What If: The Kamikaze and the Invasion of Kyushu? I

The lecture on logistic considerations for the recent invasion of Kyushu was going well. Nearly 160 students, faculty, and guests filled Pringle Auditorium at the Naval War College on this blustery Tuesday evening in November 1946 to hear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner. A 1908 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Turner had commanded the Pacific Fleet Amphibious Force of more than 2,700 ships and large landing craft during the invasion. The 101 students in the class of 1947 were veterans of the largest war in history, and the transfer of nearly all of the Atlantic Fleet’s assets to the Far East after Normandy had insured the participation of every navy and marine officer at the college in either the final, mammoth operation at Kyushu or the even more massive operation planned for later in the Tokyo area. Likewise, all but two of the dozen army, air force, and coast guard officers—plus the single student from the State Department—had seen service in the Pacific. The college’s new president, Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, had himself commanded the 5th Fleet during the invasion and whispered to an aide that his longtime friend and colleague was “in top form tonight.”

It was good to see Turner doing well, and Spruance reflected that speaking before the assembled officers—particularly these officers—would do him nothing but Turner had only two weeks earlier concluded his testimony in the last of three Congressional inquiries held after the armistice with Imperial Japan, and even before those, had been summoned back to Washington on three separate occasions in the midst of the war to testify on matters relating to December 7, 1941. During those earlier proceedings, he had been subjected to considerable cross-examination because of his prewar duty in the navy’s War Plans Division, and the first hearings after the armistice again dealt with Pearl Harbor. There was very little of substance that he had been able to add to the second postwar hearings, since the joint House-Senate committee was investigating events surrounding the tactical use of nuclear weapons and the resultant deaths and sickness recorded so far among some 40,000 U.S. military personnel. However, the most recent hearings of the Taft-Jenner committee had been another matter entirely, and Turner rapidly became the focus of its investigation into why the navy, after more than a year of experience battling Japanese suicide aircraft, had been “caught napping” by the kamikazes off Kyushu.

“Pearl Harbor II,” as it was dubbed by the press, saw thirty-eight troop-laden Liberty ships and LSTs, along with a score of destroyers and twenty-one other vessels, struck within sight of the invasion beaches during X-Day and X+l. Six other vessels were crashed by shinyo speedboats filled with explosives that darted into the assault groups during the confusion, and a further ten Liberty ships were hit by kamikazes from X+2 to X+6. The bulk of the 29,000 dead and missing were ground troops, with an equal number of soldiers and marines turned into stunned refugees after discarding all their gear during frantic efforts to abandon burning and sinking transports. Finely choreographed assault landings had been terribly disrupted by the incessant attacks and rescue operations. The subsequent lack of proper resupply and reinforcement resulted in nearly triple the anticipated ground-force casualties through X+30 and an unprecedented—and bloody—stalemate until X+20 on the north-eastern-most six of the thirty-five invasion beaches.

More men had been lost in the first two weeks at Kyushu than at the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa combined, and critics were looking hard for someone’s head to stick on a pike (an “army” pike). Adm. Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, refused to offer up Turner for sacrifice and took full responsibility for the debacle (although it was certainly obvious that there was plenty of blame to go around). Still, the hearings had been brutal, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, from his headquarters in Manila, made it clear that he believed Turner’s “failure to safeguard the lives of our gallant soldiers and marines” had forced America into “an incomplete victory worse than Versailles.” Tonight was the tough old admiral’s first public address since the hearings, and Spruance did all he could to keep news of the event confined to the tight naval community on Coasters Harbor Island in Narragansett Bay’s East Passage. In fact, the only people in attendance not from the Naval War College or Newport Naval Base were retired marine three-star general Holland Smith, who was visiting the son of a longtime colleague, and George Kennan, an assistant to newly appointed Secretary of State George C. Marshall.

The students were held spellbound by the man Spruance regarded as the finest example of that rare combination, a strategic thinker and a fighter ready and willing to take responsibility and plunge into battle.6 Very few of the officers had actually laid eyes on “Terrible” Turner during the Pacific War, and the first round of questions after his presentation were tentative, almost softball. Spruance expected that this wouldn’t last long, and it didn’t.

