Saturday, 14 May 2011

Kamikaze Pilots : Fearsome Warriors Crashed Their Planes into Allied Ships

s 1944 gave way to 1945 it was clear that Japan was losing the war in the Pacific. The word kamikaze commonly translates as divine wind, and such missions became part of Japanese military policy in October, 1944. It was Vice Admiral Onishi Takijiro who proposed the idea in order to strike the U.S. invasion fleet that was near the coast of the Philippines, and it was at this time when Japan no longer had the ability to use conventional tactics.

When the Nazi regime collapsed in Europe, the combined weight of the Allies was inching closer to Japan's doorstep. The peak of kamikaze attacks came between April and May, 1945 at the Battle of Okinawa. This article explores the cultural and historical reasons that compelled the Japanese to use these attacks in the closing months of the war.

The Invasion of the Japanese Islands by Mongols

In 1281, hordes of Mongol troops led by Kublai Khan prepared to wage war on Japan. As they approached the Japanese coast a miracle took place that altered the course of history. This event led the Japanese to believe their nation was protected and blessed by supreme forces. At Hakata Bay, a massive typhoon came in from the northwest, which the Japanese immediately regarded as a heaven sent ally.

The storm decimated the Mongol armada and the few remaining survivors turned around and sailed home. The Mongols never attempted to conquer Japan again. It was adamantly believed that since they were fighting for the Emperor, who was an extension of God, kamikaze pilots would bring deliverance at exactly the right time, just as it had almost seven hundred years earlier.

Cultural and Military Factors that Prompted Kamikaze Attacks

Fundamental religious and philosophical concepts were at the core of the kamikaze rationale. For hundreds of years, Japanese soldiers were influenced by the ancient Bushido code of the samurai warriors, which stressed martial spirit, honor, loyalty, contempt for defeat and above all, reverence for the Emperor. All of this was interwoven with Shinto and Buddhist principles that included the liberation of mankind from earthly ties and an attainment of truth through insensitivity to suffering. The Bushido way of life was considered old fashioned by the turn of the 19th century but was revived when Japan's military juggernaut gained momentum in the 1930s.

Strategically, things were not looking good for Japan. By 1944, many in the Japanese High Command realized that victory over the Allies was unlikely. By September all of the air bases in the Marianas, Carolinas and the northeast of New Guinea were firmly in American hands. Japan's merchant fleet had been destroyed, and there were not enough men to crew the remaining aircraft. Since the Japanese withdrawal from Saipan, Vice Admiral Onishi had pressured the High Command to change tactics.

Kamikaze Pilots and Their Planes

The Mitsubishi A6M, also known by the Allies as the Zero, was Japan's most feared fighter plane early in the war. It had a long range and was highly maneuverable. However, major design flaws such as thin armor and no self sealing fuel tanks meant that the Zero planes were outclassed by the American F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair fighters.

Many of Japan's best pilots had died early in the Pacific theatre and the performance of the Zero was on an irreversible downward slope. The final role of this plane was to severely damage or sink enemy aircraft carriers. Kamikaze pilots were instructed to direct their planes at a specific area of a ship. On a carrier, they tried to hit the central elevator. Even a less than perfect attack would have rendered the carrier's function useless. Another desirable area was the base of the bridge.

Impressions of the Kamikaze Pilots

It is difficult to reconcile the feudal concept of Bushido with what the Japanese military was selling its soldiers during World War II. Many of the myths ascribed to the kamikaze pilots on both sides of the Pacific stem from the total isolation and secrecy of their experience. They were confined to their posts and any letters they wrote were heavily censored by the military.

It's easy to call kamikaze pilots insane. But rather than label those young men as crazy, it's important to remember they were backed into a desperate corner and forced to use their bodies as weapons. Much criticism can be directed at the military and possibly at the Emperor himself for squandering thousands of lives. Kamikaze pilots had families and they had the harsh task of abandoning them while cutting their own lives short. Their sacrifices didn't win the war for Japan and were ultimately in vain.

Kamikaze: Japan's Suicide Samurai by Raymond Lamont-Brown Arms & Armour, 1997

Danger's Hour: The Story of the USS Bunker Hill and the Kamikaze Pilot Who Crippled Her by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy Sam & Schuster, 2008

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