Key Point: He later remembered his first acquaintance with the kamikaze...
April 1, 1945, was Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day. It was also the day the U.S. Army and Marine Corps launched Operation Iceberg, their massive amphibious assault on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Private First Class L.B. Bell was an artilleryman with the Marine 2nd Division, and at dawn he and his buddies were waiting in the chow line for their breakfast before clambering into the landing craft bobbing beside their troop transport.
He later remembered his first acquaintance with the kamikaze, Japanese suicide pilots bent on crashing their aircraft into U.S. Navy ships to sink or disable them. The suicide pilots in had been named in reference to a “Divine Wind” that had destroyed an invasion fleet centuries earlier and saved Japan from conquest. These modern kamikaze, it was hoped, could do the same.
Bell remembered, “The Zero came in on a shallow dive and hit the water approximately 200 yards shy of our LST, skipped over us, and hit a troop transport about 300 yards past, severely damaging it and killing a number of Marines.”
Operation Ten-Go: The Defense of Okinawa
By the spring of 1945, the Rykuyu Islands, the largest of which is Okinawa, were Japan’s last line of defense between its home islands and the inexorably advancing Allied fleets encircling the shrinking Imperial domain. However, Emperor Hirohito’s military commanders were not quite finished dishing out destruction.
The previous October in Tokyo, Rear Admiral Takajiro Ohnishi, commander of the Ministry of Munitions Naval Aviation Division, had been assigned command of the First Air Fleet, then based in the Philippines. After arriving in Manila to assume his new post he began campaigning for what he correctly believed was his military’s last hope of inflicting substantial damage on the encroaching Allies.
A strong believer in the pseudo-religious Bushido cult with its accompanying code of conduct, he regarded the 1871 abolition of the samurai caste a serious miscarriage of Japanese culture and something to be defied. He and a few of his like-minded comrades devised a lethal new addition to their country’s dwindling arsenal. Suicide aircraft and boats seemed the last hope of seriously challenging the growing might of American arms. What could be more lethal that a bomb-packed craft whose guidance system was an endlessly calculating and fanatical human brain? Not only would the kamikaze pack a pulverizing wallop, but such an honorable loss of life was well suited to a philosophy that glorified self-sacrifice.
Ohnishi and his supporters had to argue their point long and convincingly to overcome considerable opposition from more conventionalminded commanders. Eventually, they won their case when Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander of the Combined Fleet, had to abandon his anti-kamikaze position when asked what alternative existed besides surrender. He had no answer, and formations of suicide planes and their pilots were soon bound for the empire’s forward outposts.
The Rykuyus were a rich prize. Should they fall, the Allies would have a stranglehold on Japanese supply lines and a base for heavy bomber raids against Japan’s major cities and military installations. Only 340 miles from the home islands, Okinawa had to be held at all costs. If Tokyo kept refusing to surrender, the Rykuyus would also serve well as a staging point for a potential invasion of the home islands. The Japanese realized Okinawa was bound to be the Allies’ next target, but the Americans and British never dreamed of the ghastly reception awaiting them on, over, and off the island.
Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, commander of the Fifth Air Fleet, was given tactical responsibility for Okinawa’s defense, which was codenamed Operation Ten-Go. Ugaki was dismayed to learn his suicide attackers were to concentrate on attacks against Allied supply and troop ships. In earlier campaigns he had witnessed the devastation wrought by U.S. carrier-based warplanes. He lobbied hard and long to have priorities changed to attacks on aircraft carriers, but his superiors ignored his counsel. They did give the carriers equal attention to the supply fleet, but events would prove Ugaki’s fear of the Allied flattops was justified. With attacks divided between the carriers and supply fleet, the kamikazes were spread too thinly, and American carrier aircraft shot Japanese planes down in great numbers.
The CAP: Defending From Kamikaze Attacks
On March 24, the Americans attacked the Kerama Islands, 15 miles southwest of Okinawa. The move surprised the Japanese and distracted Ugaki and his commanders, who were surprised a second time when U.S. Task Force 58 set its planes on the airfields and harbors of Okinawa. Most of the Japanese aircraft available were either designated as kamikaze or engaged in the defense of Okinawa itself. The Keramas were secured on the 26th.
