Off the Coast of Okinawa, Japan April 6–7, 1945

For centuries the concept of individual suicide was accepted within Japa­nese society. Among the warrior, or Samurai, class especially, suicide was seen as the way to, among other things, atone for one’s failure, attenu­ate shame, and restore honor for one­self or for one’s family or clan. Ritual sui­cide by disembowel­ment, known as seppuku or hara­kiri, dates back to 1180 AD. Con­versely, mass suicide emerged as a recent phenom­e­non. In the early days of World War II, Japa­nese avi­ators who had been taught in mili­tary training to avoid capture or sur­ren­der and whose air­craft were too badly damaged to return to base would fly their planes into an enemy plane (a tactic called “body crashing,” or taia­tari), or into an enemy ship or some sort of ground target. The avia­tors’ last act was wrapped up in the feudal Japanese moral code of bushidō, “the way of the warrior.”

Suicide as a doctrinal military tactic, how­ever, did not enter Japa­nese mili­tary policy until Octo­ber 1944. Allied mili­tary forces of every sort threatened the very exis­tence of the Impe­rial home­land. Vice Admiral Taki­jirō Ōnishi, recently appointed com­man­der of the First Air Fleet head­quartered in the Philip­pine capi­tal Manila—and a pilot him­self—cham­pioned a “special attack” force (toku­betsu kōgeki tai, abbre­vi­ated as tok­kōtai; also called shimbu-tai) that would inflict maxi­mum damage on Allied naval ves­sels strangling the island empire. Ōnishi’s stra­tegy involved loading high explo­sives onto land-based air­craft that would be flown by youth­ful, mostly inex­peri­enced naval avi­a­tors who repu­tably gloried in bushidō self-sacri­fice as they crashed their planes into Allied ves­sels to sink or crip­ple them and kill as many sail­ors and Marines as pos­sible. These one-way tok­kotai pilots had been named after a “Divine Wind,” a kami­kaze, that cen­turies earlier had saved Japan from a Mongol inva­sion. Ōnishi hoped to repeat his ances­tors’ fate by using masses of one-way pilots in what were euphemistically called “special attack formations.”

Scoring the first official kill of Ōnishi’s special attack air­craft were five one-way pilots flying Mitsu­bishi A6M Zeros. They were accom­panied by four fighter escorts. The date, Octo­ber 25, 1944, five days into the U.S. cam­paign to retake the Philip­pines (Octo­ber 20, 1944, to Septem­ber 2, 1945), saw one kami­kaze pilot sink the escort carrier USS St. Lo, sending 140 of her service crew and offi­cers to their deaths. Two other U.S. escort car­riers were damaged in tok­kotai death plunges but sus­tained few casual­ties. (An escort carrier was also sunk in the same Battle off Samar but by enemy sur­face gun­fire.) Truly for mem­bers of the newly estab­lished Kami­kaze Special Attack Corps, theirs was an auspicious start.

The kamikaze program moved into high gear on this date, April 6, 1945, and into the next with the advent of Oper­a­tion Kiku­sui (“Floating Chry­san­the­mum”), a series of 10 large kami­kaze raids between April 6 and June 22. An init­ial typhoon of more than 700 Japa­nese air­craft, fighter planes, con­ven­tional bombers, and escorts assaulted U.S. and British fleets off the Japa­nese island of Oki­nawa, invaded a week earlier by what would swell to 110,000 U.S. sol­diers and Marines. For 19 hours it was pure kamikaze hell.

The number of ships sunk by these one-way avia­tors is a matter of debate. According to a war­time Japa­nese source, kami­kaze missions sank 81 U.S., British, and Aus­tral­ian vessels and damaged another 195. Amer­i­can sources state upwards of 2,800 kami­kaze attackers sank either 34 or 47 naval ships, damaged 368 others, and caused the deaths of 4,900 sailors and wounded more than 4,800. An Aus­tra­lian-Japa­nese source counted 57 ships sunk. Despite radar detec­tion and cueing, air­borne inter­ception, pilot attri­tion, and mas­sive antiaircraft barrages, 14 per­cent of all kami­kazes sur­vived to score a hit on a ship; of those ships 8.5 per­cent sank. The damage inflicted by these aerial actors, how­ever, neither pre­vented the capture of the Philip­pines, Iwo Jima, and Oki­nawa nor the inev­i­table sur­render of the pros­trate Japa­nese nation to Allied nations aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri on September 2, 1945.

Kazikaze Campaign 1944–1945: Japan’s Desperate Bid to Ward Off Defeat

Killing the battleship Yamato, April 7, 1945Japanese Shinyo suicide motorboat

Left: The modern kamikaze concept spread from enemy-held Philip­pines to Japan’s Home Islands. From there it expanded to include manned sui­cide torpe­does (Kaiten, “Turn the Heaven”) and two-man midget sub­ma­rines (Kaiyu, “Sea Dragon”), also human-piloted solid-rocket, one-ton bombs launched from mother air­craft near the target (Ohka, or “Cherry Blos­som”), and small, shallow-draft ply­wood speed­boats (Shin’yo, or “Sea Quake”) formed into land-based sea raiding squad­rons intent on launching anti­ship rockets or dropping depth charges or other explo­sives near Allied supply vessels and landing craft. In a truly hare­brained mis­sion, the Japa­nese Navy sent the world’s largest battle­ship, its erstwhile flag­ship Yamato, displacing 71,659 tons, to act as a “special attack wea­pon” during the Oki­nawa Cam­paign (Oper­a­tion Ice­berg, April 1 to June 22, 1945). Depicted in this artist’s impres­sion are U.S. Navy dive bombers and tor­pedo bombers dispatching the pride of the Impe­rial Japa­nese Navy, along with 3,055 of her 3,332 crew­men, to the ocean bottom more than 300 nau­ti­cal miles north of Okinawa’s shores on the afternoon of April 7, 1945.

