• Eric Fisher

Clearing the Air on Kamikaze Culture

The Clarksvillian

The honor and dignity of Japanese culture carefully hide the dubious aspects of their WW2 military operations. Why would a culture place such a high priority of respect on the legacies of kamikaze pilots, suicide submarine missiles, and underwater suicide mine bombers? In short, the families of these soldiers knew the personal realities behind the warrior myths.

The emperor’s voice arrived on the broadcast to every corner of the island nation, with a message Hisashi Tezuka would never forget. Japan was entering a full surrender and the military mission against all WW2 enemies would cease immediately.

While Hirohito was moving through the process of surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, a young kamikaze pilot, Hisashi Tezuka, was riding a train to the kamikaze lifting point of Shikoku. The suicide orders for Tezuka were received two days prior, but the slow speed of Japan’s rail system delayed his arrival. It's an ironic twist from our modern perspective of viewing Japan as the world leader at developing high-speed rail. That WW2 era lack of air travel and overloaded rail transit delayed the trip just long enough to spare Tezuka's life.

"If we’d been taken by plane, we’d have arrived before the war ended. It was like fate intervened."

Yuri Kagevama, a historian and author of Japan’s WW2 efforts, spoke about the pilots from this perspective: "Books and movies have depicted them as crazed suicide bombers who screamed "Banzai" as they met their end. But interviews with survivors and families by The Associated Press, as well as letters and documents, offer a different portrait — of men driven by patriotism, self-sacrifice, and necessity. The world they lived in was like that multiple-choice form: it contained no real options."

The Japanese recruitment of kamikaze pilots was straightforward. Future pilots entered a room and were given forms asking for their opinion of participation in the kamikaze missions. It was multiple choice with three answers: "I passionately wish to join," 'I wish to join," and "I don't wish to join." There were very few exceptions and middle-to-lower income men available by 1945, and, as a result, the military began drafting college students and professionals. To protect family heirs, first-born sons were not selected as pilots. Tezuka, then a student at the prestigious University of Tokyo, had six brothers and one sister and was not the eldest. All the criteria of a Japanese military lottery winner. He was given a five-day personal leave to visit his parents one last time. He was unable to tell his parents about the imminent suicide bomber assignment. There was one absolute about being a kamikaze: "You go, and it’s over."

"In training, the pilots repeatedly zoomed perilously, heading practically straight down, to practice crashing. They had to reverse course right before hitting the ground and rise back into the sky, a tremendous G-force dragging on their bodies. When they did it for real, they were instructed to send a final wireless message in Morse code and keep holding that signal. In the transmission room, they knew the pilot had died when a long beep ended in silence." - Yuri Kageyama

The success rate of pilot missions was dismissal. By 1944, Japan’s faltering air force could not match the American forces – this is when Japan’s leadership developed the strategy of suicide bombing. From October of 1944 until the end of the war, Japan flew 2,550 kamikaze missions with a successful hit rate of 18.6%, according to the U.S. Strategy Bombing Survey on the Pacific War. The Japanese air force successfully sank approximately forty-five allied vessels, mostly destroyers, and damaged dozens more, including aircraft carriers and battleships.

At the end of the war, Japan still maintained an inventory of more than 9K aircraft for kamikaze missions, with more than 5K prepared for attacks, per the survey. According to the Tokkotai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association, nearly 6,400 men died in the suicide attacks, including those who died during the poor training conditions.

Tezuka recounts stories of many men, including a friend, dying during training flights that included 3K meter nose-dives to a practice hitting targets. "I was sorry for death -- not just because he died, but because he couldn’t die as a kamikaze," he said. "Everyone was serious about the training. We did not want to die meaninglessly before we departed. We really wanted to succeed as kamikaze." Tezuka also explained how the in-training pilots were informed of their comrades’ demise. "They (pilots) would send Morse code messages to their base as they flew their sorties. When the sound stopped, we knew the pilot’s life had ended, and we placed our hands together."

As the war began to wind down, leadership within the Japanese military again developed more awkward strategies. Pilots were assigned to wait for onboard submarines until an enemy warship came into sight. They would then squeeze into a manned torpedo and pull the hatches over their heads before being launched toward the target.

"When I first saw a human torpedo, I shuddered with the thought that this was going to be my coffin. It was a 15-meter-long iron stick. The cockpit was tiny and not fit for humans."

If you were to avoid the kamikaze and submarine bombing units, there was the "crouching dragon," or fukuryu. The fukuryu were units of suicide divers preparing for the arrival of American battleships. The frogmen were expected to wait for the American ships, underwater, to poke or prod enemy vessels with a mine fitted on the top of a bamboo pole.

The post-war releases of pilots' letters to their families have revealed a much different perspective on the stories.

Twenty-three-year-old Ichizo Hayashi, wrote this to his mother, just a few days before his final mission, in April 1945: "I am pleased to have the honor of having been chosen as a member of a Special Attack Force that is on its way into battle, but I cannot help crying when I think of you, Mum. When I reflect on the hopes you had for my future, ... I feel so sad that I am going to die without doing anything to bring you joy."

In Masao Kanai’s last letter to his family, he wrote: "I don't know where to begin. Rain is falling softly. A song is playing quietly on the radio. It’s a peaceful evening. We'll wait for the weather to clear up and then fly on our mission. If it hadn't been for this rain, I'd be long gone by now."

"We were in a meeting on the morning of August 6, when there was a beautiful white flash in the sky, followed by a huge boom," he said. "Hiroshima had been destroyed. A few days later, we learned it was the atomic bomb. And the war ended soon after."