Kikusui 2: Kamikaze Crucible

Admiral Matome Ugaki was still convinced that his April 6-7 strikes at the Americans had seriously damaged TF 58, an estimate not shared by his colleague, Lieutenant General Michio Sugahara of the Sixth Air Army. A report made by Sugahara’s staff somewhat sourly concluded: “Despite many attacks, the Navy cannot block the enemy’s carrier force, which still is operating east of Okinawa.”

Nevertheless Sugahara was eminently cooperative in preparing for Kikusui 2, which Ugaki hoped would so shatter Spruance’s fleet that it might seek sanctuary in the open sea. But both he and the army general realized that the second Floating Chrysanthemum would never equal the strength of the first, if only because of the serious losses it had suffered. They were also concerned to learn that Marine Corsairs had indeed arrived at Yontan and Kadena, thus menacing their own aircraft with ground-based fighters that, because of their proximity to their base, were more to be feared than carrier-based interceptors.

Their apprehension was somewhat eased, however, with the arrival on Kyushu of a new weapon: the Oka, or “Cherry Blossom” glide bomb, a rocket-boosted, piloted suicider capable of speeds of 500 knots and carrying a huge wallop of 2,645 pounds of trinitroanisol. The Oka was slung beneath a mother plane, usually a heavy Betty or Peggy bomber, and flown to within about a dozen miles of its target, when it was released with the pilot firing its rockets and directing it toward its target. Moving at pistol-bullet speed, the Oka was believed to be almost immune to enemy gunfire, but its very velocity made it extremely difficult for its pilot to keep his 16½-foot missile on target. American intelligence was aware of the appearance of this new weapon, but considered it so ineffective that it was christened baka, or “foolish.”

Although Kikusui 2 was scheduled for April 12, Admiral Ugaki tried to destroy “the remnant” of TF 58 on the day before, hurling a daylight suicide attack of about fifty-two planes against Admiral Mitscher’s carrier force. Typically glowing reports claimed three carriers sunk, a cruiser set ablaze, another cruiser holed, and two destroyers hit with torpedoes. The next day Ugaki’s pilots, still mightier with pen than bomb, reported sinking two battleships and a light cruiser. Actually very little damage was done to Mitscher’s ships on either day. Some damage was inflicted on the veteran flattop Enterprise, and a kamikaze crashed the majestic new battleship Missouri, but succeeded only in scratching her deck and blistering some paint. Destroyer Kidd was hit on picket duty and badly hurt, with thirty-eight sailors killed and fifty-five wounded, the worst casualty of the day. Waggish bluejackets aboard another picket destroyer, exasperated by repeated strikes at their station, erected a huge sign on deck with an arrow pointing aft and reading: CARRIERS THIS WAY.

Both Ugaki and Sugahara hoped to neutralize the enemy Corsairs by planning a series of bombing raids on their airfields the night before the scheduled attacks of April 12, while Sugahara also organized a decoy flight of fighters to lure TF 58’s Hellcats and Corsairs away from the impact area. In the bombing operation, 22 Japanese aircraft struck Yontan and Kadena shortly before dawn of the twelfth, damaging 5 enemy planes but losing 5 of their own to American gunners of all services. Next, Sugahara’s decoys attracted nothing but birds rising for dawn breakfasts, so that it was not until eleven o’clock in the morning that the Kyushu main body of about 120 late-model fighters arrived over both Kikai Jima and the Hagushi Anchorage to try to clear the strike area for following flights of 76 kamikaze, plus 20 suiciders roaring up from Formosa.

Although the Nipponese fighters were more successful than usual against the more skillful Americans flying better planes—claiming a probably exaggerated 20 kills—the Navy and Marine pilots from the carriers of TF 58 reported a much higher 126 enemy planes downed during fighter sweeps. This also was probably exaggerated—not by intent like the starry-eyed enemy—but from the inevitable duplication occurring when more than one fighter was firing on the same enemy, or even when a “flamer” plunging toward a watery grave might have the winds caused by his velocity blow the fires out, enabling him to return successfully to base. “Kill” estimates like body counts were much like American taxpayers’ income-tax returns: so full of deductions for charity that the churches of America would all be rich “beyond the dreams of avarice.”

But the American interceptors did effectively prevent the enemy fighters from protecting the kamikaze. Although the suiciders succeeded in damaging eight American ships—mostly destroyers and destroyer-escorts of the radar picket line, as well as some smaller craft—and causing high casualities, only one warship was sunk: the new picket destroyer Manert L. Abele, the first kill on record by a baka bomb.

Abele was on Picket Station 14 about thirty miles west of Okinawa when it was jumped by a pair of suicide Vals. Abele’s AA opened up, each burst seemingly scoring a hit but with the planes reappearing through the smoke. One of the attackers was sent into the sea, but the second struck the destroyer’s after engine room, spreading death and destruction and causing Abele to buckle visibly. Just then one of two Betty bombers circling like scavengers overhead released its baka bomb, which came shrieking at the stricken destroyer at five hundred knots. The pilot kept his missile perfectly on course, striking Abele exactly amidships. A tremendous blast lifted the American out of the water to be slammed back again. Many men were blown overboard, among them Lieutenant s.g. George Wray, who swam back to his ship, clambering aboard to tear open a jammed escape hatch allowing the entire watch of the forward engine room to scramble to safety. In less than another minute, Wray might have been too late, for Abele sank five minutes after the baka struck. Most of her officers and crew were rescued by a nearby LSM, but six men were killed and seventy-three missing.

Simultaneous with the agony of Abele, a flight of conventional kamikaze found Rear Admiral Deyo’s gunfire support force patrolling waters off the Motobu Peninsula. When they struck, Deyo fortunately had his ships concentrated and they were ready for the Divine Winds, which could do little more than stagger a destroyer and crash a 40 mm mount aboard battleship Tennessee. One sailor who was blown into the air landed atop a five-inch gun turret, where he crouched while calmly stripping off his burning clothing to await a cold bath from the nearest fire hose. Marine Corporal W. H. Putnam either fell or was blown overboard, surfacing near a big life raft. He clambered aboard, finding unusual company in the presence of the headless torso of the kamikaze who had crashed his ship.

Thus the scourging of the American fleet off Okinawa continued unabated, but once again the kamikaze had failed to strike the paralyzing blow so eagerly sought by Admiral Ugaki. Losses among the suiciders are not exactly known, although 185 of them had participated in the assault—an enormous decline from the 355 making the first attacks. The decrease would continue until on June 21-22 Ugaki could scrape together only 45 decrepit Divine Winds—the shriveled petals remaining on the deadly Floating Chrysanthemums.