- ** war and social upheaval: World War II Pacific Theater -- Okinawa








World War II Pacific Theater: Okinawa--Kamikazes

Okinawa Kamikazes
Figure 1.--The American sailors targeted by the Kamikazes saw the pilots as crazed, mindless automotans eager to die for their Emperor. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. They were in fact youth with every thing to live for. Many were university science students with bright futures. They gave up their futures because they took their obligations to family and country seriously. Their country were under attack by an enemy who was more numerous and better armed. Kamikaze attacks seemed the only hope of stoping the Americans who they were told would ravish their country. Each Kamikaze pilot prepared for his sacrifice and destiny by penning farewell letters and poems to his family. They then received a "thousand-stitch sash". Finally there was a ceremony, a drink that them a 'spiritual lifting'. Then they flew off with their planes crammed with 550-pound bombs. This unidentified photograph of a Kamikaze ceremony came friom a Japanese photographic album. It was not dated or the location identified, but we believe it was taken on Kyhshu (April 1945). Tragically the suisidal resistance by these and other young men, was a factor in the American decesion to use the atomic bomb.

The Japanese staged Kamikaze attacks during the Philippines campaign. They were, however, fairly limited, because the Japanese military had not yet embraced the Kamikaze as a major tactic. And the limited air deployment on Iwo Jima did not make Kamikaze effort possible. Okinawa was very different. The American submarine campaign in 1944 was making it very difficult for Japan to obtain food and raw materials, especially oil. After the loss of the Philippines, Japan was essentially cut off from oil and other vital supplies from the empire they had seized to the south. It was apparent to all but the most fanatical that Japan was losing the War. With the fleet destroyed and unanble to match the Americans in quantity or quality of planes, the Japanes were desperate for any weapon to resist the massive American invasion fleet descending on Okinawa. And they knew Okinawa in American hands would provide air based that would be used to cover the invasion of southern Japan. Their answer was the Kamikazes. After the loss of the Philippines, however, it was adopt as a major defense policy. It was central to the Japanese plan to defend Okinawa. The Kamikaze missions suceeded in sinking 40 American ships and damaging many more. The cost to the Japanese were hundreds of lives and planes. The Japanese on April 6-7 employed the first massed formations of hundreds of kamikaze aircraft (April 6-7). Kamikaze attacks were launched from both Okinawa and southern Japan. The Japanese during the Okinawan campaign flew 1,465 Kamikaze flights from Kyushu. The Japanese were after the carriers and other large ships. The United States by 1945 had made great strides with radar, but the range was still limited abnd it was important to detect the Kamikazes as early as possible. Thus the fleet was ringed with radar picket ships to provide early warming. The Japanese of course knew this and begun targetting the picket ships. And unlike the larger ships, the picket ships were on their own with a limited array of anti-aircraft guns and no air cover. The Kamikazes were capabl;e of doing grevious damage, but not sinking a major ship. The small picket ships were a different matter. The carriers would dispatch planes, but the picket ships were on their own until the planes arrived. The picket ships faced some the most ferrocious air attacks faced by the U.S. Navy during the Pacific war. The Navy deployed 206 ships for picket duty. Nearly 30 percent were sunk or damaged, making it the most dangerous combat assignment of any U.S. Navy surface ships. [Reilly] Combat loss estimates vary. One American report estimates rhar the Kamikazes sunk 30 American ships and damaged 164 others. Another U.S. source estimates that the Kamikazes sunk 34 Navy ships and damaged 368 others. Japanese sources give much higher estimates, but are not reliable. Other ships were attacked nearer Kyushu and Formosa. The Army Air Corps had rejected a request to havily bomb these air fields because it was seen as a diversion from the strategic bombing campaign.

Earlier Campaigns

The Japanese entered the war with some of the most highly trained and competent pilots of the War. Along with their highly effective Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero, suiside tactics were not an effective strategy. The Japanese invested greatly in their pilots. As these well-trained pilots were lost in various campsigns and the Americans intriduced more capable aircraft, the calculations of war generally shoifted. The Japanese staged Kamikaze attacks during the Philippines campaign. They were, however, fairly limited, because the Japanese high command had not yet embraced the Kamikaze as a major tactic. And the limited air deployment on Iwo Jima did not make an important Kamikaze effort possible.