“Sir, right from the beginning, at Leyte, when the Japs succeeded in forcing a redisposition of the carriers, we started to lose a lot of ships to the suiciders and even conventional attacks. Was it the loss of those transports and LSTs that slowed down the airstrip construction ashore and just made a bad situation worse from the standpoint of air defense?”

A score of supply ships along with a half-dozen destroyer-type vessels had unexpectedly been lost during November 1944. The kamikazes had drawn first blood on October 25-26, when a five-plane raid sank the escort carrier St. Lo and damaged three similar carriers. This had prompted many more young Japanese fliers to volunteer for the Shimpu (Special Attack Corps) unit, and on October 30 a kamikaze attack damaged three large fleet carriers so severely that they had to be pulled back to the Ulithi anchorage for repairs. Within days another large flattop fell victim, as did three more toward the end of November. This stunning disruption of carrier airpower spelled the loss of the ships referred to by the questioner and had a pronounced effect on the conduct of the ground campaign as well. Leyte had not been Turner’s show. Vice Adm. Thomas C. Kinkaid had been commanding, and Turner chose his words carefully.

“We expected to take losses, but the nature of the Jap attacks was a complete surprise. We expected that our fighter sweeps would take out most of his airpower in the Philippines before the landings. The feeble response to Bill [Admiral William F.] Halsey’s earlier raid in September 1944 led us to conclude that Jap strength in the islands was far weaker than it should have been and we, in fact, canceled intermediate operations and pushed KING II up a full sixty days. There was no way to anticipate the tactics that were used against us. As to air-base development on Leyte, it was not the loss of shipping, but the weather and resultant conditions on the ground that stalled the best efforts of army engineers. We’d owned those islands for over forty years yet did not have a clue as to just how unsuitable the soil conditions were in the area where we sited the Burauen Airfield complex.

“Everyone remembers the newsreels of the theater commander wading ashore from a Higgins boat—I’m sure he did it in one take—[laughter] and his pronouncement that he had ‘returned’ but what few people know is that he was supposed to have retaken Leyte with four divisions and have eight fighter and bomber groups striking from the island within forty-five days of the initial landings. Nine divisions and twice as many days into the battle, only a fraction of the airpower was operational because of that awful terrain. The fighting on the ground had not gone as planned either. The Japs even did an end run, briefly isolated 5th Air Force headquarters, and captured much of the airfield complex before the army pushed them back into the jungle. Colonel?”

Having closed with a comment on the army, he motioned to one of several soldiers attending the college. He noted that the officer wore the scarlet crossed-arrow patch of the 32nd Infantry Division, which fought battles on Leyte’s Corkscrew, Kilay, and Breakneck ridges.

“Thank you, sir. In light of the fact that the lack of air interdiction allowed the enemy to transfer four divisions plus various independent brigades and regiments to the island from Luzon, do you feel that the amount of time to take Leyte was excessive?”

The admiral was unfazed by the implied rebuke. “No. Buoyed by pilot reports of both real and imagined losses to our fleet, the Japs decided to conduct their main battle for the Philippines on Leyte instead of Luzon. We had originally intended Leyte to act as a springboard to Luzon in exactly the same way that Kyushu was to act as the last stop before Tokyo. But the important thing to remember is that no matter which island we fought them on, the Japs had only a finite number of troops available in the Philippines. Over eighty percent of Jap shipping used during their effort was eventually sunk during later resupply missions, but we obviously would have liked to have sent them to the bottom sooner. The conquest of Leyte eventually involved over 100,000 more ground troops than anticipated and took us so long to accomplish that the island never became the major logistical center and air base we intended. My point is that the Japs were turning out to be much more resourceful than we anticipated and this affected operations all across the board. Does that answer your question?”

“Yes, sir,” said the colonel. But he later told the head of the college’s logistics department, Rear Adm. Henry Eccles, that he had considered commenting that the dearth of army and navy air interdiction was still being felt months later; that a number of Japanese units were actually evacuated from Leyte when ordered off in January 1945, and that he didn’t like fighting the same Japs twice. Eccles said that the colonel had been wise not to press the issue.

Many in the audience now raised their hands with questions, and Turner called on a lieutenant commander from the junior class.

