Zeros as Kamikazes

The Kamikazes represented just one facet of the extreme Japanese measures originated to present a last-ditch defence against the American onslaught, under the overall title of Tokku (Special Attack) and the latter term is the one used by them. As in all things, the western usage of the term Kamikaze to apply generally to all such facets of self-sacrifice, has become the accepted norm. The Japanese term Shimpū (Divine Wind) so named after two opportune typhoons that legend had it had providentially arisen and destroyed two huge invasion fleets sent by Kublai Khan against Japan in 1274 and in 1281 applied to the air-to-sea arms of the Tokku. There have been many theories as to when exactly the idea of the suicide attack, as a given policy rather than as a personal decision, were adopted, and just as many speculations as to the originator. In my study on this subject I have tried to list the precedents down through the war. Before proceeding in detail with how the A6M came to be involved, it should also be firmly held in mind that the lone ‘suicidal’ attack was far from just a Japanese concept. All nations’ armed forces had embraced the ‘take one with you’ philosophy down the ages, from forlorn hopes such as King Leonidas and his Spartans who sacrificed themselves to hold the pass at Thermopylae against the Persian hordes of Xerxes in 480 BC, throughout succeeding centuries, and World War II was no exception. In the particular field of aerial warfare the examples of Major Katsushige Takada off Biak in May 1944 and Rear-Admiral Masabumi Arima’s sacrifice on 15 October of the same year had been preceded by many similar actions by all other air forces. Russian fighter pilots such as Lieutenant II Ivanov of 46 Fighter Regiment became ‘Heroes of the Soviet Union’ for ramming Luftwaffe bombers, and even women pilots got into the act when First-Lieutenant Yekaterina Zelenko rammed a Bf.109. Major Ernst-Siegfried Steen of the Luftwaffe crashed his Junkers Ju.87 dive-bomber into the Soviet heavy cruiser Kirov and was awarded a posthumous Knight’s Cross. The Americans were no exception to this list, with Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr, for example lauded coast-to-coast by the press back home for his heroism in diving his huge B-17 bomber into the battleship Haruna and sinking her off the Philippines on 10 December 1941– when in fact he did no such thing, only a light cruiser was present and she was not scratched, while Haruna herself was hundreds of miles away at the time. That same day Lieutenant Samuel H. Marret of 34 Pursuit Squadron was killed when his P-35 fighter was caught in the up-blast from a bomb hit on a Japanese transport ship and the two stories became intertwined. Neither man committed suicide of course but the American press, hungry for some grain of success, invented stories to say they had, and, in doing so, also treated them as heroes for so doing. At Midway Marine Captain Richard E. Fleming is credited with diving his Vought SB2U dive-bomber into another ‘battleship’ (actually his target was the heavy cruiser Mikuma) at Midway, but his citation clearly stated he scored a near miss and crashed into the sea, the press knew otherwise; but other American pilots most certainly did self-sacrifice in this way, and were rightly hailed as heroes. So self-immolation for the defence of one’s country was not an exclusive trait of the Japanese.

However, the Japanese most certainly embraced the concept (although not without considerable reservations on the part of many and outright rejection by many more) more than any other nation had done up to that point. The suggestion of deliberately crashing aircraft into enemy ships as a matter of policy had been raised at various times, by various people, only to meet rejection. The American landings at Leyte Gulf on 20 October, at the start of their campaign to re-conquer the Philippines, brought all such speculations to a high pitch.

