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Japanese Kamikazes: Heroic or Horrifying?

Japanese kamikaze
You can see the pride on the faces of these young Japanese kamikaze who were trained to be suicide pilots, only crash their planes loaded with explosives, extra fuel and special missiles into enemy ships. Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images

The iconic image of a Japanese kamikaze has been cooked into our consciousness over the years by countless World War II movies and a library full of history books. A grim and determined pilot, goggles in place, alone in his cockpit, guides his streaking plane through cloudy wartime skies toward the enemy ship and a fiery death.

The kamikaze, as we understand him now, seems both heroic and horrifying at the same time. Depending on where your World War II allegiances lie, he may be just one or the other.

But the kamikaze is, with no argument anywhere, legendary in the annals of human battle.

"Surely, the Kamikaze war was the strangest and in many ways most dramatic ever waged," the late Gordon Allred writes in the 2007 edition of his 1957 book, "Kamikaze," which contains the somewhat disputed account of kamikaze Yasuo Kuwahara. "One wherein nearly five thousand young men were converted by their leaders into human bombs as the suicide pilots who lived to die and caused the greatest losses in the history of our United States Navy.

"Never have so many human beings unitedly and deliberately agreed to die for their country without hope of any alternative."

kamikaze attack on Bunker Hill
On May 11, 1945, two kamikaze aircraft carrying 250-kilogram bombs hit the USS Bunker Hill in quick succession (seen here). The attack killed 393 and injured 264 U.S. Navy crew on board.
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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The Beginnings of the Kamikaze

When Mongol emperor Kublai Khan sent his naval fleets to attack Japan in the 13th century, fierce winds twice repelled the invasions. The Japanese considered these storms direct gifts from the gods and called them "kamikaze." The most common translation of the word is "divine wind."

In October 1944, after stinging defeats had turned the tide of World War II against the Axis powers — the U.S. retook Guadalcanal in 1943, liberated Guam in July 1944 and started bombing Okinawa in October of that year — Japan's commanders in the Pacific were desperate. They needed to slow the onslaught of the Allies though, in reality, many knew that it was just a matter of time until the war was over. Japan was looking for some divine intervention.

Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi, commander of Japanese naval air forces in the Philippines, decided to unleash a new tactic on the enemy: suicide bombers.

"In my opinion, there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to a maximum degree," Ohnishi told his men, according to Capt. Rikihei Inoguchi in "The Divine Wind: Japan's Kamikaze Force in World War II," originally published in 1958. "That is to organize suicide attack units composed of Zero fighters armed with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-dive into an enemy carrier." (The Mitsubishi A6M "Rei-sen" was the chief aircraft of Japan during World War II. The Japanese pilots called the plane the "Zero-sen" based on the Imperial Year calendar (1940). The Allies eventually dubbed the plane the Zero.) And so the modern-day version of kamikaze was launched.

Kamikaze
(Clockwise from top left) A kamikaze about to crash into the sea after an unsuccessful run on the USS Essex (CV-9) on May 15, 1945; the USS Suwanee (CVE-27) received major damage from a kamikaze hit on Oct. 26, 1945. The view shows the forward elevator well at the hangar deck level; funeral services were held for several men on the USS Kalanin Bay (CVE-68) after a kamikaze attack.
National Archives

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How Successful Were the Kamikaze?

Statistics vary, but thousands of kamikaze sorties were launched in the final months of the war, and more than 3,000 Japanese pilots were killed. Those attacks resulted in the sinking of some 47 ships, killing more than 7,000 U.S., Australian and British soldiers.

That sounds deadly effective. But it really wasn't.

"The statistic I quote ... says that 27 percent of the attacks in [the battle of] the Philippines resulted in either a hit or a near miss that caused damage to the ship ... In the battle of Okinawa, when most of the kamikaze pilots were going in, I think it was like 13 percent," Bill Gordon, who has been collecting data and stories on kamikaze on his site, "Kamikaze Images," since the early 2000s, says from a town near Nagoya, Japan. "I guess it's what you compare it to. The reason they were making the attacks was that the conventional attacks were not effective. In the Philippines, they originally thought they were doing great. But 13 percent is pretty low. That means 87 percent were shot down, some well before they reached any ship, by American fighters.

"Most people look at it and say they already lost the war by the time the kamikaze attacks started, so regardless of how effective they were, they were going to lose. If the percentages were higher, it really doesn't matter."

Japanese suicide missions in World War II were not only limited to dive-bombing Zeros. Midget submarines (kōhyōteki in Japanese), manned torpedoes (kaiten), manned rocket-powered gliders (ōka) and motorboats carrying depth-charges (shin'yō) all were used at various stages of the war.

USS St. Louis
On Oct. 25 1944, the USS St. Louis, an escort carrier of the U.S. Navy during World War II, became the first major warship to sink as the result of a kamikaze attack.
National Archives

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How the World Viewed Kamikazes

Still, when historians look upon kamikazes, it is the dive-bombing suicide planes, part of a Special Attack Corps (Tokubetsu Kōgekitai), that remain the focus.

In 1975, in Chiran, Kagoshima Prefecture in the southern part of Japan, the Chiran Peace Museum — otherwise known as the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots — opened. Thousands of articles left behind by kamikazes, including letters to loved ones before their final missions, are featured.

Here's a typical one from Corp. Takao Adachi, who took off on his final mission on June 1, 1945. He was 17. (As translated by Kamikaze Images' Gordon.)

Dear Grandmother and Father,
Decisive battle has come for me. Excitement also with instant enemy sinking.
Living as a man in this divine country that faces an extreme emergency, in my heart I am absolutely satisfied that I have a good place to die as a member of the Special Attack Corps Makoto Hikōtai (Flying Unit).
I warmly thank each of the officers, instructors, and senior comrades when I was a flight cadet.
In response to your great kindness in raising me for more than 18 years as a son in this divine land, I have not been able to do anything to repay your kindness. I imagine that my going before you must be painful above anything else.
Furthermore, I am determined that I certainly will carry out a certain-death, sure-kill (hisshi hissatsu) body-crashing (taiatari) attack and instantly sink an enemy ship.
Grandmother and Father, please be glad with the daybreak when I splendidly sink at once an enemy ship.
Finally, I will make a body-crashing attack while praying for still more prosperity of this divine country Japan.
On the eve of sortie, Takao

"The big topics, they're talking about filial piety to their parents, what commitment they had, and saying how sorry they were that they were leaving and dying, basically," Gordon says.

The letters have helped portray the young men who flew these missions — their average age was around 21 — not as crazed suicide bombers but as loyal sons of Japan, heroic and worthy of praise. It's a widely held belief in Japan, though not everyone thinks that way.

In comparison, many Americans — especially older ones — see kamikazes only as those grim Zero pilots bearing down on poor American soldiers, bent on killing and destruction. Instead of heroism, they see madness.

That may have changed some over the generations. "In the U.S., it's probably not as extreme anymore," Gordon says. "But I will tell you, people were emotional when I talked to them about it on the U.S. side [when he did research back in the early 2000s]. Some people didn't even want to talk to me."

Kamikazes, in the end, were fighters on the front line of a war that their side was losing badly. Americans already were bombing cities in Japan from bases in China. More raids were coming. The kamikazes were Japan's last resort. And so they went out fighting for their country.

"I still think," Gordon says, "that most of them believed that there was a good chance that they could somehow at least stop the American advances — if not necessarily win the war — and not have the destruction of Japan."

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