself to save his squad. The Minutemen on Lexington Green, the Texans at the Alamo, the regiments in Pickett's charge, Custer at Little Big Horn, and the sailors and airmen of Taffy 3 at Leyte Gulf, would have understood the Kamikazes, but they would have demanded a more efficient use of this strange new weapon. In the event, at Okinawa alone five of the eleven American fleet carriers were damaged so severely they were knocked out of the war, together with a battleship, a cruiser, 37 destroyers, two escort carriers, and 24 smaller ships. It was Japan's greatest naval achievement--far more impressive than even Pearl Harbor, but since it lost all its naval capability, and the island itself, Japan lost the Battle of Okinawa.
Toward the end of the war the Japanese press encouraged civilians to emulate the kamikaze pilots who willingly gave their lives to stop American naval forces. Civilians were told that the reward for such behavior was enshrinement as a warrior-god and spiritual protection in the afterlife.
- Burt, Ron. Kamikaze Nightmare (1995) excerpt and text search
- Inoguchi, Rikihei, Tadashi Nakajima, and Roger Pineau. The Divine Wind: Japan's Kamikaze Force in World War II (1994) excerpt and text search
- Lamont-Brown, Raymond. Kamikaze: Japan's Suicide Samurai (2000) excerpt and text search
- Reilly, Robin L. Kamikazes, Corsairs And Picket Ships: Okinawa 1945 (2008)
- Hattori, Syohgo. "Kamikaze: Japan's Glorious Failure." Air Power History 1996 43(1): 14-27. Issn: 1044-016x
- Kuwahara, Yasuo, and Gordon T. Allred. Kamikaze: A Japanese Pilot's Own Spectacular Story of the Famous Suicide Squadrons (2007) excerpt and text search
- Ohnuki-Thierney, Emiko, ed. Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers (2006), 227pp