When Vice-Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi, commanding 1 Kōkū-kantai, visited 201 Kōkütai at their Mabalacat base (Clark Field) that day events did not auger well. Bombarding battleships and cruisers lined the coast, tens of thousands of American troops were in transports just offshore protected by dozens of small escort carriers, while over the horizon the all-powerful US Task Forces with their massed aircraft prowled in overwhelming strength. What was left of the Japanese surface fleet was to be committed to an all-out assault to drive the enemy back, but to facilitate their task, those carriers just had to be eliminated. The Admiral had been charged by the High Command to do just that, destroy the American carriers, but, from previous experience and failures, he had come to the conclusion that there was only one way left to achieve his brief and save his nation. Originally when the question of suicide attacks had been raised, Ōnishi had been rigorously opposed it; he called it ‘heresy’.9 Now faced with the direness of the situation he had put all such scruples behind him. He postulated to assembled officers that Japan’s position was a desperate and extreme one. If the Philippines went then Japan would be cut off from the oil sources she had gone to war to obtain and then it was just a matter of time to total defeat. He put to them the option of loading their sleek little A6M fighter planes with 551lb (250kg) bombs and deliberately crash-diving (Tai-Atari – literally body-crash) them into the wooden flight-decks of the American carriers operating offshore. Such a revolutionary concept, deliberate suicide, would, one would have expected, have caused considerable pause, but it would appear that, after the briefest of consultations between Executive Officer Commander Asaichi Tamai and Lieutenant Masanobu Ibusuki, senior squadron leader (the Group commander, Captain Ei Yamamoto, was hospitalized after an accident at this time) they accepted the Admiral’s option without reserve. The generally accepted versions of events presented are that the pilots of 201 were immediately assembled and the news broken; volunteers were called for; every man raised his hand. Almost in a trice then the Kamikazes were born. Other accounts recall a considerable reluctance on the part of the chosen leader, Lieutenant Yukio Seki, but, upon reflection, he finally consented. Whatever the truth, and there must surely have been some pause, the ultimate outcome was the same and planning commenced. Four units were set up, named after elements in the poet Norinaga Motoori’s epic one-line homage to Japan – Shikishima-Tai (traditional name of the Japanese islands); Yamato-Tai (the original name of the Japanese nation), Asahi-Tai (the rising sun) and Yamazakura-Tai (the mountain cherry blossom).

Admiral Ugaki duly noted this revolutionary step in his diary entry for 21 October.

In view of the present situation, the 1 Kōkū-kantai is going to organize a Kamikaze Special Attack Corps with twenty-six carrier fighters of the 201st Kōkūtai, all of its present strength, of which thirteen were suicidal ones. They are divided into four units. They intend to destroy enemy carriers without fail – at least put them out of order for a while – before the thrust of the [our] surface force, when they come to the sea east of the Philippines.

He added in an emotional outburst of spiritual pride, ‘Oh, what a noble spirit this is! We are not afraid of a million enemies or a thousand carriers because our whole force shares the same spirit!’

The selection of the A6M as the first Kamikaze operator may appear a bizarre choice. The agile little fighter plane was renowned for her deftness and lightness and the options of various bomber types would seem more apt as pile-drivers to sink carriers. Ōnishi was certainly influenced by the fact that the group’s earlier experiments with the chōhi bakugeki method made them stand out in this regard. Considered practically suicidal anyway they were used to toting bombs around and making high-speed approaches. Instead of bouncing the bomb off the water into the side of the ships, they could adopt varying approaches, which included a low-level approach with a final climb and dive, according to the conditions and scale of defences. That the A6M had the necessary speed to penetrate US defences whereas the Philippine Sea battle had shown that the dive-bombers and attack planes stood very little chance of doing so, decided the choice. The same problem remained, the size of bomb that the suicider bakusō could carry into battle to be an effective carrier-killer. It still remained in essence a 551lb (250kg) weapon when at least 1,100lb (500kg) was required to smash up such large ships as fleet carriers and fulfil the basic premise of the Kamikaze, ‘one ship for one plane’. Of course all other types of aircraft were soon pressed into service, even floatplanes and flimsy wire-and-strut trainers, in fact anything that could be flown piloted by anyone capable of flying them; but it was the A6M that led the way, and indeed remained the mainstay of the earlier Kamikaze attacks.

