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Divine Wind

The Japanese secret weapon - kamikaze suicide attacks

by Bill Coombes

Copyright 1995 by the Confederate Air Force and Bill Coombes. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 20, Number 1, Spring, 1995 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

Contrary to popular belief, the heaviest losses of U.S. Navy warships in World War II from air assault occurred in the last year of the war. These losses were largely caused by the Japanese "special attack squads", or, as they are more popularly called, the kamikazes. The first major kamikaze offensive against the U.S. Navy was launched during the invasion of the Philippines in October of 1944.

Early on the morning of Oct. 25,1944, Lt. Yukio Keki led a group of Zero fighters designated to be kamikazes in what proved to be the most successful kamikaze attack of the war. U.S. Navy units, operating in support of the landings at Leyte, became the targets for this new weapon of war, one that combined modern technology with the ancient code of the warrior, or bushido. A flaming death that meant immortality awaited the pilots of Lt. Keki's formation, and none wavered in their determination to strike a blow for the Emperor.

A Zero plunged into the escort carrier USS Santee, two barely missed the USS Sangamon and the USS Petrof Bay, while a fourth crashed into the USS Suwanee, exploding on the hangar deck. Other CVE's, St. Lo, Kitkun Bay, and Kalinin Bay were also struck. The commander of the First Japanese Air Fleet at Manila, Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi, the officer who had developed the concept, was pleased beyond measure with the first day of the "divine wind."

From October 1944 through January 1945, the Japanese estimated that kamikaze pilots inflicted damage on more than 50 American ships of all types. Yet this was only the beginning. Kamikaze attacks were launched in considerable numbers against American ships off Iwo Jima in February of 1945, and according to Japanese sources, after March of 1945 more than half of all attacks against the American fleet were by kamikazes. During the campaign, in an operation called Ten Go, or "Heavenly Operation," wave after wave of mass formation attacks, called Kikusui, or "floating chrysanthemums," would record more than 275 hits or near misses on the ships of the U.S. Navy's Task Force 58.

Again, according to Japanese sources, more than 2,300 Imperial Japanese Navy planes sortied as kamikazes, and more than 2,500 Japanese pilots and air crew died. Japanese army records are not as clear, but probably an equal number of army pilots and crew also died in "divine wind" attacks.

These suicide attacks continued up to the last day of hostilities, with the Japanese Vice Admiral who commanded the kamikazes on Kyushu, Matome Ugaki, supposedly flying the last kamikaze mission of the war. Vice Admiral Onishi, the originator of the idea, committed ritual hari-kiri rather than surrendering.

By the end of the war 30 American ships had been sunk, 368 damaged and almost 10,000 U.S. Navy personnel killed and wounded by the kamikazes. In the simple terms of the economics of war, the kamikazes were an effective weapon, but one that would not alter the course of the war. The kamikazes went to their deaths, fulfilling the code of bushido and gaining immortality, but nothing else. To those from a Western culture, to men who fought to live and not die, this code and behavior was completely alien. As Vice Admiral C.R. Brown put it, "There was a hypnotic fascination to a sight so alien to our Western philosophy. We watched each plunging kamikaze with the detached horror of one witnessing a terrible spectacle rather than as the intended victim. We forgot self for the moment as we groped hopelessly for the thoughts of that other man up there...."

American tactics used to fight the kamikaze threat were many and varied. Fighter strength on board carriers already had been increased, as commanders realized that missions normally flown by Avengers and Helldivers could be taken over by Hellcats and Corsairs used as fighter-bombers. Dive bomber pilots were retrained and mixed with new ensigns to form VBF squadrons. Thus, when the kamikaze threat developed, most U.S. carriers already had significantly more fighters on board.

By the Okinawa operation most fleet carriers embarked at least 54 fighters and some as many as 73, including four night fighters. More anti-aircraft guns were placed on ships, several cruisers being especially configured for anti-aircraft duty. B-29s based in the Mariannas were diverted to missions attacking airfields rather than cities or industrial targets. All of these measures could not, however, halt the "divine wind."

Commander Jimmy Thatch, who developed the famous "Thatch Weave," a defensive formation used earlier in the war, came up with an idea he called the "big blue blanket" to keep the kamikazes away from the vulnerable ships of the U.S. fleet. Thatch, serving on Admiral Halsey's and Admiral McCain's staff as air operations officer, developed a plan that called for the constant presence of the blue-painted Hellcats and Corsairs over the fleet at all hours. He recommended larger combat air patrols (CAP) stationed farther away from the carriers, dawn to dusk fighter sweeps over Japanese airfields, the use of delayed action fuses on bombs dropped on runways to make repairs more difficult, a line of picket destroyers and destroyer escorts placed 50 or more miles from the main body of the fleet to provide earlier radar intercepts, and improved coordination between the fighter director officers on board the carriers. Utilizing these methods, Navy and Marine pilots, flying superior airplanes and using superior tactics, were able to knock down impressive numbers of suiciders and, coupled with the efforts of the ships' own crews and gunners, the U.S. fleet came to be known as the "fleet that came to stay."

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