As World War II was coming to an end, American Naval forces were quickly approaching Japan and unless something radical happened, Japan would be defeated. Their answer to turn the tides of war was a unique Navy unit called Tokubetsu Kogekitai, which means “Special Attack Unit.” But they were better known as kamikazes, which means “divine wind.” The division consisted of volunteers who would purposely crash into American warships. Here are 10 interesting facts about those men.
10. The Battle of the Philippine Sea
One of the major naval engagements of World War II was the Battle of the Philippine Sea, which took place on June 19 and 20, 1944. The victor was the American Navy, which pretty much wiped out much of the Japanese fleet without losing too many of its own vessels.
The Japanese’ problem was that their planes were the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, also called Zekes, and they were completely ineffective against the powerful American Navy. Mainly, they had a tendency to burst into flames when they were hit by machine gun bullets. After the battle, the Japanese lost 480 Zekes, which was 75 percent of their fleet.
As the American forces neared the Philippines, which was occupied by Japan, the Japanese Navy knew that they needed to do something drastic. At a meeting with the top brass of the Navy, Naval Captain Motoharu Okamura said:
In our present situation I firmly believe that the only way to swing the war in our favor is to resort to crash-dive attacks with our planes. There is no other way. There will be more than enough volunteers for this chance to save our country, and I would like to command such an operation. Provide me with 300 planes and I will turn the tide of war.
Amazingly, they agreed to his plan and gave him the planes he requested. Okamura retrofitted the planes to make them lighter by removing their machine guns, armor, and radios. They were also given bigger gas tanks and loaded with 550 pound bomb explosives. Now all Okamura needed was some pilots.
9. They Shamed People into Being Kamikaze Pilots
The biggest question surrounding kamikaze pilots is: how did they get people to do it? Well, they simply asked men to volunteer.
As for why someone would choose to die like this comes down to the culture of Japan. In Japan, shame is an important aspect of their society. So if a pilot was asked by a superior to volunteer and the pilot said, “No, I don’t want to die for my country,” it wouldn’t just bring shame to him, but to his entire family. Also, if someone did volunteer and he died, he would be promoted up two ranks.
So while kamikaze pilots were ‘volunteers’ they weren’t exactly given much of a choice. They could stay alive and shame themselves and their families in a prideful society, or die and be hailed as a hero who died for his country.
8. They Used Their Best Pilot For the First Run
When the Japanese Navy decided to form a kamikaze squadron, the first person they chose to be a part of it was one of their best young lieutenants, Yukio Seki, a newlywed 23-year-old. When they told him about the plan in September 1944, he supposedly said, “you absolutely must let me do this.” However, he supposedly told a reporter later that he thought it was a waste of his talents.
Over the next month, 23 other volunteers were gathered and trained. On October 20, 1944, Admiral Takijiro Onishi said:
Japan is in grave danger. The salvation of our country is now beyond the power of the ministers of the state, the General Staff, and lowly commanders like myself. It can come only from spirited young men such as you. Thus, on behalf of your hundred million countrymen, I ask of you this sacrifice and pray for your success.
You are already gods, without earthly desires. But one thing you want to know is that your own crash-dive is not in vain. Regrettably, we will not be able to tell you the results. But I shall watch your efforts to the end and report your deeds to the Throne. You may all rest assured on this point.
I ask you all to do your best.
Then the 24 pilots got into their aircraft and flew off to die. However, they didn’t encounter any American ships until their fifth day of flying. That’s when they finally came across American naval ships near Leyte, which is an island of the Philippines.
They surprised the Americans by flying directly into their ships and managed to sink one of the Navy’s most important vessels, an air craft carrier. After a plane hit the deck of the USS St. Lo it caused a series of internal explosions and it sank. The air craft carrier was carrying 889 men and out of them, 143 were killed or missing.
Besides sinking the mighty air craft carrier, the kamikaze pilots also managed to damage three other ships. The Japanese took this as a sign of success and decided to expand the kamikaze program.
7. The Japanese Designed a Plane Specifically for Kamikaze Missions
As we mentioned before, the Japanese’s Zeke planes weren’t really effective war planes. They didn’t exactly make the best flying bombs, either. Another problem was that you needed to train pilots to fly the Zekes and they had to be good enough pilots to even get close enough to a warship. Instead of just scraping the whole kamikaze program, the Japanese Navy decided to develop a plane that was specifically made for kamikaze missions called the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka, or “Cherry Blossom.”
The Ohka was essentially a drivable missile; it was about 20 feet long with short wings. A problem with the Ohka was that it could only glide up to a distance of 20 miles. So each one needed to be carried by a Mitsubishi G4M bomber. Then once they were near their targets the Ohka would be released. Once the pilot got close to his target, he would start the three rocket boosters, and this allowed the planes to fly fast enough to avoid enemy fire and penetrate the armor of the ships.
Besides being a better flying bombs, the Ohkas were easier to pilot than Zeke planes. Pilots didn’t have to learn how to take off and land, they simply learned how to control the direction of the plane and once they got close, they would push the rocket boosters, so they didn’t have to learn how to maneuver.
The Ohka also had something that no other cockpit has ever had. That was a place behind the pilot’s head to place a samurai sword.
