“Floating Chrysanthemums”

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USS BUNKER HILL hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu.  Dead - 372.  Wounded - 264.  (Navy) NARA FILE #:  080-G-323712 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #:  980

USS BUNKER HILL hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead – 372. Wounded – 264. (Navy)

map_may4_1945

Map showing approximate radar picket positions, radar ranges, and initial Japanese plane sightings. May 4, 1945

In Japan the chrysanthemum is probably the most beloved of all flowers, woven into wreaths for weddings and funerals alike, decorating graves or dropped by grieving pilots onto waters in which their dearest comrades had plunged to their death. Thus, in conformance with this custom among the flower-loving Nipponese, Admiral Matome Ugaki decided to give the scheduled Ten-Go aerial attacks on American shipping the name of kikusui, or “Floating Chrysanthemums.”

Although Ugaki’s aerial strength on Kyushu had been seriously weakened by Halsey’s strikes of mid-October 1944, and especially by Spruance’s sweeps of March 18-19, 1945, he still had well over three thousand planes—both conventional and suiciders—in his command after the Americans landed on Okinawa.

Ugaki had few reservations about his ability to shatter the enemy fleet and so delay or even prevent the invasion of Japan proper, but he did occasionally despair about the absence of coordination and cooperation among the Army and Navy subordinate air commanders on both Formosa and Kyushu. Though the Japanese command structure was probably better unified for Okinawa than for any other operation thus far, it was still a most casual chain of command in which the last thing a subordinate commander in, say, the Army, would think of doing was to obey an order from a superior in the Navy. At best to them an order was no better than a suggestion. Thus Army and Navy commanders on those two great island fortresses neither Cooperated with each other nor followed directives from the Combined Fleet or Imperial Army Headquarters in Tokyo. Although there was indeed intense and divisive rivalry between the American Army and Navy in the Pacific, orders from superiors were never—or at least seldom—ignored. If Fleet Admiral Nimitz issued orders to Admiral Turner off Okinawa, he transmitted them to General Buckner, who obeyed them without question.

Admiral Ugaki enjoyed no such luxury. If he wanted Lieutenant General Michio Sugahara, commander of the Sixth Air Army on Kyushu, to take some action, he would not issue an order but rather send a diplomatic officer to Sugahara’s headquarters to explain in the least offensive language what was being required of him. Such deference, of course, did not forge the Japanese chain of command with iron links, and it also wasted valuable time, for Ugaki was based at Kanoya and Sugahara at Chiran. Nor could he ask Admiral Toyoda’s fleet to issue an order binding on both of them. All that Ugaki could do was to send orders to a pair of Army air divisions that made most of the Okinawa attacks, although even here they were sometimes ignored. It is possible that this deference by senior officers to their subordinates was the result of Japanese misunderstanding of the character of Western military officers. When Japan decided to build the Imperial Navy, the model was the British Royal Navy, and the innate courtesy of its officers was mistaken for reticence. Thus an admiral might hesitate to insist that a commander give unbending obedience to his orders lest it be considered rude.

Ugaki had a second problem in organizing his forthcoming kikusui attacks: how to strike a balance between under-training and over-training his kamikaze. Overtraining a pilot in the sense of turning him into a skillful combat flyer would be a wasted effort when all that was needed was to guide an obsolete aircraft to its target and then crash-dive it. But suicide attacking wasn’t that simple, especially in the North Pacific springtime when the weather was so variable, with conflicting wind currents, poor visibility, and low ceilings. In such weather even an experienced pilot could become lost. For a rookie pilot to keep a bomb-loaded crate on a direct course was not enough, for he still might not find his target. In such unreliable planes, engine trouble was frequent, and the student pilot needed to be trained enough to return successfully to base. But a new recruit would not emerge as a qualified suicider until months later. This requirement put an unbearable burden on Ugaki’s attempt to build up a powerful air armada; the suicide tactic for which this force was being formed was not only innately self-destructive but also time-consuming. Japan in the spring of 1945 could not afford to lose more months of what had become a fast-vanishing resource. Finally, the American seaborne aerial attacks on Kyushu and Formosa, as well as the Marianabased B-29 strikes on Kyushu and to a lesser degree of MacArthur’s Fifth Air Force on Formosa, along with the willingness of the suicide-saviors to take their own lives, had left Ugaki with nothing like the minimal four thousand aircraft he needed to destroy or cripple Spruance’s Fifth Fleet. That was one reason why Ugaki’s airplanes did not immediately strike the Americans the day the invasion began, and it was not until that very day that Admiral Toyoda in Tokyo ordered Kikusui 1 to be launched on April 6 1945.