Right: Just prior to the Okinawa landings, U.S. Army sol­diers secured a tiny group of bleak islands called Kerama Retto, 15 miles west of Oki­nawa. There they put three Japa­nese sea-raiding squad­rons out of busi­ness, seized and destroyed 350 high-speed (30 knot) Shin’yo boats that would have been used against the Allied inva­sion fleet, but not before one Army officer, Lt. Col. James F. Doyle, took a fast spin in one of them.

Youthful kamikaze pilots receive orders Kamikaze pilots: School girls bid farewell

Left: A Japanese Navy kami­kaze pilot in the rank of a lieu­ten­ant receives sortie orders. It is esti­mated that over 1,200 pilots (out of 2,314) perished in the Pacific War’s last desper­ate hur­rah for Japan’s mili­tary leaders and their emperor Hirohito. Three-quarters of these pilots were teen­agers barely out of school. From a Japa­nese per­spec­tive it is worth noting that the typ­i­cal Japa­nese person then and now rejects the term “sui­cide attack” when speaking of kami­kaze. The kami­kaze pilot did not begin his one-way mission with the inten­tion of commit­ting sui­cide. He consid­ered him­self a pilot-guided lethal bomb that would cripple or destroy a certain part of the oppo­nent’s fleet for his emperor and coun­try. His was a glorious—though ulti­mately futile—act, while suicide may or may not be.

Right: Kamikaze flights found strong appeal in a nation with a long tradi­tion of ritual sui­cide. Two or three pilots stepped forward for every avail­able kami­kaze plane, some­times filling out their appli­ca­tions in blood. High school girls idolized the doomed heroes, who could not pos­sibly change the course of the war. What the pilots could do, and indeed did, was make the even­tual Allied victory more costly than other­wise. In this photo school­girls wave fare­well with cherry blossom branches to 2nd Lt. Toshio Ana­zawa of Army Special Attack Unit (20th Shinbu Squad­ron; Shinbu means “military might”). Ana­zawa’s single-engine air­craft, a Naka­jima Ki‑43 IIIa Army Type 1 fighter carrying a 550 lb bomb, departed Kyūshū’s Chiran airbase at Kago­shima for Okinawa on April 12, 1945.

Kamikaze pilot in dive against USS Essex, November 25, 1944Kamikaze pilots set two U.S. carriers ablaze, October 30, 1944

Left: A Yokosuka D4Y3 (Type 33 Suisei) “Judy” in a suicide dive against USS Essex on Novem­ber 25, 1944. Lt. Yoshi­nori Yama­guchi’s plane hit the port edge of the Essex, landing among armed air­craft fueled for take­off and causing exten­sive damage, killing 15 sailors and wounding 44. Diffi­cult to see, the slotted dive flaps that reduce dive speed are extended, and the non-self-sealing port wing tank trails fuel vapor and/or smoke. Famously, a D4Y was used in one of the final kami­kaze attacks in 1945, hours after the sur­ren­der of Japan on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.

Right: USS Belleau Wood burning after the light aircraft carrier shot down a kam­ikaze, which plunged onto its flight deck as the carrier oper­ated off Luzon, Philip­pines, Octo­ber 30, 1944. Ninety-two sailors either died or went missing in the mis­hap. Ablaze in the dis­tance is the USS Franklin, also hit by kam­ikaze, which killed 56 men and wounded 60. Neither ship sank. By far the most success­ful and harrowing kami­kaze attacks occurred as U.S. Marines and soldiers ini­ti­ated their capture of Iwo Jima on April 1, 1945 (Oper­a­tion Detach­ment). Between the Impe­rial Japa­nese Navy and the Impe­rial Japa­nese Army 940 air­craft and 887 air­craft, respec­tively, were deployed. Of these, 133 planes of varying types scored hits, and 122 planes scored near misses. Japa­nese casual­ties include 2,045 naval avi­a­tors and 1,022 army avi­a­tors killed (not including losses other than kami­kazes). If non-kami­kaze air­craft are included, 2,258 air­craft were lost. On the Allied side, 36 ships were sunk (but no cruisers or larger vessels), 218 ships were damaged (including 8 air­craft carriers, 3 battle­ships, 2 cruisers and 33 destroyers), and 763 carrier air­craft were lost. The British Pacific Fleet shot down more than 40 enemy aircraft for a loss of 44 men killed, 83 wounded, 4 air­craft carriers and 1 heavy cruiser damaged, and 1 mine­sweeper sunk. Total Allied casual­ties include over 4,900 killed or missing, and 4,824 wounded. In the history of the U.S. Navy, kamikazes caused the service’s greatest losses.

Contemporary Footage of Japanese Kamikaze Attack on U.S. Navy Fleet Off Okinawa, April 1945