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Podcast Transcript

In the last year of the Second World War, things were not going well for the Imperial Japanese military. 

They had lost several major naval battles against the United States, they were losing territory, and they had no capability to rebuild the ships that they were losing.

They were desperate to find something to turn the tide of the war. What they settled on was one of the most terrifying tactics of the entire conflict for participants on both sides. 

Learn more about kamikaze pilots and why Japan adopted such a desperate tactic on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

Most of you are probably familiar with what a kamikaze attack is, but if you don’t know what it is, I’ll briefly explain it. 

A kamikaze attack occurs when a pilot purposely flies a bomb-laden plane into an enemy target, killing the pilot and, in theory, causing tremendous damage. They were, in a very real sense, a human-guided missile. 

Despite what many people think, kamikaze attacks were not a staple part of Japanese strategy. When the war began, and in fact, for most of its duration, kamikaze attacks were not even in the Japanese playbook. 

Kamikaze attacks are something that most people, even the vast majority of Japanese people today, don’t understand and could never think of doing. 

So, why did the Japanese military adopt such a dramatic tactic that required young men to kill themselves? 

If you remember back to some of my past episodes on the attack on Pearl Harbor and the story of Admiral Yamamoto, Japan went into the war assuming that they would win quickly. 

If history has taught us anything, it is that assuming victory in your planning, especially a swift victory, is usually a bad idea. If things don’t go according to plan, it is a very difficult hole to work yourself out of.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was supposed to take out the American aircraft carrier fleet, but it didn’t. 

In June 1942, the Battle of Midway saw the Japanese carrier fleet take a devastating hit with the loss of four fleet carriers. 

Campaigns in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands saw heavy losses to Japanese fighters and corresponding losses to trained Japanese fighter pilots, who could not easily be replaced.

Compounding these problems was the fact that Japan didn’t have the industrial capacity or natural resources to rapidly build ships and planes in the way the United States could. 

The Japanese were forced to resort to using older planes and less experienced pilots, whereas the US was rolling out newer, more advanced planes and had an unrivaled system of pilot training. 

In June 1944, at the Battle of the Philippines Sea, the Japanese lost the ability to conduct aircraft carrier operations. They lost two more of their fleet carriers, and perhaps even worse, they lost somewhere between 550 and 650 aircraft. 

Japanese aircraft losses were so lopsided that the Americans called it the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

In July 1944, the Japanese lost the island of Saipan. This was significant because it was the first time that territory where Japanese civilians lived had been lost. Also, Saipan was close enough to strike the Japanese mainland via long-range bombers. 

Things did not look good for Japan, and they needed to do…..something.

The person who is usually credited with the idea of suicide attacks is Captain Motoharu Okamura. Okamura was the commander of the Tateyama Air Base in Tokyo and the 341st Air Group. After the Battle of the Philippines Sea, he began to investigate the idea of suicide air attacks. 

He is reported to have 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…”

Here, I should briefly give the history of suicide air attacks. As I mentioned, they were never part of any official military strategy, but they also were not unheard of. 

Previous cases were all done by pilots whose planes were about to crash anyhow and who made the last-second decision to do as much damage as possible in the process. 

One of the earliest recorded cases was by First Lieutenant Fusata Iida. He was a pilot in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. 

His plane was hit and was leaking fuel. Knowing he couldn’t return to his aircraft carrier, he decided to crash his plane at Naval Air Station Kaneohe, doing as much damage as he could. It is believed that what he did was on purpose, as other pilots reported him saying before the raid, “In case of trouble, I will fly straight to my objective and make a crash dive into an enemy target rather than make an emergency landing.”

It is believed that he tried to fly his plane into a hangar, but he missed and hit a hillside.

Japanese pilots were not the only ones who exhibited this sort of behavior. 

At the Battle of Midway, an American bomber is believed to have done the same thing, diving at the bridge of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi as it was in the process of crashing.

Likewise, during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, the USS San Francisco was struck by a Japanese bomber that had been hit, causing extensive damage. 

These cases, however, were few and far between. 

Moreover, there is a big difference between crashing an airplane into something in a last-second act of defiance if you are going to crash anyway and asking pilots to do this as an intentional strategy. 

The initial investigations into using suicide pilots as a strategy had taken hold, and by August 1944, the official Japanese news agency was reporting that a flying instructor named Takeo Tagata was training pilots for missions. 

Takeo Tagata, I should note, survived the war and lived into his late 80s. He was scheduled to fly a kamikaze mission the day after Japan surrendered. 

According to Japanese military documents, the first kamikaze attack might have taken place on September 13, 1944. First Lieutenant Takeshi Kosai and another pilot were selected to fly a mission with two 100-kilogram bombs attached to their fighters and to fly into an aircraft carrier. 

The pilots left their base on Negros Island in the Philippines and never returned. There were no reports of kamikaze attacks that day, so they were either shot down or crashed before they could find their target. 

The first verified kamikaze missions and the start of wide-scale kamikaze attacks began on October 15, 1944. Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally led an aircraft attack on the USS Franklin, an Essex class aircraft carrier. 

Supposedly, according to legend, he took off his rank insignia before entering his plane, a Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” twin-engine bomber, and said he wouldn’t return. 

