Thousands of poorly trained kamikaze pilots were asked to sacrifice their lives for Japan's collapsing war effort, but the letters they left behind reveal they weren't all eager volunteers.
"At 10:50 a.m. this morning, General Quarters sounded," James Fahey, Seaman First Class aboard the USS Montpelier, wrote on November 27, 1944. "All hands went to their battle stations."
The sky above the Montpelier, stationed in the Philippines, was filled with Japanese planes. American pilots had already scrambled into the air to try to fight them off, and at least one seemed to already be going down. Fahey saw one barreling toward them — except there was no smoke. It didn't seem to have been damaged at all.
The plane crashed into the water, just missing the hull of the Montpelier. Fahey couldn't make sense of it. One of the American aces, he figured, must have hit the pilot.
But within seconds, another Japanese plane came diving down, again without the slightest hint of damage. This one crashed into the stern of a nearby ship, the USS St. Louis. A fireball erupted. The cruiser's hangar exploded into a blazing hell. The men, enveloped in flames, ran frantically for help in the few moments before they burned to death.
This was a new type of war.
Fahey was caught in the middle of a kamikaze assault — an attack by an enemy who didn't intend to make it out alive. Japan's kamikaze attacks were its most brutal and most desperate measure against the American military of World War II. And for a while, it worked.
Birth Of The Kamikaze Of World War II
Fahey thought he was the first person to see a kamikaze attack in action — but he wasn't. By the time he was attacked, the Japanese had been using kamikaze strategies for a little more than a month.
The first official kamikaze plane had hit its target on Oct. 25, 1944, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but the idea had been building in Japan for even longer.
In a sense, there had even been a kamikaze attack in Japan's very first battle against American troops. During Pearl Harbor, a pilot named Lt. Fusata Iida had deliberately crashed his plane into a naval air station, making good on a promise to his friends that, if hit, he'd direct his plane into a "worthy enemy target."
But it wasn't until Germany surrendered and America's victory over Japan became all but inevitable that the Japanese military started to consider sending their own men to their death as a military strategy.
Even in Japan, few believed there was a way to win the war. Instead, they were fighting out of a fear of America's demands for "unconditional surrender." If they could make the battle painful enough for the Allies, the Japanese believed, they might be able to negotiate better terms.
It was Captain Motoharu Okamura who first proposed the idea on June 15, 1944.
"In our present situation," Okamura told Vice Adm. Takijirō Ōnishi, the commander of Japan's 1st Air Fleet, "I firmly believe that the only way to swing the war in our favor is to resort to crash-dive attacks with our planes."
Okamura was adamant. The men of Japan, he assured his commander, would be willing to lay down their lives for the chance to save their country.
"Provide me with 300 planes and I will turn the tide of war," he promised. "There is no other way."
Okamura and Ōnishi's suicide squadron wasn't like the lone suicidal men who'd crashed their planes into enemies in the past. Theirs made sure they made an impact.
They flew in planes fitted with a 250-kilogram bomb on the nose. When they crashed into their targets, there would be more than just the impact of a plane to worry about. There would be an explosion so terrible that, if properly placed, it could disable an aircraft carrier - or even sink it.
But for the pilots inside, there would be no chance of survival. Some of the kamikaze planes would even discard their landing gear after taking off, a useless weight for a pilot who had no intention of ever coming home again (though the war would end before any of these models would be used in combat).
The force would be dubbed kamikaze, which in Japanese translates to "divine wind." The phrase had been used since the reign of Kublai Khan in the 13th century when typhoons dispersed the Mongols that tried to invade Japan. Like those seemingly supernatural forces, the Japanese pilots would save their people from destruction.
Still, men signed up to give their lives in a kamikaze plane, just as Okamura predicted. It is said that when Vice Admiral Ōnishi first asked for pilots, every single man present volunteered.
Overcoming The Fear Of Death
In Japanese propaganda, this was proof that the men of Japan were willing to die for their country; but the picture painted in the diaries and letters of the kamikazes themselves is much less steadfast.
The military reported with pride that, when flying ace Lt. Yukio Seki was asked to lead the kamikaze unit, he simply closed his eyes and went still for a moment, then smoothed back his hair and said: "Please do appoint me to the post."
But Seki's comments in private suggest that he had only volunteered because he felt that he had no choice.
"Japan's future is bleak if it is forced to kill one of its best pilots," Seki bitterly told a war correspondent. "I am not going on this mission for the Emperor or for the Empire...I am going because I was ordered to."
Many kamikaze pilots shared Seki's bitterness at the prospect of their inevitable deaths, even if they had, on paper, volunteered. Another wrote home to his mother:
"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."
