The kamikaze pilots represented Japan’s last desperate option to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific theatre. By November 1944, the Japanese forces were facing defeats on all fronts. On June 15, 1944, a huge US invasion force supported by a massive naval bombardment assaulted the strategic island of Saipan.
Four days later, the Japanese Navy tried to counterattack, this action led to the Battle of the Philippine Sea, or better known by the Americans as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, because of the high losses of the Japanese fleet and Air Forces.
The categorical victory of the Americans in this battle sealed the fate of Saipan. In July 1944, the Japanese garrison was destroyed and more importantly, Japan was now within range of the B-29 bombers. Another major consequence of this naval battle was that the Philippines was open for the American invasion, and Japan could do little to stop them, because of the shortages of pilots, planes, and ships. These shortages combined with the need for finding a rapid solution to stop the American advance represented the road to the first kamikaze attacks.
We present you 15 interesting facts about the Kamikaze pilots you probably didn’t know:
- Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima, the commander of the 26th Japanese Fleet in Manila, was often credited by official Japanese propaganda as the main source of inspiration for the kamikaze tactic. Apparently, he crashed with his Zero fighter plane into the deck of the aircraft carrier Franklin, on October 15, 1944; but according to the American crew of the aircraft carrier, this event didn’t ever took place. It is not clear if the damage done to USS Franklin that day was because of a kamikaze pilot or from a conventional attack, and according to other sources, none of Arima’s planes managed to reach their targets.
- The “Father of the Kamikaze tactic”, the Japanese officer who officialized the use of kamikaze pilots is Vice Admiral Takahiro Onishi. On October 17 when he took command of the 1st Air Fleet in the Philippines, Onishi realized that the military situation was really desperate and that his options for stopping the American Navy were limited.
From this point, Onishi started to argue the necessity of using suicide aerial attacks and began organizing the first official kamikaze unit. The volunteers for the first Shimpu Tokubetsu Kogekitai (Divine Wind Special Attack Unit) came from the 201st Air Group.
- The experiences of the Japanese during the Philippines’ campaign demonstrated that the use of kamikaze planes was a viable alternative to traditional air bombings. From a total of 650 suicide missions flown during the Philippines’ campaign, approximately 27 percent were considered successful. For the Japanese commanders, these numbers proved that the Kamikaze pilots were a viable solution for inflicting heavy casualties on the American ships. The initial success can be attributed to two factors: the speed and agility of Zero fighters and the use of veteran pilots with high flying skills.
- What did the Japanese High Command expect to accomplish by sending its young pilots to certain death? Faced with a desperate situation, their options were very limited.
The main sources for the goals of the kamikaze pilots are represented by two Japanese high-officers: Cpt. Rikihei Inoguchi and Col. Naomichi Jin.
Captain Rikihei Inoguchi was present in the Philippines while kamikaze tactics were still in the design stage.
As Chief of Staff with the 1st Air Fleet, he was closely involved in supervising and organizing suicide attacks.
In an interview with the US Navy at the end of the war, Inoguchi spoke about the objectives of the suicide bombers. In Inoguchi’s opinion, there was no possibility of achieving victory with these tactics. If the Americans suffered unacceptable losses as a result of the attacks of these special units, it was hoped that they would have been forced to demand peace on terms that were as favorable as possible for Japan.
Chief of Liaison Staff in the Thirty-Second Army Intelligence during the battle for Okinawa; Lieutenant Col. Naomichi Jin, outlined four main reasons for the adoption of the kamikaze pilots attacks:
“There were no prospect of victory in the air by employment of orthodox methods.
Suicide attacks were more effective because the power of impact of the plane was
added to that of the bomb, besides which the exploding gasoline caused fire—further, achievement of the proper angle effected greater speed and accuracy than that
of normal bombing.
Suicide attacks provided spiritual inspiration to the ground units and to the Japanese public at large.
Suicide attack was the only sure and reliable type of attack at the time such attacks
were made (as they had to be) with personnel whose training had been limited
because of shortage of fuel.”
- The original plane model used by the kamikaze pilots was the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter. The Zero fighters allocated for kamikaze missions were stripped of all unnecessary weapons, radios, and weights and equipped with a 250 kg bomb. Initially, the pilots were instructed only to arm the bomb so it would explode on impact, while later tactics encouraged the release of the bombs before impact so the enemy ship would be hit in two locations.
- Contrary to popular belief, not all kamikaze pilots were Japanese, some of them were Koreans. The crew of the American destroyer USS Luce saved the life of a Korean pilot after his plane was shot down by anti-aircraft. He told the crew that he was a farmer who had been drafted into the military and forced to become a kamikaze pilot. According to some sources, a total of eleven Koreans became members of the Kamikaze squadrons. Among them were Capt. Kim San Phil, 2d Lt. Tak Kyon Hyen and Sgt. 1st Class Park Ton Fun, all of whom are honored at the Yasukuni Shrine and the Chiran Peace Museum.
