Death from the Sky: This Is What It Was Like to Survive a Kamikaze Strike

August 11, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIImperial JapanOkinawaWorld War II HistoryKamikaze

Death from the Sky: This Is What It Was Like to Survive a Kamikaze Strike

On May 11, 1945, the destroyer USS Hugh W. Hadley survived a series of Kamikaze attacks off Okinawa but was shattered in the process.

Only 340 miles from the home island of Kyushu, the final objective of the American military surge across the Pacific during World War II, short of an invasion of Japan itself, was Okinawa in the Ryukyu archipelago.

On April 1, 1945, an ironically coincidental observance of Easter Sunday and April Fools Day, American troops stormed ashore at Okinawa. The island’s capture would provide a staging area for the expected invasion of Japan, the location of airfields from which U.S. planes could operate, and anchorages for American shipping to support the coming final offensive.

The fight for Okinawa was long and bitter—the bloodiest of the war in the Pacific. The island was not declared secure until the end of June, and the land battle cost the Americans more than 39,000 men killed, wounded, and missing. The Japanese suffered horrendous casualties, 110,000 dead and nearly 11,000 captured.

During the 83-day struggle for the island, American Marines and Army troops were dependent on the warships and supply vessels of the U.S. Navy clustered offshore. The naval lifeline enabled the Americans to prosecute a protracted land campaign; however, the longer the ships were anchored or on patrol in the waters off Okinawa the more they were exposed to Japanese air attack, particularly a new and horrific type of assault, a foretaste of which the Americans had experienced in the Philippines and off Iwo Jima during earlier operations— the Kamikaze .

The Kamikazes of Okinawa

Keenly aware that the Japanese would defend Okinawa fanatically by land, sea, and air, Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of U.S. amphibious forces in the Pacific, devised a system of early warning against massed Japanese air attacks. Turner ordered the establishment of 16 radar picket stations around Okinawa and along the most likely avenues of approach any attackers would utilize. Turner hoped that the pickets could provide precious additional time to vector fighter aircraft against approaching Japanese planes and allow surface ships to ready their antiaircraft batteries for an effective defense.

While the composition of the radar picket stations varied from time to time, they regularly included at least one or two U.S. Navy destroyers, one of which carried fighter direction equipment and personnel whose job was to keep constant watch on radar screens, possibly a destroyer escort, and several smaller support craft. Those destroyers equipped with fighter direction capabilities controlled the combat air patrol (CAP) that was aloft, while the picket ships took Japanese aircraft under fire with the mission of preventing the enemy planes from reaching vulnerable supply vessels off Okinawa or high-value targets such as the aircraft carriers and battleships that were also present.

For the Japanese, the defense of Okinawa required the maximum effort. It was do or die, and a glorious death in battle brought great honor to an individual. Young Japanese men were imbued with the ancient code of Bushido, “the way of the warrior,” that dictated honor, loyalty, obedience to superiors, and a willingness to die for the emperor. Closely associated with the samurai warrior class, Bushido exhorted Japanese soldiers, sailors, and airmen to sacrifice themselves in battle if necessary and to never surrender.

As the Americans drew inexorably closer to Japan, hundreds of young men were recruited as suicide pilots who would crash their bomb-laden aircraft into American ships, inflicting as much damage as possible. Named in reference to the great typhoons that destroyed the Mongol fleets of Kublai Khan bent on invading Japan in 1274 and again in 1281, these pilots were known as Kamikaze, or Divine Wind. Many of them were given only rudimentary flight training, and every available aircraft, some of them long obsolete, was recruited for the defense of Okinawa.

Operation Ten Go

By the spring of 1945, the Japanese Fifth Air Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, prepared to defend Okinawa to the last. The plan was simple. Massed Kamikaze attacks would strike the American fleet off the island and inflict such heavy losses on the invaders that they could not sustain the ground campaign and would be compelled to withdraw. The plan called for as many as 4,500 aircraft to be used in the operation, and the codenames of the general effort and its components belied the terrible nature of the business at hand.

Ten Go, or Heavenly Operation, was to include 10 massed Kamikaze sorties, known as Kikusui, or Floating Chrysanthemums, and each Kikusui might consist of more than 350 planes. These included bombers and fighters, old fixed-gear types, and even a few biplanes.

Also among the aerial suicide weapons hurled at the Americans was a terrifying flying bomb called the Ohka, or Cherry Blossom, packed with more than 2,600 pounds of explosives. An ancestor of the modern cruise missile, the Ohka was slung beneath the fuselage of a bomber, carried within range of the American fleet, and released. The pilot then engaged three solid fuel rockets and streaked toward the target at up to 650 miles per hour, intent on striking the enemy. American sailors and pilots referred to the Ohka as “Baka,” Japanese for idiot or fool.

Last Words of the Kamikaze

Kamikaze pilots were revered, often partaking in rituals and ceremonies prior to their final missions, toasting one another with saké and donning the traditional hachimaki headband before climbing aboard their aircraft for a rendezvous with destiny. Many wrote last letters to family or friends and left behind locks of hair, fingernails, or even a severed little finger for enshrinement.

“Keep in good health. I believe in the victory of greater Asia. I pray for the happiness of you all, and I beg your forgiveness for my lack of piety,” Kamikaze pilot Akio Otsuka wrote to friends. “I leave for the attack with a smile on my face. The moon will be full tonight. As I fly over the open sea off Okinawa, I will choose the enemy ship that is to be my target. I will show you that I know how to die bravely. With all my respectful affection….”

The High Cost of the Kamikaze Attacks

Ugaki marshaled both Army and Navy aircraft, most of them gathered at airfields in southern Kyushu. When the Americans landed at Okinawa on April 1, he was unable to immediately respond en masse. Although a few sorties were undertaken, American bombing and shortages of fuel and other supplies delayed Kikusui No. 1 until April 6. From that date, the fury of the Kamikaze was relentlessly visited upon the Americans, who struggled to comprehend the reality that men hoping to stay alive were defending themselves against an enemy whose intent was just the opposite—to die and cause as much damage as possible.

During the course of the Okinawa campaign, nearly 1,500 Japanese suicide pilots died attacking American ships. Twenty-nine U.S. Navy vessels were sunk and 120 damaged, while 3,048 men were killed and 6,035 wounded. The constant strain on the American sailors took its toll, psychologically and physically. After enduring a particularly vicious Kamikaze attack, one sailor simply stood up at his gun mount, declared, “It’s hot today!” and jumped over the side of his ship, never to be seen again.

The Hadley Enters the Pacific Theater

Although some major warships were struck by Kamikazes off Okinawa, including several carriers and battleships, overeager suicide pilots often attempted to crash into the first American warship they sighted, and the destroyers and other patrol craft of the picket line absorbed the devastating brunt of Operation Ten Go. The heroism of the sailors aboard these small warships was spectacular. They fought desperately and held the line, writing one of the most stirring chapters in the history of naval warfare in the process.