The kamikaze, or "divine wind," attacks of the Second World War stand as some of the most well-known facets of the war in the Pacific Theater. Turning their airplanes into flying missiles, desperate Japanese pilots flew straight into Allied ships, intending to sell their lives dearly by damaging or sinking the targeted ship. The kamikaze attacks of the last year of the war did indeed manage to damage or destroy many vessels, but the affect they had on Allied morale was perhaps even greater. Of the many indications of the fanatical level of Japanese resistance, kamikaze attacks were the most visible and most discouraging, truly a sign of a military and a country ready to sacrifice anything in its defense.
The advent of kamikaze tactics was not met with universal approval within the Japanese military, however. Many high ranking officers thought it a terrible waste of trained men and resources, but early successes overrode such objections. The pilots who would fly these new suicide missions were an all-volunteer force. They were likened to falling cherry blossoms, dying in the emperor's name, and were promised eternal glory and a posthumous promotion.
The First Attacks
The tokkotai ("Special Attack Force"), the proper name for kamikaze pilots, first struck on October 26, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The objective was nothing less than the sinking of the Allied carrier fleet, thus enabling conventional attacks on the ships conducting a seaborne invasion of the Philippines. Although these first attacks fell short of that lofty goal, they did inflict considerable damage, hitting over forty ships and sinking five, including the carrier USS St. Lo.
Even during these earliest attacks, which came as a complete surprise to Allied sailors, the chances of a successful strike were low. The Japanese air fleet had been severely reduced by late 1944, and its planes were hopelessly outclassed by the latest generation of American carrier planes. Coupled with the fact that many kamikaze pilots were inexperienced, these suicide runs would often fall victim to Allied air patrols well before reaching their target fleets. Even when a plane managed to make it past the fighter screen, it still had to deal with the virtual wall of flak (anti-aircraft artillery) that the fleet's ships were capable of sending up in defense. Nevertheless, enough planes were getting through to cause concern among Allied fleet commanders as the plans for the invasion of Okinawa got under way. Their concerns would prove well-founded.
The most intense phase of kamikaze warfare would come during the Battle of Okinawa. As American forces slugged it out on land against implacable foes, the supporting fleet offshore had to contend with a relentless series of Japanese raids, both conventional and suicidal.
On April 6, 1945, "Operation Heaven Number 1" opened up with a mass wave attack against American combat air patrols over Okinawa. As the fighters engaged in a dogfight over the island, a squadron of seventy-eight kamikaze planes hurtled towards the Allied fleet. Only four made it through the dense screen of flak, but later in the afternoon the main wave of 210 suicide planes struck. Over half made it through, including a detachment of over two dozen Ohka rocket planes piloted by the "Thunder Gods" squadron. These specially-built planes, perhaps inspired by the German V-1 missile, were purpose built, human-guided anti-ship missiles carried and launched from mounts underneath conventional bombers. Although these "baka bombs" (the American nickname for the weapons, baka meaning "idiotic" in Japanese) had been used before, April 6 was to be their most successful day in terms of the number of ships struck.
Over the next three days, hundreds more kamikaze and Ohka attacks were launched against the Allied fleet. Within a week, the Allied fleet had lost nine ships destroyed and seventy-eight damaged. Even worse was the effect on the morale of the ships' crews, who were beginning to feel the strain of standing at Alert status for twenty-four hours a day against a suicidal enemy. In addition to the ship losses, the carrier-based aircraft had suffered notable losses with the result that increasing numbers of attacks were getting through.
Nevertheless, effective countermeasures were being developed. Anti-aircraft gun crews learned to fire at the water ahead of the low-flying kamikaze planes, kicking up enough spray to swamp the planes' engines. The planes themselves, under pressure from fighter escorts, often attacked the first ships they saw with the result that only a minority of the attacking planes penetrated the perimeter of destroyers that ringed the carrier fleet. As the battle on Okinawa gradually turned in favor of the Americans, the attacks began to slacken.
The last major strikes of the Okinawa kamikaze offensive were on the carriers USS Bunker Hill, which was struck and severely damaged on May 11, and the USS Enterprise, which had taken the Bunker Hill's flag on board and was struck the next day by the lone survivor of a twenty-eight-plane raid.
The kamikaze and Thunder Gods units were gradually withdrawn to the Japanese home islands in preparation for the expected Allied invasion. The invasion never came, however, and the kamikaze was never again used in the mass numbers seen during the Okinawa campaign.
By war's end, over 2,800 planes and pilots had been sacrificed in the name of the Emperor in exchange for (according to official U.S. Air Force sources) thirty-four ships sunk, 368 damaged, and nearly 10,000 casualties, including 4,900 dead. The success rate of kamikaze attacks was estimated at 14 percent of attacking planes hitting their targets, with 8.5 percent of those ships struck actually sinking.