This was also the day the first kamikazes participated in the Okinawa campaign, but their scattered strikes inflicted little damage. The suicide squadrons were still assembling and not yet ready to seriously challenge these earlier-than-expected invaders. Furthermore, the initial attacks tipped off the Allies that there might be serious suicide opposition to Operation Iceberg, so they began making preparations. However, there was not enough time to adequately prepare the large ring of radar stations and specially prepared antiaircraft destroyers manned by fighter detection units to vector combat air patrol (CAP) fighters to Japanese targets. The anti-kamikaze defenses were complicated, especially in overlapping sectors. They also proved rather ineffective against night attacks because the CAP pilots had trouble seeing their targets even when vectoring was accurate.
Exactly 24 hours before the landings were to commence, the defenders almost pulled off a major coup when a solitary kamikaze penetrated all the defenses and crashed into the Allied flagship, the cruiser USS Indianapolis. Admiral Raymond Spruance, overall Allied naval commander, was aboard when the kamikaze struck but was not injured.
Because of their thick, heavy armor plating British carriers were unable to carry as many planes as their American counterparts with their wooden decks, but off Okinawa this added protection proved a fair swap. As the landings were getting underway on April 1, four Mitsubishi Zeros on a flight out of Formosa targeted the British carrier HMS Indefatigable. The screening CAP flamed three, but the fourth scored a direct hit, only to crumple harmlessly on Indefatigable’s three-inch-thick steel shield.
As the cloudless Easter Sunday dawned, other GIs and Marines saw repeats of the kamikaze attack recounted by Pfc. Bell. Many kamikazes either missed their targets or fell easy prey to the CAP and shipboard antiaircraft gunners. This was because nearly all the Japanese one-way pilots were half-trained adolescents. Many had never before flown solo or landed a plane. The empire’s few remaining veteran airmen were far too valuable to expend in suicide attacks, but enough of the rookies were getting through to make a blazing contribution.
Kamikazes reached the battleship USS West Virginia and the destroyer USS Adams on the first day, drydocking Adams for the rest of the war. That night the Japanese launched what they thought would be a surprise attack, sending multiple formations of death divers. Radar detected the approaching flights, however, and alerted a force of Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters that were modified for night fighting. These interceptors ranged destructively through the inexperienced attackers before they could reach Okinawa, downing nearly all of them. It was a brief respite.
A 700-Aircraft Suicide Attack
As the invasion expanded so did the magnitude of the kamikaze attacks. On the afternoon of April 3, a diving Zero grazed the carrier USS Wake Island and inflicted sufficient damage to force her to withdraw to Guam for repairs. That same day a Shinyo suicide boat blew up a landing craft filled with Marines. Then, on April 5, Ugaki was ready to deploy his entire kamikaze fleet.
He code-named the first major offensive Kikusui 1. It was a massive flotilla of more than 700 suicide and conventional aircraft, and on the afternoon of April 5 it fell upon the Allied fleet in numbers that overwhelmed its defenses. The Japanese tried unsuccessfully to use chaff, strips of aluminum dropped from aircraft, to blind the American radar, and carrier-based planes from Task Force 58 met the attackers before they reached the picket ring of radar destroyers. Although these initial Hellcat pilots shot down more than 200 planes and another 200 fell to later arriving interceptors and antiaircraft fire, 180 planes penetrated the American defenses from 3 pm to 7 pm.
The inexperience of the Japanese airmen again was evident as the vast majority of them missed their targets. Only two cargo ships and one landing craft were sunk, but one Japanese plane crashed into the carrier HMS Illustrious just below her waterline, inflicting considerable damage that her crew somehow overlooked until much later in the campaign.
Unwittingly, Japanese officers had aided the defenders by ordering their pilots to attack the first enemy vessels they encountered. The logic here was that by doing so the suicide planes would not be airborne as long, giving the Allies less time to shoot them down. This strategy backfired when, repeatedly, pilots plunged into destroyers that already were severely damaged or dead in the water, and thus essentially worthless targets.