How did their designer feel about this apparent waste of his outstanding design concept, the A6M? Did he feel it was being thrown away in a totally unsuitable manner? Did he resent the misuse of his brainchild? At the time he contributed an article for the Asahi newspaper group’s publication Kamikaze Special Attack Forces, which he titled ‘Compliment to the Kamikaze Special Attack Forces’. Horikoshi was to write, ‘As I have witnessed the birth of the Zero, I know there is nothing to fear, since we have created an aircraft worthy of its task and the Kamikaze Special Attack Forces does the job that must be done.’ This seemed to be a very clear and unequivocal endorsement of the role to which his creation had been assigned. Later he recalled that he reflected that this was not really the case, asking himself, ‘Why were the Zeros used in such a way?’ He mused, ‘Of course, I could not say such things publicly at that time …’

However Hirikoshi thought about things there is no doubt that the A6M carried out the strange new role that was thrust upon it very well indeed. Indeed, initially, the whole Kamikaze concept took the Allies totally by surprise. Not only were they amazed at the alien mind-set that could conceive, and carry out continuously, such a sacrificial effort, but at its effectiveness. The debut was made during the closing stages of the Leyte Gulf battle, a sprawling encounter as labyrinthine and complex as all of the previous Japanese grand assaults from Midway onward, which saw the remnant of the still powerful surface fleet crushed and scattered to the four winds and yet another instance of a Japanese commander turning back with victory almost within his grasp. At Savo Island in 1942 with the Allied warships beaten and bewildered and with the American transport fleet at their mercy, the Japanese had turned back, a decision which led to the long-drawn out defeat in the Solomons. At Leyte Gulf, in the Shō-Gō Operation – with the whole American landing fleet within their grasp and the chance to justify the sacrifice of their whole fleet, command irresolution again took place at the critical moment and lost the Japanese their one last chance. But if the Americans had survived the massed salvoes of the Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, the arrival of the Kamikaze gave them much pause for thought.

There were initially several abortive missions, on 21 October the Shikishima-tai failed to find the enemy carriers, while the Yamato-tai (‘Spirit of Japan’) flew a sortie from Cebu, from which Lieutenant (j.g.) Kōfu Kunō vanished without a trace. However, the Australian heavy cruiser Australia was hit and badly damaged by a suicide aircraft, the first of many such crashes endured by this ship. Similar failures by the Shikishima-tai were recorded on each succeeding day up to the 24 October. It was not until 25 October that the Kamikazes made their mark when the Commander Yukio Seki’s group of five bakusō, including Ensigns Iwao Nakano and Nobuo Tani and Petty Officers 1st Class Hajime Nagamine and Shigeo Oguro, with a four A6M fighter escort, attacked the eighteen escort carriers of Task Group 77 under Rear-Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague off Samar where they had just narrowly escaped total destruction by Kurita’s premature withdrawal. The carrier St Lo was sunk, and the Kalin Bay, Kitkun Bay and White Plains were all damaged. These attacks were all observed and confirmed by Warrant Officer Hiroyoshi Nishizawa of the escort. That same day Lieutenant Hiroyoshi Nishizawa was refused permission to lead his own group and his aircraft was instead flown by Petty Officer 1st Class Tomisaku Kastsumata, who crashed the escort carrier Suwanee off Surigao. Others of his group hit and damaged her sister ships, the Sangamon and Santee, in the same mission.

After these initial victories the High Command in Tokyo enthusiastically embraced the Kamikaze concept and it rapidly became the most efficient method of anti-ship operation, although it never totally replaced conventional dive- and torpedo-bomber sorties entirely, and was itself supplemented by the Oka (‘Baka’) human-guided-bomb missions, Maru-dai, on which 252 Kōküati also flew as escorts, and other innovations. The missions themselves rapidly developed and Allied defensive methods, which included stronger fighter patrols, heavier radar-controlled gun barrages at longer ranges, picket-destroyers and proximity AA fuses, were countered by intelligent use of the land mass, mountains and cloud cover to shield approaches, the alternation and constant variation of altitudes and early morning and dusk attacks to take advantage of poor light, to keep up the pressure. Another tactic that confused the defending gunners was to make a determined run against a specific ship in the fleet and then, at the last moment, turn hard to port or starboard and crash an adjacent ship. Once the A6Ms were inside the warship formation at low level the gunners were restricted in their fire because the chances of hitting a friendly ship in the heat of the action were high. In public the Allies derided the Kamikaze as ‘wasteful’, in private the US Navy was seriously worried as warship losses sharply escalated.

