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, 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. On this date in 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. Of the 1,400 Allied ships and ves­sels that took part in the cam­paign, 36 were sunk, chiefly de­stroyers; 368 ves­sels were damaged, in­cluding eight car­riers. 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.

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Japanese Kamikaze Pilots—Scourge of the U.S. Fleet

Kamikaze pilot receives ordersFive 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.

Schoolgirls bid farewell to suicide pilotAircraft 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 Suicide Pilots