The USS Franklin was, in fact, hit by such a bomber, and it caused devastating damage, killing 807 sailors. The Franklin didn’t sink, but it was the most heavily damaged aircraft carrier that survived the war.

Admiral Arima didn’t survive the raid, and it isn’t known if his plane was the one that hit the Franklin, but his story was used by the Japanese command for propaganda purposes. 

He was posthumously promoted to Vice Admiral and is credited with the origin of the kamikaze attack. His story was later used to recruit kamikaze pilots. However, even if his story about not intending to come back is true, it isn’t known if Admiral Arima was actually intending to fly a suicide mission.

Nonetheless, just two days later, on October 17, 1st Air Fleet commander Vice Admiral Takijir? ?nishi decided to formally create what he called a “special attack unit.”

Here, I should note that the Japanese primarily used the term “special attack unit,” or tokubetsu k?gekitai in Japanese, during the war. The term kamikaze translates to divine wind, and if you remember my episode on the Mongols’ attempts to invade Japan, it is the historical term for the storms that sunk the Mongol fleet. 

The term kamikaze was occasionally used in the Japanese press during the war, but it only became popular after the war. 

A Japanese plane hit the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia on October 21, although it wasn’t part of the special attack unit. 

On October 24, the USS Sonoma was sunk by a Japanese plane, although again, not from the special attack unit.

On October 25, the special attack unit went into effect during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Over the course of two days, 55 kamikaze planes attacked and hit multiple ships, including seven aircraft carriers and forty other ships. 

Five ships were sunk, and 23 suffered heavy damage, including the aircraft carrier the USS St. Lo. 

The Japanese considered the special attack units a success and significantly expanded the program. 

Over the next several months, in late 1944 and early 1945, hundreds more kamikaze attacks took place. 

As the Americans kept moving closer to Japan, kamikaze attacks became more desperate and varied. 

In one case, a plane flew 4000 kilometers or 2500 miles on a one-way trip to hit the aircraft carrier USS Randolph.

Planes were encouraged to crash into American bombers as strategic bombing campaigns escalated. 

Cheap, expendable kamikaze aircraft were developed to be made of wood and had landing gear that would drop off after takeoff so it could be reused. 

Kamikaze boats were also created to be used in the event of an attack on the Japanese mainland that never took place. 

The vast majority of kamikaze pilots were not academy-trained military officers or soldiers from families with samurai ancestries. They were farmboys and men who had military deferments that prevented them from serving earlier in the war. They were largely viewed as expendable cannon fodder by military commanders. 

The rise in kamikaze attacks also forced changes in defensive tactics by the allies. 

The Americans developed a defensive system known as the Big Blue Blanket. 

The Big Blue Blanket involved sending ships, usually destroyers, further out from the main fleet to detect incoming enemy aircraft. This gave aircraft carriers plenty of time to send up aircraft to intercept incoming kamikaze aircraft.

By 1945, the Allies had vastly more planes, better planes, and more experienced pilots. Intercepting the kamikaze pilots became relatively easy so long as they had advance warning. 

Likewise, antiaircraft techniques on ships improved, allowing them to stop kamikaze planes before they got to a ship.

Kamikaze attacks peaked during the Battle of Okinawa from April to June 1945. During this period, 1,465 planes were used in kamikaze attacks. In one 80-minute span, 20 kamikaze planes attacked the American destroyer, the USS Laffey. 

Six aircraft hit the Laffey, yet the ship did not sink, earning it the nickname “The Ship That Would Not Die.”

Thirty ships were damaged or sunk during the Battle of Okinawa, but none were aircraft carriers or battleships.

Kamikaze attacks decreased after the Battle of Okinawa and then, of course, stopped completely after Japan surrendered. At the time of surrender, it is believed that the Japanese had 9000 aircraft ready to defend their homeland in kamikaze attacks.

In the end, somewhere between 2500 and 2800 kamikaze attacks were made from October 1944 to August 1945. 

Putting aside ethics and morals, how successful were kamikaze attacks?

Only 18.6% of kamikaze attacks managed to damage an enemy ship. Thirty-four Navy ships were sunk, as well as 13 merchant ships and 368 ships were damaged, killing 4,900 sailors and wounding over 4,800.

Despite all the attacks, not a single fleet carrier or battleship was sunk–the largest and most important ship in the American Navy.

In the end, kamikaze attacks didn’t prevent a Japanese defeat, and it is arguable if it even slowed the inevitable surrender, despite the damage it inflicted. 

Thousands of recruited kamikaze pilots survived the war. In subsequent interviews, very few of them felt that they had truly volunteered or really wanted to fly a kamikaze mission. Most of them didn’t want to die and didn’t think that their deaths would have had any meaningful impact. 

Kamikaze attacks were a desperate attempt to try and rectify a desperate situation. Unfortunately, they expended thousands of lives in what was ultimately a lost cause. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener LKBFischer over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Love a shallow dive

This podcast is perfect for me! I love tidbits, trivia, and learning a bit about new topics. The shorter length is ideal. I find myself sharing random facts from recent episodes all around town (yesterday I shocked the lady at the coffee shack with facts about Shakespeare!). Thanks for this well-research & fascinating show.

I married into a Packers family. Go Pack!

Thanks, LKBFischer! Allow me to congratulate you for marrying up. There are many teams you could have married into, and you got the one with the most championships. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.