“Admiral, could you comment on the fighter sweeps conducted over southern Japan ahead of the invasion?”

Turner asked him if he could be more specific.

“Yes, sir. Why was there so little attrition of their air forces ahead of Kyushu?”

This had been a subject of much heated discussion both in the press and in the wardrooms. It had even been rehashed in great detail earlier that day in Luce Hall, with the head of the college’s Battle Evaluation Group, Commodore Richard Bates, and about two dozen students.

Kamikazes “Glued to the Ground”

“To a very real degree, gentlemen, we were the victim of our own success,” said Turner. “Throughout the war, increasingly effective sweeps by our aircraft—and the army’s fighters and medium bombers—played havoc with Japanese air bases. And we were sure that many of their aircraft would certainly be destroyed by preinvasion fighter sweeps. But to destroy them on the ground, we would have had to know where they were. Anticipating that attacks would only grow worse as we neared the home islands in force, the Japs stepped up the dispersion of their units and spread aircraft throughout more than 125 bases and airfields that we knew of, and the number was apparently far larger. This effort intensified after we caught hundreds of them on the ground at Kyushu bases preparing for suicide runs at Okinawa. As for the planes slated for use as kamikazes, they didn’t require extensive facilities, and were hidden away to take off from roads and fields around central billeting areas. In addition, dispersal fields were being constructed by the dozen, while use of camouflage, dummy aircraft, and propped-up derelicts performed as desired during our strikes against known facilities.”

Spruance suspected that the questioners already knew the answers, or pieces of the answers, almost as well as Turner, but were deeply interested in the admiral’s unique insight into Pacific operations. The exchange now moved at a very fast clip.

“Sir, intelligence reports made it clear that there were a large number of aircraft available in Japan, but I was surprised that even though we were bombing virtually everything we wanted at will, they would not come up and fight.”

“You weren’t the only one,” replied Turner. “After some initial sparring with our carriers and Far East air force elements flying out of Okinawa, the Japs essentially glued their aircraft to the ground in order to preserve them for use during the invasions. We all know the story. The few high-performance aircraft like the Raiden were used against the B-29s, but that was it. There was no significant employment of aircraft, even during the approach of our fleets, since the Japs believed that being drawn out early would cause needless losses and correctly anticipated that we would attempt to lure their aircraft into premature battle through elaborate feints and other deception measures. They planned for a massive response only when they confirmed that landing operations had commenced.”

“Sir,” said another student, “it has been reported that the Japanese had been planning to use suiciders well before Leyte.”

Turner nodded. “The codicil to the armistice agreement which allows us to formally discuss the conduct of the war with Japanese officers of equal rank brought out some interesting information on that. These discussions, by the way, are continuing. They are certainly not controlled interrogations and the information is sometimes questionable, but the discussions overall have been frank and useful.” The admiral didn’t say it, but he was as amazed as anyone that talks of that nature were even taking place. “As to your question, the growing supremacy of our fleet prompted some Japanese leaders to contemplate the systematic use of suicide aircraft as early as 1943. But it wasn’t until late the following year, after they’d lost many of their best pilots at Midway, the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Marianas, that the kamikaze was seriously considered as a last-ditch alternative to conventional bombing attacks. We’d known this for some time. What we have just learned from our discussions is that the first time that orders were actually handed down for employment of suicide tactics was July 4, 1944, at Iwo [Jima]. Since all the kamikazes were shot down before reaching our ships, we never knew a thing about it.”

“Sir, right to the end there were always Jap pilots who made no attempt to crash our ships. Was that intentional; part of a systematic employment?”

Turner nodded again. “Yes, experienced pilots, deemed too valuable to sacrifice, were to provide fighter cover or fly conventional strikes. In fact, when some of them volunteered for the one-way missions, they were denied the ‘honor’ of killing themselves for the emperor.”

“Sir, with the benefit of hindsight it seems apparent to me that if the tactics employed at Kyushu had been employed at Leyte, their planes would have been able to crash a lot more ships. When they had altitude, you could pick ’em up without much trouble. But if they’d come out of those hills—coming in low rather than flying up here where we could pick ’em up early around 10,000, 20,000 feet and diving down—frankly, the Japs could have massacred our transports in the Philippines. The only upside is that it would have made the danger off Japan’s coast more clear.”