6. It Was Supposed to be Psychological Warfare
Clearly, the most important task of kamikaze pilots was to sink warships. However, there was an added benefit that they thought would help them on the battlefield, and that was that it would give them a psychological edge. The Japanese wanted to come across as fierce warriors who had no limits and would rather die than surrender.
Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t that effective. Not only did the American Navy clobber the Japanese Navy, but when the Japanese unleashed the Ohkas, the Americans nicknamed them “Baka” or “Baka Bomb,” which is Japanese for “fool” or “idiot.”
5. Torpedo Kamikaze Pilots
The Japanese fully embraced the kamikaze attacks and they didn’t just limit them to the sky. They also manufactured drivable torpedoes called kaiten.
How they worked is that the pilot would find a ship in his periscope. Then, using a stop watch and a compass, he basically had to blindly drive into the enemy ship. As you probably guessed, this wasn’t very easy to do and it took months to train pilots.
Another problem was that they were large and couldn’t be driven over long distances, so they had to be transported using a larger submarine. The “mother ship” would have to transport six or eight kaitens to the battles where they were needed.
On November 20, 1944, five kaitens were launched at the USS Mississinewa, which was an oiler. One of them struck it and the explosion was massive, as you can see in the video above. Since the explosion was so big, the Japanese thought they had sunk five ships instead of just one. As a result, the Navy considered the attack as a success and ramped up production of the kaiten.
4. The Nazi Suicide Squad
The Japanese weren’t the only members of the Axis who were desperate to turn to suicide bombers as a way to turn the war around. Near the end of the war, Germany also formed its own suicide squad, called the Leonidas Squadron. The squadron was suggested by Hannah Reitsch, a Nazi test pilot. Reitsch was twice awarded the Iron Cross and she came closer than any other German woman to seeing combat.
In 1944, while Reitsch was getting her second Iron Cross, she pitched the idea to Adolf Hitler. She wanted to put pilots into modified V-1 rockets loaded with explosives and use them as weapons. At first, Hitler didn’t like the idea, but later changed his mind because he liked Reitsch’s commitment to the idea, so he agreed to have planes designed for suicide missions. The aircraft was the Fieseler Fi 103R, which had the code name Reichenberg, and they V1 rockets loaded with 2,000 pound bombs.
Ristsch was assigned to the Leonidas Squadron and she was the first to swear its oath, which read, “I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as a pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.”
Altogether, the squadron had about 70 volunteers, but in the end the program was scraped before any of the Reichenbergs were used.
As for Reitsch, she survived the war. Afterwards, she published her autobiography, and she was the director of the national school of gliding in Ghana. She died at the age of 65 in 1979 from a heart attack.
3. The Pilots Might Have Been High on Meth
Methamphetamine was actually invented in Japan in 1893. However, it didn’t become widely used until World War II by at least two members of the Axis. German forces used a form of meth called Pervitin and the Japanese used a drug called Philopon.
During the war, the Japanese stockpiled Philopon and gave them to their soldiers when they got too tired or hungry. However, the drug became particularly useful for kamikaze pilots. They needed to be sharp and alert while facing certain death. So before the pilots were sealed into their flying bombs and flown several hours to their death, the pilots were given high doses of Philopon. This would have kept them focused until they were needed. Also, meth has a tendency to raise aggression levels.
While this is one of the worst problems when dealing with addicts, this side effect would have been particularly useful in suicide bombers who had to fly through gunfire before hitting their targets and killing themselves.
2. The Last Kamikaze Pilot
After the creation of the kamikaze unit, Admiral Matome Ugaki was put in command of it. Months later, on August 15, 1945, the Emperor of Japan announced Japan’s surrender over the radio, and Ugaki decided he wanted to die the same way as his men – in a kamikaze mission.
Before Ugaki flew out, he posed for the above picture, and then climbed into the plane. The problem was that Ugaki didn’t know how to fly, so another pilot had to volunteer for the mission.
En route to his death, Ugaki relayed the following message over the radio:
I alone am to blame for our failure to defend the homeland and destroy the arrogant enemy. The valiant efforts of all officers and men of my command during the past six months have been greatly appreciated.
I am going to make an attack at Okinawa where my men have fallen like cherry blossoms. There I will crash into and destroy the conceited enemy in the true spirit of Bushido, with firm conviction and faith in the eternity of Imperial Japan.
I trust that the members of all units under my command will understand my motives, will overcome all hardships of the future, and will strive for the reconstruction of our great homeland that it may survive forever.
Long live His Imperial Majesty the Emperor!
Unfortunately for Ugaki, his mission was not successful and his plane was probably intercepted before it could reach its target.
1. It Wasn’t Very Effective
Clearly, the Japanese thought that kamikaze pilots were a good idea. However, in hindsight it was a pretty ineffective way to take on the strongest naval force of World War II.
In total, kamikaze pilots were only able to sink 51 ships and just one of those was an aircraft carrier, which was the first major battleship to be sunk by a kamikaze attack, the USS St. Lo. Kamikaze pilots were also responsible for the deaths of 3,000 American and British men. However, when you compare that to the Japanese’s losses, it’s hard to believe that Japan was doing offensive tactics. In total, 1,321 Japanese planes and submarines crashed into American naval ships and over 5,000 pilots were killed in attempts.
Eventually, the American Navy simply overwhelmed the Japanese Navy because they had more men and superior planes and ships. Today, the kamikaze project is considered one of the biggest blunders of World War II.