- If in the case of the Philippine Campaign we can talk about the use of pilots with experience for the kamikaze strikes, during the battle for Okinawa, the situation has changed radically. The need to keep experienced pilots coupled with a lack of resources, especially fuel, has led to a reduction in the training program for kamikaze pilots. As a consequence, most of the pilots were given only minimal training: army pilots had only seventy hours of flight time and navy pilots only thirty to fifty hours of flight before the actual missions.
- Beginning on 6 April 1945, the Japanese launched a series of ten massive air raids against the American forces at Okinawa. The combined operations were known by their codename “Ten Go” Campaign and each of the ten raids were referred to as “Kikusui 1” through 10.
According to the USSBS study, the first and also largest of these raids took place between 6 and 7 April. For this attack 230 kamikazes from the navy and 125 from the army were used, they escorted by other 344 aircraft. By the end of this two-day raid, twenty-six Allied ships were damaged or sunk by kamikazes pilots.
- A Japanese pilot by the name of Kaoru Hasegawa is one of the few kamikaze survivors. His plane was shot down by antiaircraft guns from USS Callaghan (DD-792) on 25 May 1945. His plane crashed into the sea, but Kaoru Hasegawa was rescued by the crew of the US destroyer. He was later transferred to battleship New Mexico (BB-40), while he was transported to Guam, Hasegawa attempted to take his own life because he felt dishonored for not succeeding in his mission. He only lost his conscious, and later recovered.
- On April 16, 1945, the US Navy destroyer Laffey(DD-724) was for 80 minutes the main target of 22 Japanese kamikaze airplanes and other bombers. Seven kamikaze pilots managed to get past the ship’s air defenses and crashed directly into it and other two managed to hit the ship with their bombs. Although the ship suffered immense damage: inoperable guns, jammed rudder, and massive fires; it didn’t sink and later earned the nickname of:” The Ship That Would Not Die”.
- The last US Navy ship sunk by the kamikaze attacks was the destroyer USS Callaghan (DD-792). It was sunk on July 29, 1945.
- Most kamikaze pilots were between 17 and 25 years old. Many of the volunteers had a university education. The nature of volunteering is still a matter of debate, we are talking about a society where self-sacrifice was held in high esteem.
Precisely because we are talking about a society where the Bushido code had to be respected, we can hardly imagine that a young man who refuses to “volunteer” for such missions would not have been subjected to pressure from society.
- After the Okinawa campaign, most kamikaze attacks were halted. The Japanese High Command wanted to preserve most of their available planes for the defense of the Homeland once the US invasions would’ve started. According to the findings of the Americans after the occupation of Japan, in august 1945 the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (IJAAF) had 7800 at its disposal for the defense of Japan. Of these only 2650 were allocated for kamikaze attacks, 2150 for conventional attacks, the remaining 3000 combat airplanes were not immediately ready for battle (repair or stored). Once the 2650 planes allocated for the kamikaze attacks were used, the Japanese planned to rapidly convert the other planes for suicide attacks.
- In the event Operation Downfall would’ve occurred. Based on some calculations, if Japanese forces employed 5350 kamikaze planes for the defense of their nation, approximately 60% of those would’ve only manage to take off and attempt to attack their targets. Based on the real success rates of previous kamikaze missions, it is estimated that the American invasion force would’ve lost 100 ships, while the other 1000 would suffer damage. In terms of human lives, the Americans would’ve lost 5700 sailors.
- The question remains, was the kamikaze campaign effective? The exact number of kamikaze pilots sent against Allied warships from October 1944 until the end of the war is difficult if not impossible to determine with maximum accuracy. According to many accepted sources, 3,913 Japanese have lost their lives while conducting some 3,000 kamikaze missions.
This figure included 2,525 IJNAF and 1,388 JAAF personnel. From the total of 3000 missions, only one-third got to the point where they conducted an attack on a ship.
If they got to this point, they had about a 36 percent chance of success. Only 367 kamikazes either succeeded in hitting their targets or managed to get the opportunity to damage the Allied ships. In total, it is estimated that each kamikaze aircraft had about a 9.4 percent chance of hitting a target. For each kamikaze pilot, the Allies lost an average of 40 people. It is estimated that the US Navy and its Allies lost 66 ships and crafts, while the other 400 suffered damage of various degrees.
Regarding total personnel, casualties are difficult to estimate, but approximately 15,000 is generally accepted as accurate. This figure includes 6,190 killed and 8,760 wounded. According to Steve Zaloga’s book “KAMIKAZE Japanese Special Attack Weapons 1944–45”, the number of deaths caused by the kamikaze pilots is higher, around 7000 American, British and Australian troops.
STEVEN J. ZALOGA: KAMIKAZE Japanese Special Attack Weapons 1944–45; New Vanguard; 2011
Mark Stille: US NAVY SHIPS Vs KAMIKAZES Pacific Theater 1944–45; Osprey Publishing; 2016
Robin L. Rielly: Kamikaze Attacks of World War II: A Complete History of Japanese Suicide Strikes on American Ships, by Aircraft and Other Mean; McFarland; 2012
Roger Pineau; Rikihei Inoguchi: Divine Wind: Japan’s Kamikaze Force in World War II; Naval Institute Press; 2013