“You never like to take losses,” said Turner, “but if the Japs had used their aircraft as you described at Leyte, the lessons learned from that battle would indeed have made a difference at Kyushu. Okinawa represented the first coordinated effort by Jap pilots to use cliffs and hills to foil our radar, but the size of the island and the distances they had to fly from their bases on Formosa and Kyushu, together with the fact that the Japs had only just begun to experiment in this area, initially limited the usefulness of such tactics. Nonetheless, they did enjoy numerous successes when kamikazes appeared so suddenly out of the radar clutter that even fully alert crews of ships close ashore had little time to respond. And of course, response times naturally stretched out once the fatigue of being constantly at the alert began to set in. All kinds of tactical innovations were developed ad hoc as we gained more experience with the new threat. Ideas were shared throughout the fleet and crews incorporated any innovations they thought would be useful— anything to increase point defense capabilities by shortening antiaircraft weapons’ response times. Would you like to comment on that, Commodore Bates?”

“Certainly, sir. By summer 1945, slewing sights for the five-inch gun mount officers’ station were helping to ensure quick, non-radar-directed action, and many ships had begun to rig cross connections between their five-inch guns’ slow Mark 37 directors and the 40mm guns’ more nimble Mark 51s. These changes—and a projectile in the loading tray—enabled the five-inchers to come on line more quickly to counter sudden attacks, but switch back to the longer-range Mark 37 directors if radar found possible targets at a more conventional range. The new Mark 22 radar, which allowed early and accurate identification of incoming aircraft, was also widely distributed by the time of Majestic. It had little impact on the fighting close to shore, but proved its worth over and over again with the carriers.

“Prior to the appearance of the kamikazes, 20mm anti-aircraft guns had been the greatest killers of Jap planes. After that, however, their lack of hitting power rendered them little more than psychological weapons against plunging kamikazes. Commanders relied increasingly on the larger 40mm guns, because they could blast apart a closing aircraft. As more became available, we jammed additional mounts of the twin- and quad-40s into already overcrowded deck spaces on everything from minesweepers and LSTs to battleships and carriers.”

A voice rang out from the back of the hall, “But we wouldn’t let you take away our ‘door knockers’!” a remark followed by general laughter.

Admirals Turner and Spruance grinned widely at the shouted comment, but the chief of the Battle Evaluation Group offered only a half-smile.

“As I was saying, although 20mm guns had proved ineffective against a plunging kamikaze, that did not mean crews were eager to do away with them in order to free up deck space. These weapons at least had the advantage of not being operated electrically. Even if a ship’s power was knocked out, the ‘door knockers’ could still supply defensive fire. The new three-inch/ 50 rapid-fire gun is a wonderful weapon. One gun is as effective as two—that’s two—quad 40s against conventional planes, and against the Baka rocket bomb the advantage was even more pronounced. It took fully five quad 40s [twenty guns] to do the work of a single three-inch/50. Unfortunately, very few crews had been properly trained for it by Majestic.

“Reviewing the outcome of the extended radar picket operations off Okinawa,” continued Bates, “COMINCH [Commander in Chief, United States Fleet] came to the conclusion that one destroyer cannot be expected to defend itself successfully against more than one attacking enemy aircraft at a time— many did, in fact, but were eventually overwhelmed—and noted that, in the future, a full destroyer division should be assigned to each picket station if the tactical situation allowed such a commitment of resources. We were able to do this at four of the sixteen picket stations at Kyushu, but all the other stations had to make do with a pair of destroyers and two each of those special gunboats made especially for operations against Japan [LSMs with one dual and four quad 40mm mounts], which were far more heavily armed than the gunboats used at Okinawa.

“COMINCH also found that while large warships’ and aircraft gunnery was not affected greatly by evasive maneuvers, violent turns by a diminutive destroyer to disturb the aim of the kamikaze, or to bring more guns to bear during a surprise attack, caused extreme pitches and rolls that degraded accuracy. Gunnery improved dramatically when destroyers performed less strident maneuvers, even if fewer guns could be brought into play quickly.”

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