In the final months of World War II, Japanese aviators resorted to a last-ditch tactic: the suicide dive

by Don Hollway
Appearing in the January 2016 issue of AVIATION HISTORY magazine.

Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers making a low-level attack against American ships

After the mid-1944 Battle of the Philippine Sea—the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”—America considered Japanese naval aviation finished as an effective fighting force, but four Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bomber pilots clearly disagreed. At dusk on October 13th, flying just above the water, they penetrated the destroyer screen around Task Force 58 off Formosa. The lead plane was being shredded by antiaircraft fire as it dropped a torpedo just 500 yards off the fleet carrier USS Franklin: a miss. But to the shocked and horrified surprise of the Americans on “Big Ben” its desperate pilot also aimed his aircraft at them. Shot down at the last instant, it hit the water so close aboard that one of its wings ended up on the flight deck.

The Japanese pilot’s name will never be known. Tokyo propaganda credited the attack to no less than Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima, commander of the 26th Air Flotilla out of Luzon, who had taken it upon himself to lead an attack personally and was claimed to have dived his plane into an American carrier. Though Arima flew a single-engine Yokosuka D4Y Comet dive-bomber two days after the torpedo run on Franklin (when no American carriers were hit at all), plainly the idea of suicidal attack against overwhelming odds appealed to the Japanese spirit.

A few days after Arima’s death a new commander arrived at Manila. Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi had helped devise the attack on Pearl Harbor, even though he believed it would start a war Japan could not win. Against the American task force off Leyte Gulf, his entire First Air Fleet could muster no more than 60 aircraft. The Americans had more ships than the Japanese had planes, but—and this was key to Ōnishi’s strategy—not more aircraft carriers. “In my opinion there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to the maximum degree,” he told his pilots. “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.”

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First attacks: Leyte Gulf, October 24, 1944

Lt. Yukio Seki prepares to lead the first suicide strike from Mabalacat, Luzon, the once and future Clark Field. (Other units took off from Cebu on Mindoro, were closer to the American fleet off Leyte Gulf and arrived on-target first.) In the stills below, the pilots are given a ceremonial refreshment—probably water, though later pilots got sake, rice wine. Seki, at left, drinks. V.Adm. Ōnishi stands with his back turned, then turns with an unreadable expression. Ōnishi was not in favor of suicide attacks until he felt there was no alternative. Click photos to enlarge.
Navy Type 0 (A6M3 Zero-sen) fighters of 201st Kokutai IJN take off from Mabalacat. Lt. Seki is thought to be piloting #02-888. The suicide planes are armed with 250-kilogram (551-lb) bombs. Their escorts (such as the second from right) intend to return to base and carry extended-range fuel tanks.

November 25, 1944: 125 Kamikazes vs. four USN carriers

1233 hours:
USS Hancock (CV-19)

An A6M fighter flown by Chief Officer 1st Class Isamu Kamitake is blown to pieces 300 feet over the ship. A section of the fuselage lands amidships, a part of the wing hits the flight deck, and flaming debris falls into the gun galleries and starts a fire. Kamitake’s fuselage is shown under examination. It and his body were later thrown over the side. Enlarge.

1254 hrs:
USS Cabot (CVL-28)

A suicide plane bounces off the the carrier’s flight deck and hits the sea. Two minutes later a second kamikaze strikes a 40mm gun gallery manned by a Marine crew, which is blown off the ship and falls into the ocean. Cabot suffers 62 men killed and wounded.

1254 hrs:
USS Intrepid (CV-11)

A6M Zero flown by Suehiro Ikeda strikes. Five minutes later a second kamikaze hits. Flaming gasoline pours through the hole in the flight deck into the hangar deck, setting off planes, ammunition and bombs. 65 officers and men are killed. Photo taken from the fantail of the battleship USS New Jersey.

