When the outcome of the war in the Pacific between the United States and Japan was a foregone conclusion, the Imperial armed forces, in an act of desperation, sent suicide pilots to the battle, whose task was to fly in one direction ended up hitting an American warship. The Kamikaze pilots proclaimed a legend as an example of ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Birth of Kamikaze

At the end of 1944, a battle for control of the Philippines broke out between the Empire of Japan and the United States. This important battle in some ways resembled a clash between David and Goliath, because the Japanese lost almost 300 planes at the beginning of the fight, mostly shot down by American fighters (this event is referred to as “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” – a great shooting to turkeys over the Marianas). One of the reasons for the Japanese defeat was the fact that the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighters were clearly distant from the American Hellcats, although still in 1942 they themselves dominated the air. Hundreds of American airplanes took off from aircraft carriers in the Philippines in the decisive phase of the struggle against the 30 Japanese Zero fighters.

Kiyoshi Ogawa, the pilot who hit the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill on May 11, 1945
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The heavy losses of the Imperial Navy meant that it could not only not make up for the loss of equipment, but also provide recruits with adequate training. The quality of pilots’ training was getting worse and worse and they were being sent to battle quicker than before. In this hopeless situation, the Japanese command agreed to a crazy plan of Rear Admiral Ōnishi Takijirō, who intended to send suicide pilot teams against American ships. In these squadrons, fast called “special units of attack” (and unofficially baptized as Divine Wind, Kamikaze) were to be served by volunteers, elite of the Japanese armed forces, and their task was to “hit with the body” (tai atari) American ships – meaning simply death to the pilot by flying into hostile warship. Potential damage was to be increased by 250kg of bombs attached to their planes.

Despite the fact that the Japanese command did not agree to present to the pilots the formal order of a suicide attack (which was to be voluntary), nobody had any illusions about their intentions. The pilots who became Kamikaze knew exactly that their chance of survival was to be zero per cent and they were expected to take as many enemies as possible with them to the other side. Contrary to appearances, pilots were hungry to have the opportunity to give their lives in defense of their homeland.

Japanese high school students use cherry branches to bid farewell to the pilot of a kamikaze named Toshio Anazawa, who was flying towards Okinawa for his last mission.
Source: Hayakawa via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Divine Wind against the US Navy

The first mission of the Kamikaze units was already successful. On 25th October 1944 one of five Mitsubishi Zeros managed to hit and sink the American airplane carrier USS “St. Lo”. Another aircraft carrier USS “Santee” was also hit, but the Japanese did not manage to destroy it. After the event, the Japanese command finally became convinced of the Kamikaze and, as time went by, this strategy became more and more common – all the more so as suicide pilots did not have to undergo all the training for fighter pilots, so they could be sent to combat more quickly. Since the summer of 1945 they have not even been taught to land…

During the battle for Okinawa from April to June 1945 Japan wanted to annihilate the American invasive fleet with the help of the “Kikusui” plan (jap. “Floating Chrysanthemum”). The strategy of defending the island was to attack the US Navy every few days with the use of waves counting several hundred planes each kamikaze. The first strike of Kikusui was carried out on 6 April 1945. The Japanese cover group that was to divert attention from the kamikaze was annihilated by American fighters, but 200 suicide pilots sank three destroyers, a landing ship, two carrier ships and damaged 22 units. How much of a problem they caused the Americans that day can be seen from the fact that 38 sailors were killed from the fire by shells of their own anti-aircraft missiles.

In the last months of the war about 3800 young pilots were sent to death, out of which 2200 managed to fly to the area close to American ships. The others were stopped by machine failures, lack of fuel, or simply lack of navigation skills. It is estimated that at the end of 1944 even 28% of the pilots managed to hit their target. Six months later, however, it was less than 10%, and the damage inflicted on the Americans was still small, because their ships were mostly only slightly damaged.