That morning dawned overcast, with northeast winds whipping a mackerel sea into a white-crested gray mass, pushing layers of smutty clouds scudding along at altitudes of three thousand to seven thousand feet. It was good kamikaze weather, providing them with excellent cover. Yet Rear Admiral Toshiyuki Yokoi, whom Ugaki had placed in charge of the kikusui attacks, waited until around noon before sending his squadrons aloft, hoping thereby to catch patrolling American fighters at that most dangerous moment of refueling—either on carrier decks or the aprons of Yontan and Kadena Airfields. It was a good idea that may have come to Yokoi by his recollection of how Yamamoto’s carriers at Midway were struck at exactly that moment. But there would be no such surprise, for Spruance’s task force commanders had long since installed the routine of keeping defensive fighter patrols aloft from sunup till sundown. Nor did Yokoi’s ruse of dropping “window”—aluminum strips to create false blips on radar screens to lure American fighters away from the impact area—for radar operators picked them up almost as soon as they were dropped.

Both Spruance and Turner were aware that a massive enemy aerial strike would arrive that day, not only from warnings from intelligence officers reading messages in the broken Japanese code, but through combat instincts sharpened by years of experience: once the enemy had collected enough planes, he would strike. To thwart him, Turner had deployed a wide circle of sixteen radar picket destroyers like irregular-length spokes in a wheel winding around Okinawa and some of its surrounding islands. These spokes extended from “Point Bolo,” a reference point on that Zampa Cape he had so ardently desired, and which had been presented to him by the Sixth Marine Division. Each radar picket could give early warning of an enemy attack, and also carried a five-member radar direction team trained in vectoring patrolling fighters onto “bogies,” unidentified targets. As might be expected, the pickets would become prime targets of the attacking enemy, especially Radar Picket Stations 1 through 4, on duty on an arc about thirty miles north of Okinawa—the point over which enemy planes from Kyushu were most likely to fly.

On that morning of April 6 all was quiet in the skies above the Great Loo Choo, although Japanese scout planes in the northern Ryukyus had discovered TF 58’s Fast Carrier Forces and brought hundreds of fighters and bombers down on them. Half of them missed their target and flew on to Okinawa while the other half zeroed in on Rear Admiral Joseph “Jocko” Clark’s Task Group 58.1. They hit the carrier Hancock and two destroyers, and a kamikaze Judy bomber almost sent the big flattop Bennington to a watery grave. Plunging at the American’s stern, the suicider was shot to bits by all of Bennington’s ack-ack that could be brought to bear. When the Judy exploded astern, parts of her engine fragments fell in a shower on the carrier, temporarily disabling her rudder.

Later in the day Yokoi’s fighters arrived off Okinawa’s airfields and were intercepted by American fighters on patrol above them. At three o’clock, with the Yankee fighters presumably driven from the area, the suiciders struck. They dove on the pickets of the radar screen and that forest of masts in Hagushi Anchorage. Some 200 of them came plummeting down for five hours until darkness veiled the sea or magnified the funeral pyres of stricken American ships.

Destroyers Bush and Colhoun were sunk, Colhoun hit and staggered so frequently that she had to be abandoned and sunk by friendly fire. The ammunition ships Logan Victory and Hobbs Victory also went down, creating a temporary ordnance shortage for the Tenth Army. Nine other destroyers were damaged, as were four destroyer-escorts and five mine vessels.

It was an impressive day’s work for the first sally of the kikusui even though they had lost 135 planes. But the kamikaze reports were as usual exaggerated, rivaling even those of the Thirty-second Army, claiming thirty American ships sunk and twenty more burning. Such bloated estimates so encouraged Admirals Ugaki and Toyoda that the Navy chief began to think that perhaps the world’s first suicide battleship—great Yamato—might really stagger the Americans during its one-way voyage to Okinawa and eternal glory.

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