1256 hrs:
USS Essex (CV-9)

A Yokosuka D4Y3 dive bomber piloted by Yoshinori Yamaguchi misses the loaded planes in the flight-deck center, instead sliding along the gun mounts into the port-side hanger deck. 16 sailors killed.

December 28, 1944: munitions ship SS John Burke obliterated by one kamikaze

The Liberty Ship SS John Burke (Maritime Commission hull number 609) had been delivered to the US Navy almost exactly two years earlier and made numerous trips between the United States mainlands and the rear areas of the Pacific Theater. Part of Convoy “Uncle Plus 13,” 100 ships which arrived at Leyte on the night of Dec. 27, the following morning the Burke shipped out in support of the Mindoro invasion as part of Task Group 77.11, with a full load of munitions.

Bad weather prevented the usual American combat air patrols from taking off, but with nothing to lose, six kamikaze planes took off from Cebu Island to attack. At 1020 hours a Japanese pilot managed to dive his damaged Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber into the Burke between the #2 and #3 cargo holds.

The cargo capacity of a Liberty ship was in the range of 10,750 tons, meaning the John Burke went off with about two-thirds the force of the Hiroshima bomb and half the force of the Nagasaki bomb. (The video of the explosion bears striking resemblance to that of the much larger “Shot Baker” at Bikini Atoll in 1946.) Its explosion did major damage throughout the convoy, from the expanding blast wave, shrapnel and falling debris. An Army transport behind the Burke was also sunk, and needless to say the Liberty ship’s nearly 70 crewmen and military personnel were all lost.

2,500 miles to die: Operation Tan #2, March 11 1945

To attack the huge US Navy anchorage at Ulithi Atoll in mid-Pacific, 2,500 miles from Japan, the Imperial Naval General Staff (NGS) originally planned Operation Tan #1 for June 1944. However, Vice Admiral (later Admiral) Raymond A. Spruance’s Fifth fleet sailed to invade Saipan, and the mission was cancelled.

On March 5th, 1945, a Nakajima C6N Saiun (“Iridescent Cloud”) reconaissance plane found 16 carriers anchored at Ulithi. Four days later a second C6N photographed six fleet carriers and nine escort carriers at anchor, and four more carriers entering the atoll from the northeast. And there was no longer a requirement for long-range bombers to return, now that kamikazes had become a standard Japanese weapon.

The target: “Murderers Row” at Ulithi Atoll. Third Fleet aircraft carriers lie at anchor, early December 1944. Front to back, the second USS Wasp (CV-18), second USS Yorktown (CV-10), second USS Hornet (CV-12), USS Hancock (CV-19) and USS Ticonderoga (CV-14). At left behind an Independence-class carrier is the second USS Lexington (CV-16). Click to enlarge.

Operation Tan #2 employed twenty-four Yokosuka P1Y Ginga (Milky Way) “Frances” twin-engine bombers, originally of the 762nd Naval Air Group, out of Kanoya, Kagoshima, Japan. Five four-engine Type 2 Kawanishi H8K2 “Emily” flying boats of the 801st NAG and four land-based bombers provided weather reconnaissance, advance patrols and served as pathfinders for the bombers. Because they were slower, the flying boats took off first.

After four hours into the mission, the formation overflew the transport submarine HA-106, stationed as a radio beacon off Minami-daitō Island. Five bombers, suffering engine trouble, elected to land. Three more crashed, possibly because their pilots’ training did not stress landing practice.

USS Randolph (CV-15) alongside the repair ship USS Jason (AR-8) at Ulithi, with damage to her flight deck resulting from the kamikaze hit. Click to enlarge.

The submarine I-58, stationed off the Okinotorishima atoll, was the bombers’ next waypoint. As they neared Ulithi, however, the formation encountered rough weather. One of the flying boats vanished. Six bombers turned back. Two ditched. The rest wandered off-course, within range of Yap Island, which despite its proximity to Ulithi had not been invaded but simply “hopped” and left to wither. After nightfall, eight hours in the air, only two bombers reached Ulithi, but they caught the US fleet unawares. There was no blackout. From high altitude the Japanese dropped tinfoil chaff to confuse American radars, then came in low over the water.

