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 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 pilots in what were euphemistically called “special attack formations.”

On this date, March 26, 1945, the first kami­kazes par­tici­pated in the Oki­na­wa cam­paign. 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.

On April 5 a typhoon of more than 700 Japa­nese air­craft as­saulted the Allied fleet and over­whelmed its defenses. 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. About one in seven kami­kaze pilots found their target. Of the 1,400 Allied ships and ves­sels that took part in the Oki­na­wa cam­paign, 36 were sunk, chiefly de­stroyers; 368 ves­sels were damaged, including eight car­riers. More than 400 fleet air­craft were lost. Over 4,900 U.S. and Allied sail­ors were killed or went missing in action, and an addi­tional 4,824 wounded. 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.

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

Youthful Japanese kamikaze pilots receive orders Japanese kamikaze pilots: Five young airmen pose bravely before suicide 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 sui­cide 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.

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

Left: 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. In this photo they 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 turned into a blazing junkyard 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 when planes on the flight and hangar decks caught fire and blew up. 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