Following one (last) gulp of saké, kamikaze pilots start their engines to embark upon a last, explosive flight. Several thousands of Japanese soldiers gave up their lives throughout WW2: most of them pilots, but also suicide frogmen, human torpedoes or suicide motorboats drivers. Let’s investigate the life and death of the last samurais in history.
The term ‘kamikaze’ (“divine wind”) stems from early Japanese history. Near the end of the 13th century, under the command of the notorious Kublai Khan, Mongolian invaders wanted to add the Japanese archipelago to their early conquests — Korea and parts of the Chinese Empire. However, the weather stopped them dead in their tracks, as two typhoons engulfed the invading fleet in August 1281 — saving the day for the locals. Since then, the ‘divine wind’ that had repelled Mongolian armies was acclaimed in Japanese poetry: the kamikaze was born.
Centuries later, as World War 2 broke out, it was Imperial Japan’s turn to nurture expansionist ambitions. Leaders of the Empire of the Rising Sun boasted about their wish to free the continent from westernization (at the time, many Asian countries — Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Burma — were still under European supervision). Massive death pits uncovered across Chinese territory proved it was not the sole ambition they pursued. Then, when Japanese pilots bombed U.S. Pearl Harbor naval base on December 7, 1941, the United States entered war, too. Seven centuries after the Japan Sea typhoons, the kamikaze was about to be ressurected…
« Blossoms in the wind »
Only near the end of the war did the Japanese general staff decide to launch suicide attacks. In 1944, the Berlin-Tokyo-Rome axis was slowly but surely tumbling. In accordance with Japanese code of honor — a legacy from samurais — soldiers would rather die than undergo a humiliating defeat: military officers usually performed the seppuku just feet away from the battlefield… As for civilians, thousands of them threw themselves off the cliffs of the Pacific islands so as not to be captured by American soldiers (which were demonized by Japanese propaganda as ‘devils raping and devouring women and children’).
Samurai-culture aside, another argument in favour of suicide attacks was the certainty of defeat against better equipped and trained U.S. pilots. Plus, fuel was difficult to be supplied with, as the Allies had cut the trade road with Indonesia, Japan’s gas tank. The Japanese strategy at the end of the war was not to prevent Allied victory, but to delay it and, hopefully, to negotiate an armistice with the invading troops in the meantime.
Training to die
For all those reasons, Japanese military staff officially opened the ‘Special Attack Units’ (Tokubetsu Kōgekitai, shortened as « Tokko ») in September 1944. They would usually be unexperienced (mostly young) pilots, stuffing their planes with bombs and explosive material before take-off. A kamikaze who survived the war (quite an exception) later described his training:
« The course was stringent involving gunnery, formation flying, basic aerial maneuvers, and suicide practice. The latter entailed diving from specific heights at a large oval painted on the airstrip and about twenty feet in diameter. This was the most difficult part of flying because of the psychological effect–the idea that we were practicing to die. »
Pilots were not the only ones involved in suicide missions. Other kamikaze units featured:
- suicide frogmen (fukuryu, ‘crouching dragons’) who wore a waterproof suit ballasted by 9 kgs (20 pounds) of lead, and held a mine-spiked bamboo pole to destroy the hull of a passing Allied submarine. (The frogmen did not survive the process.)
- human torpedoes (kaiten, ‘back to heaven’) which were roughly basic torpedoes having been converted to welcome a crew of one (very determined) pilot. Their original designers were Lieutenants Hiroshi Kuroki and Sekio Nishina: both died testing their prototypes.
- suicide motorboats (shinyo, ‘sea quake’), the maritime adaptation of the kamikaze crash airplane. They carried 300 kgs (660 pounds) of explosive material to be detonated upon impact or with a switch. More than 6,000 prototypes were produced for the Imperial Army between March 1944 and the end of WW2.
- suicide submarines (kairyu, ‘sea dragons’) were home to two pilots and two torpedoes as well as an explosive charge of 600 kgs (1,300 pounds). None of those weapons were ever used because of Japan’s early surrender following Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.
Despite the sacrifice of 3,800 kamikaze in the course of WW2, Japan eventually surrendered. Most of the suicide projects were hidden away at the Imperial Army’s headquarters, and kamikaze airplane pilots aside, few ever actually made it to the battlefield. On the Pacific frontline, WW2 ended with a bloody toll: 27 million of civilian casualties — four as much the military ones. The Asian continent, in ruins, was not swept anymore by divine winds, it seemed.
- Edgar A. Porter & Ran Ying Porter, Japanese Reflections on World War II and the American Occupation (2017), Amsterdam University Press, pp. 120–126. JSTOR.
- Steven J. Zaloga, Kamikaze: Japanese Special Attack Weapons 1944–45 (2011), Bloomsbury.
- James P. Delgado, “Relics of the Kamikaze”, Archaeology, vol. 56, no. 1, 2003, pp. 36–41. JSTOR.
- Yasuo Kuwahara, Gordon T. Allred, Kamikaze: A Japanese Pilot’s Own Spectacular Story of the Famous Suicide Squadrons (2007), American Legacy Media.
- John Orbell, Tomonori Morikawa, “An Evolutionary Account of Suicide Attacks: The Kamikaze Case”, Political Psychology, vol. 32, no. 2, 2011, pp. 297–322. JSTOR.
- Jennifer F. McKinnon, Toni L. Carrell, Underwater Archaeology of a Pacific Battlefield: The WWII Battle of Saipan (2015), Springer.