U.S. Navy Offshore Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands · March 26, 1945

Late in 1944 Rear Admiral Takajiro Ohnishi, com­mander of the First Air Fleet in Japa­nese-held Manila, the Philip­pine’s capital, cham­pioned a special attack force (tokubetsu kogeki tai, abbre­vi­ated as tokkotai) that would in­flict maxi­mum damage on Allied naval vessels squeezing the is­land empire: Japan’s food supply and fuel reserves were scraping the bottom, which is also where her once-vaunted fleet lay. A chief tactic in Ohnishi’s stra­tegy in­volved loading high ex­plo­sives onto land-based air­craft that would be flown by youth­ful, mostly in­ex­peri­enced naval avi­a­tors who repu­tably gloried in self-sacri­fice as they crashed their planes into Allied ships 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 de­stroyed a Mon­gol in­va­sion fleet cen­turies ear­lier, saving Japan from con­quest. Ohnishi hoped to repeat his an­ces­tors’ fate by using these one-way avia­tors in what were euphemistically called “special attack formations.”

On this date, March 26, 1945, the first kami­kazes par­tici­pated in the Oki­na­wa cam­paign, the last major action of the Pacific War. In doing so they tipped the Allies off that their Oper­a­tion Ice­berg, the April 1 amphi­bious inva­sion of Oki­na­wa, 340 miles from the Japa­nese home­land and its last line of defense, would face seri­ous and relent­less sui­cide opposi­tion. The Allies did their best to put into place ship­board anti­air­craft defenses, dis­patch de­stroyer radar pic­kets on the fleet’s peri­meter, and form radar-directed com­bat air pa­trols. Still swarms of kami­kaze sui­cide planes ex­tracted a heavy toll in April. A day before the in­va­sion launch date one death diver crashed his plane into the USS Indi­an­ap­olis, the flag­ship of Adm. Ray­mond Spruance, who was the over­all Allied naval com­mander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the newly formed British Pacific Fleet.

On April 6–7 a typhoon of more than 700 Japa­nese air­craft, fighter planes, and con­ven­tional bombers assaulted the Allied fleet and over­whelmed its defenses. It was 19 hours in kami­kaze hell. The tally of enemy air­craft shot down during this period was reckoned at 304 by Amer­i­can sources. Japa­nese sources con­cede that none of the fighter planes returned home, while admitting that con­ven­tional bomber losses are unknown. In all, 1,465 large-scale kami­kaze attacks launched from Kyūshū, the southern­most Japa­nese Home Island, were made off Oki­na­wa between March and June 1945. Roughly one in five or one in seven (sources vary) kami­kaze pilots found their target and their death (about 3,800 pilots). Of the 1,400 Allied ships and ves­sels that took part in the Oki­na­wa cam­paign (April 1 to June 21, 1945), 34 (or 36) were sunk (6 war­ships in the hellish hours of April 6–7), chiefly destroyers; 368 ves­sels were damaged, including 8 carriers. More than 400 fleet air­craft were lost. Over 4,900 or likely as many as 7,000 U.S. and Allied sail­ors were killed or went missing in action, with an addi­tional 4,824 injured. Nearly one in five U.S. Navy casual­ties suffered during the war came off the coast of Oki­nawa. This was by far the heavi­est loss incurred in any naval cam­paign in the war. Over­all, how­ever, the losses kami­kaze pilots inflicted on the Allied fleet off Oki­nawa were insuf­ficient to turn the tide of war in Japan’s favor, although they did raise the price of America’s eventual victory.

Japanese Kamikaze Pilots—Ten-Month Scourge of the U.S. Fleet

Youthful Japanese kamikaze pilots receive ordersJapanese kamikaze pilots: Five young airmen pose bravely before one-way mission

Left: A Japanese Navy kami­kaze pilot in the rank of a lieu­ten­ant receives sortie orders. Three-quarters of the 4,000 Japa­nese pilots who died in the last 18 months of the war, many in kami­kaze missions, were “boy pilots,” teen­agers barely out of school. Another thou­sand were uni­ver­sity draftees. Most Japa­nese, espe­cially the well-educated student soldiers and avia­tors, knew well before 1944 that Japan was going to lose the war. The cruel and futile kami­kaze oper­a­tion was the last desperate hur­rah for Japan’s mili­tary leaders and their emperor Hirohito.

Right: Seventeen-year-old Cpl. Yukio Araki, holding a puppy, with four other pilots of the 72nd Shinbu Squadron based on Kyūshū. Araki died the following day, May 26, 1945, in a lethal attack on ships near Oki­nawa. Between April 6 and June 22, Kyūshū launched 1,465 kami­kaze air­craft in large-scale attacks and 185 indi­vid­ual kami­kaze sorties. From a Japa­nese per­spec­tive it is worth pointing out 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 enemy fleet for his emperor and coun­try simi­lar to the fate that befell the Mon­gol inva­sion fleet cen­turies ear­lier. His was a glorious act, while suicide may or may not be.

Japanese kamikaze pilots: Schoolgirls bid farewell to suicide pilotJapanese kamikaze pilots: Aircraft carrier USS "Bunker Hill" billowing fire from deck, May 11, 1945

Left: High school girls wave farewell with cherry blossom branches to 2nd Lt. Toshio Anazawa of Army Special Attack Unit (20th Shinbu Squadron). The aircraft, an Army Type 1 fighter carrying a 500 lb bomb, departs for Okinawa on April 12, 1945.

Right: USS Bunker Hill was hit on May 11, 1945, by 22-year-old kamikaze pilot Ensign Kiyoshi Ogawa and another airman 30 seconds apart. From a carrier crew of 2,600, 389 personnel were killed or went missing and 264 were wounded. Although suicide attacks on the heavy cruiser Indian­apolis and the carrier Bunker Hill are relatively well-known, toward the end of the naval battle off Oki­nawa the radar picket ships on the edge of the fleet became the prime kami­kaze targets. Of the 206 ships serving radar picket duty, 29 per­cent were sunk or damaged in Japa­nese air attacks, making theirs the most hazardous but least known naval surface duty of the war.

Allied Sea Power Threatened by New Military Tactic at Okinawa: Japanese Kamikaze Pilots