The use of the suicide attacks rapidly gained favour and the Japanese Army Air Force was also a contributor, indeed, some sources say they originated it. From being a purely voluntary operation before long the commanding officers of entire units were ‘volunteering’ them for this mission. Love of one’s country, the need to protect one’s family, peer pressure, even mental blackmail, the motivation varied from individual to individual. There was not the blanket blind obedience that nowadays many Americans allege existed. Even among those that volunteered and died, rational doubts were uppermost in the final thoughts. One young pilot, Lieutenant-Commander Iwatani, wrote:

I cannot predict the outcome of the air battles, but you will be making a mistake if you should regard Special Attack operations as normal methods. The right way is to attack the enemy with skill and return to the base with good results. A plane should be utilized over and over again. That’s the way to fight a war. The current thinking is skewed. Otherwise, you cannot expect to improve air power. There will be no progress if flyers continue to die.

The A6M remained one of the principal aircraft utilized as Kamikaze during the Philippine campaign. The principal -tai (units) in which the A6M were involved either as suicider or as escort, were the Kamikaze Tokubetsu Kōgekitai Asahi-, Baika-, Byakko-, Chihaya-, Hazakura-, Jimmu-, Junchū-, Kasagi-, Kashima-, Kasuga-, Kazaki-, Kikusui-, Kongō-, Kōtoku-, Niitaka-, Ōka-, Reisen-, Sakon-, Sakurai-, Seikō-, Shikishima-, Shinpei-, Shisei-, Shōmu-, Taigi-, Tenpei-, Tokimune-, Tsukuba-, Ukon-, Wakazakura-, Yamato- and Yamazakura-tai. As far as can be ascertained approximately 230 A6Ms were despatched on suicide sorties from the Philippines, with a further eighty assigned as escorts.

The shock of being on the receiving end of one of the first A6M suicide attacks was recorded in the Action Report of the St Lo, all the more graphic because of its detachment.

At about 1051 AA fire was seen and heard forward and general quarters was sounded. Almost immediately thereafter, numerous planes, believed to include both friendly and enemy, were seen at 1000 – 3000 feet ahead and on the starboard bow. These planes moved aft to starboard and one of them when about abeam to starboard went into a right turn toward the St. Lo. The after starboard guns opened [fire] on him, but with no apparent effect. This plane, a Zeke 52, with a bomb under each wing, continued his right turn into the groove, and approached over the ramp [aft] very high speed.

After crossing the ramp at not over fifty feet, he appeared to push over sufficiently to hit the deck at about number 5 wire, 15 feet to the port side of the centre line. There was a tremendous crash and flash of an explosion as one or both bombs exploded. This plane continued up the deck leaving fragments strewn about and its remnants went over the bow. There is no certain evidence as to whether or not the bombs were released before the plane struck the deck.

The Captain’s impression was that no serious damage had been suffered. There was a hole in the flight deck with smouldering edges which sprang into flames. Hoses were immediately run out from both sides of the flight deck and water started on the fire. He then noticed that smoke was coming through the hole from below, and that smoke was appearing on both sides of the ship, evidently coming from the hangar. He tried to contact the hangar deck for a report, but was unable to do so. Within one to one and a half minutes an explosion occurred on the hangar deck, which puffed smoke and flame through the hole in the deck and, he believes, bulged the flight deck near and aft of the hole. This was followed in a matter of seconds by a much more violent explosion, which rolled back a part of the flight deck, bursting through aft of the original hole. The next heavy explosion tore out more of the flight deck and also below the forward elevator out of its shaft. At this time, which he estimated as still shortly before 1100, he decided that the ship could not be saved. With the smoke and flame, he was even uncertain as to whether the after part still was on the ship, though later he had glimpses of it. All communication was lost, except the sound-powered phones, which apparently were in for some time although no reports could be obtained from aft.The word was passed ‘stand by to abandon ship’ and the order given to stop all engines. The order to the engines appeared to get through, and the word to stand by to abandon ship reached all parts of the ship, partly by sound-powered phone and partly by word of mouth, and the personnel assembled largely on the flight deck forward, and on the forecastle. During this time, some personnel had been blown overboard, and some had been driven over by fire.

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