The Kamikaze charge of Japan
In the Second World War the Allies encountered a particular kind of savagery in the battles fought in the Far East and the Pacific in the kamikaze or suicide attacks inflicted upon them by fanatical Japanese who were unwilling to accept the idea of surrender to the steadily advancing Allied forces.
Rear-Admiral Arima decided to make a personal contribution to the war by crashing his plane into an American aircraft carrier. As he took off before his fliers, he was untroubled by the fact that he might not return because he intended not to. His actions were the blueprint for the suicide bombing missions which, in another form, are bringing terror to our world more than 60 years later.
Arima’s gesture was unsuccessful. He missed the carrier and plunged into the sea nearby. But his death planted the seed of this idea in other Japanese officers who in their desperation were now wondering if these new methods offered the Japanese the possibility of overcoming their enemy’s might. Japan’s air force was being decimated by the Americans as they advanced through the Philippine islands en route to Tokyo and there was a dire shortage of pilots with nothing more than basic training.
Suicide attacks suited the mood of the moment. It was decided that Zeroes fitted with 500lb bombs and crashed headlong into targets could achieve greater accuracy than conventional bombing. The movement was called Shimpu or ‘divine wind’, popularly known as kamikaze. On October 21, 1944, the first suicide mission took off.
A few months and many hundred suicide attacks later, genuine kamikaze volunteers became hard to find. But in the first few weeks many Japanese eagerly offered themselves for ‘useful death’. Some officers openly denounced the kamikaze concept. An officer who refused to nominate his men for kamikaze was held in deep respect by them.
At sea American losses began to mount dramatically. Although many attackers were shot down, the balance of the air battle seemed to be tilting in favour of the enemy. Once a kamikaze plane went into power dive, there were 30 or 40 seconds to get out its way, and no ship could turn in that time. Japanese formations were approaching as high as they could fly, maybe 20,000ft. As the sky grew black from anti-aircraft fire from the fleet, the suicide bombers dived steeply, with US Hellcat fighter planes on their tails.
The Japanese would sneak up on US carriers in a cloud of American aircraft returning from a mission, becoming indistinguishable on radar screens. Fire was the principal horror unleashed by a kamikaze strike on an aircraft carrier laden with up to 2,00,000 gallons of aviation gas.
The strain on the Allied men was acute. They had to remain alert every daylight hour for a guided bomb that could hurl itself into their ship. Between October 1944 and August 1945, 3,913 kamikaze pilots are known to have died.
To the astonishment of the Americans, the kamikaze offensive suddenly stopped. It had sunk or damaged 100 American ships, but failed in its purpose of halting the US Army’s recapture of the Philippines. But they were back three months later to try to prevent the Americans from landing on Okinawa. The first strike on the US invasion fleet numbered 700 planes, half of them kamikazes.
Japanese commanders realised the folly of sacrificing experienced pilots. Raw recruits were now thrown into the fight. Their overwhelming strength along with the diminishing skills of Japanese aircrew enabled the Americans to withstand the huge losses. But kamikaze was still being practised by all of Japan’s armed forces. On land, with no antitank guns, soldiers were given a shell and ordered to detonate it against an American tank as it approached.
The Japanese navy planned kamikaze through scores of small suicide boats, laden with explosives and deployed to crash into American warships. But the US fleet anchored 15 miles offshore was out of their range.
In one particularly audacious attempt, the world’s largest fighting vessel, the 72,000-ton battleship Yamato, and her crew of more than 3,000 men, became kamikazes.
However, they were torpedoed by the Americans and more than 3,000 Japanese fighters perished.