The Second World War caused suffering on an unimaginable scale, touching almost every nation in the world in one form or another. However the Kamikaze pilot is a concept that to me has always stood out amongst the others. It was the ultimate manifestation of a strict and disciplinarian culture, an ideal that could be so easily filed under the category of ‘insane’, yet I feel to do that is to ignore the fundamental aspects of Japanese culture. Their story is one that produces many contradictory opinions and emotions in me, and I would be interested to see what other peoples reactions are to this.
I found this account in a Time Life WWII book on the American re-occupation of the Phillipines and scanned out the story including the pictures.
On October 19, 1944, Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi, commander of Japan’s First Air Fleet, announced a shocking plan during a staff meeting on Luzon. “As you know, the war situation is grave,” he said. “There is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to maximum degree. That is to organize suicide attack units composed of Zero fighters armed with 550-pound bombs, with each plane to crash-dive into an enemy carrier.”
The admiral made his proposal knowing that single suicide planes often did more damage than a whole squadron flown by men intent on surviving to fight again. Earlier several pilots had impulsively crash-dived into enemy ships with devastating effect. What shocked the admiral’s officers was the idea of making such attacks an official operation.
Nevertheless, a suicide air corps was formed that night. It was named Kamikaze, or Divine Wind, after the legendary typhoon that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion in the 13th Century. And it quickly attracted an excess of volunteers – two or three times more men than planes available. Some men showed their eagerness to join by writing their applications in blood. As a rule, expert fliers were rejected since they were needed as teachers and escort pilots; generally, the volunteers were inexperienced youths.
But what the Kamikazes lacked in training, they made up for in fervor. Some were inspired by Japanese religious and military traditions of self-sacrifice. “How I appreciate this chance to die like a man!” one such pilot wrote. Others, resigned to being killed in combat anyway, welcomed the opportunity to die magnificently sinking an important ship.
In the Philippines, 424 of these men embarked on suicide missions; they destroyed 16 ships, damaged some 80 others. For the Americans, they were not only a devastating force but a puzzle. “There was a hypnotic fascination to a sight so alien to our Western philosophy,” wrote Vice Admiral Charles R. Brown. “We watched each plunging Kamikaze with the detached horror of one witnessing a terrible spectacle rather than as the intended victim…. And dominating it all was a strange admixture of respect and pity.”
During their final days of life, the Kamikaze pilots displayed no anxiety over their impending deaths. At air bases scattered through the Philippines, they performed their military duties conscientiously and spent their free time in normal pursuits: reading, singing, playing cards, listening to records, studying aerial navigation charts. Emulating the calm of the samurai warrior, they quietly awaited the final call, which might come at any moment. Some men were called upon the day after joining the corps. Others waited for months.
Beneath their calm exterior, the Kamikaze pilots were excited, even elated. Many of them wrote poems extolling the Emperor, their heritage and Japan’s heroic warriors. They spoke often of death, and some men made jokes about their future places in the Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s war memorial to its martyred dead. Their nonchalance in the face of death confirmed the statement made by Admiral Onishi to the first Kamikaze recruits: “You are already gods without earthly desires.”
Indeed, the Kamikazes were treated like gods. At a time when food was in short supply, men in the ground crews gave up their meager fare to keep the fliers well fed. They often labored all night to put the pilots’ obsolete planes in the best possible condition. One tireless worker even scoured and polished the cockpits so that the planes would be coffins worthy of the heroes. He did not expect the Kamikazes to notice his humble efforts, and when one pilot thanked him, he was moved to tears. In speechless gratitude, he raced alongside the plane with one hand on the wing as his hero taxied into his last takeoff.
Kamikazes performed a few simple rituals before embarking on their death flights. They gave their belongings to friends, and if time permitted, drank a final toast with their commander. They wrote last letters home, sending relics to be treasured, such as fingernail clippings and locks of hair.
Their letters were often beautiful and moving. In one, 23 year old Isao Matsuo wrote to his parents: “please congratulate me. I have been given a splendid opportunity to die. This is my last day. The destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the seas to the south where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree… We are 16 warriors manning the bombers. May our death be as sudden and clean as the shattering of a crystal.”
When takeoff time arrived, the Kamikazes were summoned to a final briefing. As they assembled, they calmly exchanged views on how best to sink an enemy ship. “Such talk,” one commander recalled, “always seemed more like a discussion of a good fishing place than an analysis of a rendezvous with death.”
After the briefing, the Kamikazes went to their planes. Some of them took along flags, photographs of their loved ones or magic charms. Each man was given a box of food containing such staples as bean curd and rice. Then the moment arrived when the pilots were airborne, rushing to¬ward their patriotic destiny. Yet, in spite of their eagerness, they followed the advice in “The First Order to the Kamikazes.” It counseled: “Do not be in too much of a hurry to die. If you cannot find your target, turn back; next time you may find a more favorable opportunity. Choose a death which brings about a maximum result.”