The 27,100-ton Essex-class carrier USS Randolph, (CV-15), had put in at Ulithi on March 1st after operations off Japan in support of the Iwo Jima landings, and was anchored off Sogoly Island. A movie had just finished in the aft flight deck and the audience had moved off to make room for the next showing when, at 2007 hours, the pilot of the lead Ginga radioed “Successful attack!” and flew his plane into the carrier’s aft flight deck.

Because the P1Y was almost out of fuel, it did not explode in flames, but its bomb caused severe damage, killing over two dozen men and injuring more than 100. Fires were not extinguished until 0050 hours. Meanwhile the other surviving Ginga mistook a radio mast and roadway on neighboring Mogmog Island for a carrier. It crashed harmlessly.

Yokosuka P1Y Ginga (“Milky Way”)
Allied reporting name “Frances.”
Crew: 3
Length: 49 ft
Wingspan: 65 ft
Maximum speed: 340 mph) at 19,400 ft
Armament: 1 nose-mounted 20 mm cannon, 1 rearward-firing 13 mm machine gun, up to 2,200 lb of bombs or one 1,800 lb torpedo
Click to enlarge.

As suicide fever swept Japan, kamikaze duty became strongly encouraged, then required. Pilots were permitted to return from missions due to engine trouble or inability to locate the enemy, but one who did so nine times was shot. Tokyo radio announced the names of fallen “hero gods” and broadcast interviews with young Japanese boys longing to grow up and kill themselves against American warships. By the invasion of Okinawa, their home soil, the Japanese were fighting a war of extermination—the enemy’s, or their own. They launched suicide speedboats packed with explosives, manned torpedoes, and rocket-boosted, piloted glide bombs. Rather than face captivity, Okinawans hurled themselves off a precipice still known as Suicide Cliff. Up to half the island’s population died. And almost every morning young Japanese men tied on samurai headbands, took a ceremonial sip of sake and ascended toward the heavens, never to touch the earth again.

Kamikazes vs. conventional air attack: Operation Ten-Go, April 7, 1945

Postwar US military analysts called the kamikaze “by far the most effective weapon devised by the Japanese for use against surface vessels.” Over ten months, Japan expended about 2500 planes to score 474 hits and sink 60 US Navy ships—almost half of all those damaged and about a quarter of those lost in the entire war—but they never sank any of cruiser size or larger. Yet when the Japanese sent the world’s largest battleship, the IJN Yamato, on its own suicide mission against the American fleet, it went down under air attack without a single plane flying into it.

IJN Yamato during sea trials in Bungo Strait, 20 October 1941. She and her sister ship, Musashi, were the heaviest and most powerfully armed super-battleships ever built, displacing 72,800 tonnes at full load and armed with nine 18-inch, twelve 6-inch and twelve 5-inch guns. Musashi, struck by 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs, was sunk by air attack during the Battle of Sibuyan Sea, on Oct. 24, 1944—the same day Admiral Ōnishi launched the first kamikaze attacks.

When America invaded Okinawa on April 1, 1945, the Imperial Japanese Navy countered with “Operation Ten-Go (Heaven One).” The Yamato, light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers were sent a on deliberate suicide mission, with orders to battle their way to Okinawa, beach themselves and fight as shore batteries, until destroyed.

They never made it. American submarines spotted the fleet almost the moment it departed the Bungo Strait. At 1000 hours the next day, April 7, eight carriers of Task Group 58 launched almost 400 aircraft, which arrived over the Japanese around noon. Without air cover—115 aircraft were assigned to the mission, but almost all as kamikazes—the Japanese ships were almost defenseless.