Military Situation

Okinawa was very different. The American submarine campaign in 1944 was making it very difficult for Japan to obtain food and raw materials, especially oil. After the loss of the Philippines, Japan was essentially cut off from oil and other vital supplies from the empire they had seized to the south. It was apparent to all but the most fanatical that Japan was losing the War. Japan had lost battle after battle in Pacific.

Japanese Strategy

By the time of the Okinawa invasion, the Imperial fleet was gone. He Japanese Army would be on its own to defend Okinawa. The Army deployed substantial forces to Okinawa, although American disinfornmation effort left the High Command uncertain about the next American target. The Japanese prepared well conceived defensive posittions with interlocking fire and extensive tunneling. The Japanese high command also had high hopes for the kamikazes which it was believed would inflict serious damage to the American fleet. The Japanese had failed to hold a single island attacked by the Americans. But Okinawa was aajor island with a much larger garrison. And unlike the other islands, the Kamikazes offered the ability to hit back at the assaulting American fleet. The Kamikazes could not, however, offer close air support to the Japanese ground forces. The kamikaze pilots were not well enough trakned for that or were they capable of taking on the better trained and capable American aircraft. If they suceeded in sinking enough American ships, the Japanese commanders hoped the Americans would refrain from another invasion and agree to a negotiuated end to the War.

Air Situation

With the fleet destroyed and unanble to match the Americans in quantity or quality of planes, the Japanes were desperate for any weapon to resist the massive American invasion fleet descending on Okinawa. Japan was still using the same planes with which they began the War. The United States had deployed a whole new generation of mikitary aitcraft. And the Japanese knew Okinawa in American hands would provide air based that would be used to cover the invasion of southern Japan. Their answer was the Kamikazes. After the loss of the Philippines, the Kamikaze was adopted as a major defense policy. It was central to the Japanese plan to defend Okinawa.

Air Bases

There were many Japanese airfields on Okinawa. American air and sea attacks preceding the invasion, targeted these air fields (beginning October 1944). Much more intense air attacks were conducted by carrier Task Force 58 under Rear Adm. Marc Mitscher which destroyed destroyed hundreds of Japanese planes (March 1945). We had always assumed that the Japanesd Kamikaze attacks came primarily from Okinawa, but wondered why what was left of Japanese air power on the island was not quickly supressed by American attacks on the air bases which unlike artillery and machine gun positions could not be easily camouflaged. Many air bases on Okinawa were quickly overrun by the landing forces. Those that were not overrun were heavily attacked by Allied fighter sweeps from the carrirs offshore. As far as we can tell, they were not bombed from American air bases on the Marianas. The Okinawa bases were rendered relatively inoperable early in the campaign. Attacks with small numbers of air craft may have been possible, but not massed assaults which were required for any degree of Kamikaze success. Massed attacks after the first few days would have had to come from Kyhshu. We do not have any data on the bases from which Kamikaze attacks were flow. Most available sources detail the strength of the flights, not where they came from. But we believe that they primarily came from Kyhshu. American aircrft carriers off Okinawa had their hands full supporting the struggling ground troops. Thus they did not go after the air bases on Khyshu. And as far as we can tell, for some reason these bases were also not heavily bombed by the USAF bombers on the Marianas. We are not sure why. At any rate, the resulting battle made it very clear where the next American landings would come--Khyshu. The Americans moved into the already developed Japanese air bases,, preoaring them to support palanned invasion of Kyhshu. Land based aircraft on Okinawa could only support landings on Kuyshu--not further north on Honshu. And the Americans after Okinawa were not going to land with just carrier air support.

