Growing up in the post-World War II era, I remember hearing many tales of the deadly Japanese suicide pilots called kamikaze. Some of those tales came from my dad who served in the Pacific for the US Navy during World War II. Towards the last half of the war, his ship was a munitions carrier and there were several attempts by kamikaze pilots to hit and sink his ship, but fortunately they were either shot down or missed their target. Many other US warships weren’t so fortunate.
The term ‘kamikaze’ came from a deadly typhoon that saved Japan in 1281. Kublai Khan had led a Mongol invasion of Japan and just before the Mongols were about to conquer the Japanese a powerful typhoon hit Japan. The typhoon wiped out the entire Mongol army, saving Japan. The Japanese still refer to that typhoon as the ‘divine wind’ which in Japanese translates to ‘kamikaze.’
Towards the middle of 1944, the tides of war were changing for the Japanese and they were turning to desperate measures in order to maintain all the lands they conquered. One of those desperate plans was to recruit pilots to take on suicide missions to sink Allied warships. The pilots were to be another saving ‘divine wind’ that would save Japan so they were called ‘kamikaze.’
A paragraph from the kamikaze pilot’s manual read:
“Transcend life and death. When you eliminate all thoughts about life and death, you will be able to totally disregard your earthly life. This will also enable you to concentrate your attention on eradicating the enemy with unwavering determination, meanwhile reinforcing your excellence in flight skills.”
The idea of kamikaze pilots was said to have originated with Japanese Vice Admiral Takashiro Ohnishi, Commander of the First Air Fleet in the Philippines. He concluded that the best way to inflict severe damage to the enemy was to crash airplanes into their ships in hopes of crippling and/or sinking them. He commented that observing a Japanese plane that had accidentally crashed into an American warship did far more damage than 10 planes firing machine guns at the ship.
When the call went out for volunteers, a number of college students who strongly believed in duty to family and nation, volunteered. Of those that were accepted as kamikaze pilots, they had to swear an oath to the following 5-points:
- A soldier must make loyalty his obligation.
- A soldier must make propriety his way of life.
- A soldier must highly esteem military valor.
- A soldier must have a high regard for righteousness.
- A soldier must live a simple life.
Once trained to fly a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2, also referred to as the Zero, the kamikaze pilots would write letters and poems to their family and loved ones saying goodbye. They were given a ‘thousand-stitch sash’ and a final drink of water that was symbolic of a spiritual blessing. Then the kamikaze pilot would climb into his plane along with 550 pounds of bombs.
Just like the kamikaze typhoon that saved Japan in 1281, the kamikaze pilots thought they were also going to save Japan and their emperor whom they believed to be a god.
The Zero had a maximum range of around 1,930 miles and maximum speed of around 330 mph. Normally, they could only carry 264 pounds of bombs, but the planes used for kamikaze were specially modified to carry up to 550 pounds of bombs to make their impacts as devastating as possible.
On this day, October 25, 1944, the first kamikaze attack of an American warship took place off Leyte Island in the Philippines. Five kamikaze Zeroes attacked the USS St. Lo, an escort carrier, but only one of them actually hit the ship. That one plane’s bombs caused a huge fire which caused the bomb magazine to explode, sinking the ship and killing 100 Americans.
Several other US ships were hit by kamikaze panes on this day, but the attacks on the American warships was not the first recorded incident involving kamikaze pilots.
On October 21, 1944, the HMAS Australia, a heavy cruiser and flagship of the Royal Australian Navy, was struck by a kamikaze pilot off of Leyte Island in the Philippines. Fortunately, the bomb on the kamikaze plane did not explode but the damage of the impact was severe enough to kill 30 crew members.
On this day, October 25, 1944, the Australia was hit again by another kamikaze plane. The impact was enough to cause the Australia to pull back to the New Hebrides where it underwent repairs.
During the gulf battle in the Philippines, 5,000 Japanese kamikaze pilots died and managed to sink 34 warships. However, the ‘divine winds’ were not enough to save Japan from its eventual defeat by the Allies.
On November 25, 1944, a kamikaze plane struck the USS Essex air craft carrier (See video below). The Essex survived and continued to serve in the war.
Sources for the above includes: Kamikaze; Kamikaze Attack, 1944; 1944: First Kamikaze Strikes; First Kamikaze Attack of the War Begins; First Kamikaze? Attack on HMAS Australia — October 21st, 1944; First Kamikaze Attack of the War Begins; Kamikaze – Suicide Pilots of World War II