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.

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