Offensive

Some reports indicate that Kamikaze attacks began before the American Invasion (March 225P. The Japanese employed the first massed formations of hundreds of kamikaze aircraft (April 6-7). There were ten Kikusui (swarms) of Kamikazes. These included 350 attackers at a time. This was important because even the elaborate American defenses could not stop a massed attack of this size. Some were sure to get through. The Japanese launched a total of 1,900 plnes. The largest Kamikaze attack ocuure (April 6). More than 350 aircraft were launched. The American sailors found these suiside attacks particularky disturbing. The destroyer USS Laffey was attacked by a flight of 20 Kamikazes. Laffey Gunners knocked down nine of the attackers, but six others dove into the ship. Amall flight of American Corsairs reached the Laffey and shot down some of the attackers. Somehow the crew managed to keep Laffey afloat. The USS Franklin, a carrier, was badly damaged. Kamikazes attacked again in firce (pril 7). They suceeded in damaging the carrier USS Hancock. Gradually the numbers of attackers declined, but continued in force. Kamikazes danaged the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Intrepid as well as numerous picket ships. After this the massed attacks were no longer possible, but attacks continued into May. Kamikazes manafged to hit the USS Bunker Hill, another carrier (May 11). This was Admiral Marc A. Mitscher flag ship for Force 58. The attack killed 350 sailors. The Kamikaze attacks were launched from both Okinawa and southern Japan. The Japanese during the Okinawan campaign flew 1,465 Kamikaze flights from Kyushu. Other ships were attacked nearer Kyushu and Formosa. The Army Air Corps had rejected a request to havily bomb these air fields because it was seen as a diversion from the strategic bombing campaign.

Kamikaze Aircraft

The principal plane used for the Kamikaze attacks was the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero. It was essentially a flying coffin. At the beginning of the War, it had been the most effective fighter in the Pcific. The United States had, hoeever, deployed a new generation of urcraft which outclassed the Zero. And in the hands of inexerienced pilots, the Zero could no longer hold its own against the new Hell Cts, Cirsairs, and Mustangs. The standard Zero had a maximum speed of 332 mph and an impressive range of 1,930 miles. This was largely due to the fact tht the plabe was not armored. The A6M2 was 29 feet nine inches long, with a wingspan of about 39 feet. It was armed with two machine guns and could carry 264 pounds of bombs. For use as a Kamikaze plane, however, it was modified to carry a larger explosive charge.

Targets

The Japanese were after the carriers and other large ships. The pilots were instructed to go after the carriers in particular. The American carriers had wooden rather than armored decks like British carriers.

American Defensives

The American Okinawa onvasion fleet consisted of 1,300 ships. The United States by 1945 had made great strides with radar, but the range was still limited abnd it was important to detect the Kamikazes as early as possible. Thus the fleet was ringed with radar picket ships to provide early warming. The Japanese of course knew this and begun targetting the picket ships. And unlike the larger ships, the picket ships were on their own with a limited array of anti-aircraft guns and no air cover. The carriers would dispatch planes, but the picket ships were on their own until the planes arrived. The picket ships faced some the most ferrocious air attacks faced by the U.S. Navy during the Pacific war. The Navy deployed 206 ships for picket duty. Nearly 30 percent were sunk or damaged, making it the most dangerous combat assignment of any U.S. Navy surface ships. [Reilly]

Capabilities

The Kamikazes were capable of doing grevious damage, but not sinking a major ship. The small picket ships were a different matter.

Results

The Japanese Kamikaze missions suceeded in sinking 34 American ships, This was just a fraction of the massive American invasion fleet. Most of the ships sunk were mostly destroyer picket ships and other small ships. As a result the kamikazes had no real impact on the invasion. They did damage about 250 ships. We note different estimates of the number of ships damaged, varying from about 160-370 ships. We are not sure why just widely varied estimtes exist. A number of ships were so badly damaged that the Navy decided to scrap them rather than repair the ships. Large numbers of sailors were killed or wounded on these ships. About one in seven of all American naval causalities occurred off Okinawa. Japanese sources give much higher estimates, but are not reliable. The cost to the Japanese were hundreds of lives and planes. And the Japanese were assembling a much larger kamikaze force to repel the planned invasion of Kyushu.

Sources

Rielly, Robin L. Kamikazes, Corsairs, and Picket Ships: Okinawa, 1945, 460p.

Sloan, Bill. The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945--The Last Epic Struggle of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 2007).






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Created: 12:05 AM 2/3/2012
Last updated: 8:21 PM 3/17/2021