Later volunteers would go through even harsher conditions to push them into accepting their suicide missions.
One kamikaze pilot, Irokawa Daikichi, wrote in his diary that during his training he was routinely starved and beaten. His superiors would deny him food; if they even suspected he'd eaten, they'd beat him bloody.
"I was hit so hard that I could no longer see and feel on the floor," he wrote. "The minute I got up, I was hit again....[He] hit my face 20 times and the inside of my mouth was cut in many places by my teeth."
Kamikaze pilots would be beaten for any type of disloyalty. Others described being ordered to memorize poems in archaic forms of Japanese, then being knocked to the ground every time they made a mistake.
By the time the day came, any sense of free will they had or any desire to disobey orders would be erased.
Before climbing into their planes, they'd be given a sash with 1,000 stitches, called a senninbari — each stitch made by a different woman — as thanks for giving their lives in war. Like the samurai before them, they would recite a death poem. And then they would share a final cup of sake with those men who, like them, were about to die.
The First Kamikaze Attack
On the morning of October 25, 1944, a squadron of five Japanese kamikaze pilots in Zero planes led by Yukio Seki soared over the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.
The Americans were totally unprepared for what was about to happen. They manned their guns and fired, but were still used to an enemy that, once disabled, would try to turn back home. These planes just kept coming, no matter how many hits they took.
The first kamikaze dove toward the USS Kitkun Bay, aiming right for the carrier's command center. But instead, the plane exploded on the port catwalk and fell into the sea, leaving the ship damaged but still afloat.
The next two pilots fared even worse. They dove down toward the USS Fanshaw Bay, but both were blown out of the air by anti-aircraft fire before they could do any harm.
The last two kamikazes made their wild dive toward a third ship, the USS White Plains, under heavy fire. Riddled with bullets, the mission seemed like it was going to be a total failure.
One of the planes, however — legend has it, the one piloted by Seki himself — took a sudden sharp turn and rammed into the flight deck of a different ship, the USS St. Lo.
The explosives in the nose of Seki's plane detonated, setting off the ship's bomb magazines. The massive 8,000-ton aircraft carrier erupted into flames. The Americans had to scramble to save as many of the 889 men on board as they could before the whole thing sank.
Five planes had gone down, and five pilots with them — but the first kamikaze squadron had taken down an aircraft carrier and killed more than 100 Americans.
Japan's first experiment with kamikaze fighters was a success.
The Growth Of The Kamikaze Program
Over the next 48 hours, another 50 kamikaze pilots were sent into the Leyte Gulf. All told, Ōnishi's first experiment hit seven carriers and 40 other ships, five of which sunk to the bottom of the sea.
The kamikaze program was born. Over the course of the war, thousands of men would sacrifice their own lives trying to hurtle themselves at their enemies (Japan pegged the number at 4,000, while the U.S. estimated 2,800 kamikaze pilots died). They would become one of Japan's greatest attack forces, even when the Americans learned to adapt.
The final battle of the Pacific Theater, the Battle of Okinawa, saw even more kamikaze pilots sent to their deaths. Some 1,465 kamikaze planes would be sent out against enemy targets in that one battle alone.
It was a hugely effective program — even though only 14 percent of kamikaze pilots actually hit their targets. By some estimates, they were responsible for 80 percent of the U.S.'s losses in the final phase of the war.
And back in Tokyo, Japanese military leaders were stockpiling more suicide planes and even suicide boats in preparation for the Americans' invasion of their homeland. Had the war not ended before the U.S. Army had to storm the beaches of Japan, they would have met more a wave of suicide squadrons unlike any they'd ever seen.
The End Of The Kamikaze Program
The kamikaze program ended with the war. In early August of 1945, after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet Army began to roll through Manchuria, it became clear that there was nothing Japan could do to change its fate.
For many of the pilots who'd given their lives, it was the ending they'd expected. Many, before flying off to their deaths, had written letters home to their mothers bemoaning that were going to waste their lives in a futile war.
As one kamikaze wrote home, "I have to accept the fate of my generation: to fight in the war and die."
Thousands of young men never came home to their mothers, and nothing changed.
But if the manual the Japanese government provided them before they went off on their last missions can be believed, before they died, they saw their mothers one final time.
"At that moment," it promised, when a kamikaze pilot crashes his plane into his target, "you see your mother's face."
"You are relaxed and a smile creases your face. The sweet atmosphere of your boyhood days returns," it claimed. "You may even hear a final sound like the breaking of crystal."
"Then you are no more."