Admiral Arima had little trouble in recruiting pilots for his suicide missions. Thousands of young Japanese volunteered. A last-ditch defensive measure, the kamikaze missions succeeded in wreaking havoc on Allied warships without sapping Japan's other resources. The first kamikaze missions were flown during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 when 24 volunteer pilots of the Japanese navy's 201st Air Group on Leyte attacked a force of U.S. escort carriers. During this action, one carrier, the St. Lô, was sunk, and two others were heavily damaged.
The kamikaze plane operated as a kind of guided missile with human control. Kamikaze pilots tried to crash their planes into enemy ships. Most kamikaze aircraft were ordinary fighters or light bombers, often loaded with bombs and extra gasoline tanks. Many of the aircraft were old (some were biplanes with nonretractable gear), but later, the Japanese also used a new aircraft, which was a piloted rocket. Specifically developed for suicide missions, this aircraft, called "Baka" by the Allies for the Japanese word for fool, was carried to the target area by a medium bomber. Dropped from an altitude of over 25,000 feet, the rocket would glide to about 3 miles from its target before the pilot turned on the three rocket engines, accelerating the craft to more than 600 miles per hour in its final dive.
After Leyte was nearly secured, the Allies prepared to land on Luzon. With the loss of Leyte, there was little the Japanese could do to stop the American advance, but they decided to make the Luzon Campaign a costly one for their adversaries. Having lost the bulk of their fleet in the various encounters with Allied forces in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese had to turn in force to kamikazes to combat the Allied fleet. During the landing of American forces on Luzon, kamikaze pilots constantly harassed the U.S. ships. One estimate holds that 1 out of every 4 kamikazes hit its target and that 1 out of every 33 sank a ship.
During the Battle for Iwo Jima, the kamikaze threat was lessened because of the distance between the island and the nearest Japanese air bases. However, there were still kamikaze attacks. On 21 February 1945, kamikazes sank the escort carrier Bismarck Sea and damaged the fleet carrier Saratoga (with the loss of some four dozen of her aircraft), as well as the escort carrier Lunga Point, a cargo ship, and two LSTs (landing ships, tank).
The kamikaze effort reached its zenith during the Battle of Okinawa, when the Allied task force was repeatedly attacked by waves of suicide planes. This tactic was new. Previously, kamikazes had operated in separate and individual attacks. During this battle, however, the fleet was subjected to massed kamikaze raids. These kikusui (floating chrysanthemum) raids, as the Japanese called them, were far more devastating than single kamikaze attacks and took a heavy toll of Allied ships. In several of the raids, more than 350 planes were sent against the fleet. Often, these suicide missions were supported by conventional air attacks conducted simultaneously. By the end of the campaign for Okinawa, at least 1,450 kamikaze pilots had given their lives for their emperor; in the process, they sank or damaged 263 Allied ships, resulting in the deaths of 5,000 men—the greatest losses ever suffered by the U.S. Navy in a single battle and more than it had lost in all the wars of U.S. history to that point.
The effect of the kamikaze attacks, particularly during the Battle of Okinawa, had a major impact on Allied strategic planners as they contemplated an invasion of the Japanese home islands. If several thousand of these suicide pilots could wreak havoc on Allied forces in Leyte, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, what might one expect when Japan was invaded? No doubt, this consideration played a role in the decision to employ the atomic bomb. James H. Willbanks
Axell, Albert. The Eternal Kamikaze: Japanese Suicide Gods. New York: Longman, 2002.; Belote, James H., and William M. Belote. Typhoon of Steel: The Battle for Okinawa. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.; Gow, Ian. Okinawa: Gateway to Japan. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.; Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Kamikazes. New York: Arbor House, 1983.; Inoguchi Rikihei and Nakajima Tadashi, with Roger Pineau. The Divine Wind: Japan's Kamikaze Force in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1958.
James H. Willbanks