Bloodiest kamikaze attack of the war:
USS Bunker Hill, May 11 1945

A graduate of Aviation Reserve student flight training, Ensign Kiyoshi Ogawa was a pilot in the 306th Fighter Squadron, Imperial Japanese Navy 721st Kokutai, based at Kanoya Air Base, Kyushu. He volunteered for kamikaze duty. Between 0640 and 0653 on the morning of May 11, 1945, he followed Lieutenant Junior Grade Seizō Yasunori (name also given as Yasunori Seizō) into the air as part of Operation “Floating Chrysanthemums” No. 6, a formation of 37 bomb-laden A6M Zero fighters out of Kanoya and Kokubu air bases.

Their target was US Navy Task Group 58.3, at sea some 75 miles east of Okinawa. Its flagship, the Essex-class aircraft USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), under task force commander Vice-Admiral Marc Mitscher, was in her 58th day of continuous action. She had already been through two general-quarters alerts and two torpedo-defense alerts that morning. Her Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 221 had been flying combat air patrol since 0700; in his F4U-1C Corsair, commanding officer Captain James E. Swett had shot down a Yokosuka D4Y Judy kamikaze he described as a “sitting duck.” But two Japanese planes evaded radar detection by shadowing the Americans returning to the carrier. Shortly after 1000 hours local, Swett spotted the two Zeroes about 4,500 feet above the Bunker Hill. As he turned to attack, the lead plane entered its death dive. Swett radioed “Alert! Alert! Two planes diving on the Bunker Hill!

The lead Zero, flown by Lt. Yasunori, opened fire on the carrier as it neared impact. He released his 550-lb bomb and an instant later struck the Bunker Hill in the aft portion of the flight deck. His bomb passed through the deck and out the ship’s side before exploding, but blast and shrapnel killed and wounded numerous crewmen.

VMF-221 Corsairs turned on Ogawa but were unable to intercept when, approximately 30 seconds later, he rolled into his dive. Bunker Hill’s forward-port 20mm gunbank scored hits on his Zero, which burst into flame, but Ogawa was apparently not killed. He dropped his bomb just before impacting the flight deck near the control tower. His bomb blew a hole in the ship 50 feet across and three decks deep.

Bunker Hill about 30 seconds after the first strike on her stern. Cleveland-class cruiser to left is either USS Wilkes-Barre (CL-103) or Pasadena (CL-65).

An instant later, Ogawa’s Zero impacts near the carrier’s island.

Bunker Hill begins to burn. Parked aircraft still visible on the aft flight deck, smoke gushing from below deck.

Bunker Hill steers into the wind to keep the heavy smoke blowing aft.

The USS Charles S. Sperry (DD-697) comes alongside to help fight the fires.

The Cherry Blossom

So obsessed were the Japanese with “death before defeat” that even when they developed rockets suitable for a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor like the German Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet, they instead created the most advanced suicide weapon of all: the Yokosuka MXY-7 Okha (“Cherry Blossom”) Model 11. 755 of these rocket-boosted, manned glide bombs were built. With a theoretical range of 50 miles—but realistically less than ten—the Model 11 required a ferry plane, usually a Mitsubishi G4M “Betty,” to reach launch distance. Its weight made the bomber clumsy and slow, easy prey for American interceptors. Under attack, the crew’s first move was to dump the rocket bomb and save themselves—the type’s typical fate. In the video at right, several of the bombers can be seen to have an extra pair of short wings under their bellies. Those are Okha 11s on their way to be dropped off Okinawa. As can be seen, few survive the trip. (Note the vibration of the film when the fighters’s guns fire.) To overcome the Okha’s short legs, by war’s end several longer-ranged jet-bombs were under development. The Okha Model 22 was powered by a motorjet (a piston engine driving a single-stage compressor). The Baika (“Plum Blossom”) was a manned version of the German V1 pulse-jet buzz bomb. They never reached operational status. Only about 50 Model 11s saw combat, and only four ever struck home, but that’s enough to secure the Cherry Blossom its curious niche in aviation history.

Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka (Cherry Blossom)
Powerplant: Three Type 4 Model 1 Mark 20 solid-fuel rocket motors, 1,764lbs of thrust
Maximum speed: 400 mph at 11,500 feet; near 600 mph in terminal dive
Service ceiling: 27,890 ft
Range: 23 miles
Armament: 2,646 lb Ammonal (ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder) warhead

Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka (Cherry Blossom)
Powerplant: Three Type 4 Model 1 Mark 20 solid-fuel rocket motors, 1,764lbs of thrust
Maximum speed: 400 mph at 11,500 feet; near 600 mph in terminal dive
Service ceiling: 27,890 ft
Range: 23 miles
Armament: 2,646 lb Ammonal (ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder) warhead

Kugisho/Yokosuka “Ohka” Model 22
Powerplant: Ishikawajima Tsu-11: 4-cylinder, 100hp Hitachi Hatsukaze 11 gasoline engine driving a single, one-piece compressor
Range: 81 miles
Armament: 1,323lb warhead
50 built. Never used operationally.

Kawanishi Baika (Plum Blossom) Type I
Powerplant: Maru Ka-10 pulse jet, 795lb thrust
Maximum speed: 460 mph
Service ceiling: 6500 ft
Range: 173 miles
Armament: 550lb warhead
Japanese version of the German Fieseler Fi 103R manned V-1. Still on drawing boards at war’s end

Picket Duty, Okinawa

US Navy fighter pilot and air-combat tactician Cmdr. (later Admiral) John S. “Jimmy” Thach knew the only way to defeat suicide pilots was to kill every last one of them, and quickly, before they entered their death dives. He devised the “Big Blue Blanket,” dawn-to-dusk air patrols orbiting at extreme range and guided to intercepts by outlying destroyers, destroyer escorts, landing ships, mine layers, mine sweepers, anything with radar, all bristling with antiaircraft guns firing new proximity-fuzed shells. Most kamikaze pilots never lived to reach the target zone, and those who did often attacked the first ships they came across: those on the picket line. Extremely vulnerable to aircraft impacts, these little vessels suffered attrition of almost 30%, perhaps the deadliest surface duty in the entire naval war and almost a suicide mission itself. Of 101 destroyers sailing radar picket duty, 10 were sunk and 32 damaged in kamikaze attacks; of 88 Landing Craft Support LCS(L) ships, two sunk and 11 damaged; of 11 Landing Ship Medium (Rocket) LSM(R) ships, three sunk and two damaged. There was only the blackest humor in the picket-boat crewman who painted a big white arrow on his ship's deck lettered, CARRIERS THAT WAY!

Six hits in 20 minutes: USS Aaron Ward, DM-34

The Aaron Ward was laid down in December 1943 as DD-773, an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, but recommissioned as a destroyer minelayer in October 1944. On April 20th, it took up position on Okinawa Radar Picket Station #10.

On the afternoon of May 3rd, three kamikaze aircraft attacked. Two were shot down, but the third released a bomb just before crashing into Aaron Ward’s superstructure. The bomb exploded below the waterline. The impact of the plane levelled the aft superstructure. Soon after 1900 hours, a second plane passed close over the signal bridge, hit one of her stacks and struck the water to starboard. Another kamikaze off the port beam released a bomb just before he striking the main deck. The bomb exploded on the water close aboard port side; frags raked the ship and blew a large hole into the forward fireroom. As Aaron Ward lost all power and headway, yet another kamikaze struck her deckhouse. At about 1921, a fifth hit the port side superstructure and a sixth struck the base of her aft stack, practically levelling the upper aft deck.

Burning, Aaron Ward began to list to to port and sink. That night she was taken in tow by USS Shannon (DM-25) and the next morning arrived at the invasion staging area at Kerama Retto Island. Partially repaired, the ship crossed the Pacific and the Panama Canal and reached in New York in mid-August. However, on September 28th, she was decommissioned and struck from Navy lists, and in July 1946 sold for scrap.

“Kamikazes in Color”

List of ships sunk by kamikaze

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