Most of the War in the Pacific following the attack on Pearl Harbor was fought with bombs, artillery shells, and bullets. The Japanese, however, had an additional method of attacking. In circumstances when it was deemed more important to inflict damage on the enemy than return home safely, they turned to the act of self-sacrifice known as kamikaze.
Instances of kamikaze pilots were seen as early as the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Though the suicide pilots of Japan were only organized into specific units later in the war, the concept of the kamikaze attack was a reflection of the Japanese idea that it was better to be killed in battle than captured.
The Origins of Kamikaze
The idea of kamikaze grew in visibility during the Second World War, but it had been around for centuries before that. As early as the 13th century, the word kamikaze was used to refer to the typhoons that halted Mongolian invasion fleets. Roughly translated, it means “divine wind,” and originated from makurakotoba, figures of speech in Japanese poetry.
Before being used to describe suicide pilots of World War II, Kamikaze was the name of a Japanese monoplane that made a record-setting flight from Tokyo to London in 1937. This plane was the prototype for the Mitsubishi Ki-15 Babs, a reconnaissance plane used during the Second Sino-Japanese war.
Japan’s Kamikaze Pilots
Before taking off for the attack on Pearl Harbor, First Lieutenant Fusata Iida reportedly told his men that if his plane were to become damaged, he would direct it into a “worthy enemy target.” During the attack, after being struck by American anti-aircraft rounds, Iida steered his craft toward Naval Air Station Kaneohe and crashed it.
This may be the first recorded kamikaze attack, though it was far from the last. Initially, Japanese pilots were simply too proud to let themselves be captured by the Allied forces. When their options were land in enemy territory and risk imprisonment or sacrifice themselves and maybe take down Allied forces, the latter was chosen.
After the Battle of Midway, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service suffered immense damage that made it impossible to function at full capacity. Well-trained crews were becoming scarce but there was still a war to be fought. As Japan continued to lose ground in the Pacific and was forced to turn to inexperienced pilots flying obsolete aircraft, drastic measures were implemented.
It’s believed that Captain Motoharu Okamura, who oversaw the Tateyama Base in Tokyo, was the first officer to consider organizing pilots into Tokubetsu Kōgekitai, or special attack units. On June 15, 1944, Okamura and his superiors started looking into the potential effectiveness of suicide pilots.
In September of 1944, pilots of the 31st Fighter Squadron on Negros Island were among the first to give their lives in premeditated suicide attacks, although it seems they didn’t inflict any damage on Allied forces. In October, USS Reno (CL-96) was the target for suicide bombers.
Why the Sacrifice?
The reasons for willingly sacrificing one’s life for a cause vary, but the overriding motivation for many of Japan’s kamikaze pilots was the belief that it idea was pushed on young men through newspaper propaganda, advertisements, and books promoting the idea that suicide pilots would be enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine, where military casualties were honored as gods.
Many scholars believe that some kamikaze pilots didn’t willingly offer up their lives. Some sources believe that volunteers weren’t as abundant as the authorities made it seem, and that many pilots were coerced into going on the suicide missions. Others point toward peer pressure.
The Final Mission
Before setting off, the specially-trained pilots would participate in a ceremony in which they shared ceremonial cups of sake (or water) known as mizu no sakazuki.
Kamikaze pilots were given military decorations and flew with prayers from their families. Once they took off, the planes were surrounded by fleet escorts that ensured the suicide craft made it to their target.
It’s believed that almost 4,000 Japanese pilots died in suicide attacks that killed over 7,000 Allied troops.
USS Missouri (BB-63), now a museum ship at Pearl Harbor, suffered a kamikaze strike on April 11, 1945. A dent made by the impact of the Zero plane is still visible on the ship’s hull.