Suicidal “cherry blossom”

Unknowingly, the precursors of the kamikaze were two airmen: Captain Tomonaga and Captain Murata. The first fought during the Battle of Midway. After returning from the morning air raid, he noticed that his airplane’s tank on the left wing was damaged, but in spite of that, he ordered the other one to be refueled and flew out to fight. His airplane survived the air raid, but he had no fuel back and fell into the water while returning to the base, killing the brave pilot. The second, Captain Murata, fought at Santa Cruz with a heavily damaged aircraft. Instead of fleeing, he decided to sacrifice his life and hit the American aircraft carrier USS Hornet.

Kamikaze pilot in tied “hachimaki”
Source: Wikimedia

Because of these two characters, Rear Admiral Ōnishi Takijirō advised pilots to “Fly one way like Tomonaga and crush an enemy ship like Murata”. Before going on their last mission, the aviators were gathered in a room where the officers read to them fragments of the Bushidō code, as well as short poems and letters left by previous kamikaze. In order to create even more of a samurai spirit in them, they took the katana swords to their planes to die with them – as befits the real Japanese warriors. Before their departure, they raised a sake toast with officers, said goodbye to friends, and then boarded their planes to set off accompanied by patriotic songs sung by the ground crew. They took to the cockpit, apart from the swords, photographs of their loved ones, portraits of their forefathers and a knife they would cut their lives with if they survived the flight by some miracle. The kamikaze pilots’ machines were in the best possible technical and visual condition because they were to become the coffins of the people who piloted them.


Flying towards American ships, the kamikaze were dying with the scream “Banzai!” (jap. [let the Emperor rule] ten thousand years!) or “Hissatsu!” (certain death).

Suicide pilots mostly used standard aircraft of different types, such as Mitsubishi A6M5 Reisen. At the end of the war, rocket-powered planes were introduced to service, Ōka (Japanese: “The Cherry Blossom”), which had a very high diving speed, but had a small range, so in order to fly to the Americans, they had to be attached and carried under the hulls of medium-sized bombers Mitsubishi G4M3, which relatively often ended up shooting them down.

Could the kamikaze change the course of the war?

From a purely military and economic point of view, such a strategy was completely unprofitable and the Japanese command knew this very well. It was about an ideological message for society as a whole. The young pilots sacrificing their lives were to be the signal to the warring nation, for whom their death was to “shine like a shattered jewel” – that is, be a heroic victim in the hour of the highest rehearsal. The Kamikaze were supposed to mobilize their compatriots for a greater effort and to keep the war mood in society. Pilots sent on suicide missions were supposed to write letters explaining their decisions and thus encouraging others to do the same. If the nation’s elite, educated aviators, were to go to “beautiful death” without hesitation, then why should the rest of Japan complain about small food rations, the amount of work or other inconveniences resulting from the fact of waging war? The Kamikaze were a tool of propaganda in the hands of their superiors.

Kamikaze strikes the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier
US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

There are large discrepancies in the calculations of exactly what the kamikaze did to the American ships (Sometimes it was difficult to say why exactly the sunken ship went to the bottom), but it is cautiously assumed that Japanese suicides took with them more than 6,000 American sailors. Of all US Navy ship losses in the Pacific, 48% have been damaged and 21% have been sunk by kamikaze. Although these percentages may make an impression on the reader, the military significance of the “divine wind” was still small, but the psychological significance was different.

The attacks of the kamikaze had a very demoralising effect on American sailors. They even managed to arouse panic in them, and then these people were incapable of fighting. Americans were afraid of Japanese suicide pilots and did not understand their motives. The plane rushing towards the ship was extremely difficult to stop (the cold blood of the pilot was more important here), and the vision of death did not discourage the airmen of the elite of the imperial army at all.

The fanatical and desperate strategy of suicidal raids also had other effects, even of a political nature. After the capitulation of Japan, General Douglas McArthur was gentle on the emperor, whom he left on the throne because he did not want to risk confronting the “100 million kamikaze” with the possible rise of civilians. On the other hand, the hopeless resistance of the defenders and their senseless dragging of the war caused the Americans to justify to the rest of the world the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended disastrously for Japan.

Below is a coloured recording of the attacks of the kamikaze on the American fleet during World War II:

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