Many Americans today are left aghast at Adm. William F. Halsey’s admonition to U.S. forces in the Pacific: “Kill Japs. Kill Japs. Kill More Japs! You will help to kill the yellow bastards if you do your job well.” Yet those who fought through the island campaigns fully appreciated Halsey’s words, realizing the only way to stop the Japanese was to kill them. Truce, armistice, negotiation, and surrender were concepts foreign to the warriors of Nippon.
Suicidal ground attacks had been a common Japanese tactic since Guadalcanal, but the first such aerial attacks were not employed until the Battle for Leyte Gulf in October 1944. By March 1945 kamikaze attacks had become a basic component of Japanese strategy.
A term originating in the 13th century, kamikaze is Japanese for “divine wind.” When the Japanese refused to pay tribute to Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor launched hundreds of ships against the islands of Japan in 1281. As the armada approached Japanese shores it was suddenly set upon by a great typhoon, and the fleet was blown to pieces. Convinced that the typhoon was a gift from the gods, the Japanese called it kamikaze.
During World War II, the Japanese developed a special corps of pilots whose mission was to dive their planes into American ships. Loaded with explosives, a single plane could disable or even sink a ship. Carriers were the principal targets. The mission was clearly suicidal but in keeping with Japan’s bushido (“way of the warrior”). A member of the warrior class was expected to sacrifice his life without hesitation, always fighting to the bitter end. The worst possible breach of bushido was surrender. The samurai class had been all but wiped out in Japanese civil wars that created the militaristic and imperialistic Japanese nation-state during the late 19th century, but all troops were expected to emulate the samurai of old. Surrender was rare on the islands of the Pacific.
Japanese volunteered by the thousands to join the kamikaze corps. A shortage of planes prevented some volunteers from flying. Feeling robbed of the opportunity to join the heroic dead at the Yasukuni Shrine, they were inconsolable. Some committed suicide.
Massive kamikaze attacks began in March 1945. On the 19th, dozens of suicide planes tried to strike the carrier Franklin, which was launching air raids against the port of Kobe on the main Japanese island of Honshu. Nearly all the kamikaze were blown out of the sky by intercepting U.S. fighters or anti-aircraft fire from Franklin and her escorting ships. One Japanese plane broke through, though, and scored a direct hit. The tremendous explosion was followed by secondary explosions of ammunition and gasoline, which wracked the ship for hours. Franklin saw 724 of her sailors die and 265 suffer wounds.
Kamikaze attacks intensified when the U.S. fleet arrived off Okinawa and launched invasion forces on April Fool’s Day. During the next two months, kamikaze sank 30 American ships, though none larger than a destroyer, and damaged 368 more, including carriers and battleships. More than 5,000 sailors lost their lives, and thousands more were wounded.
Reflecting on the kamikaze attacks, Vice Admiral C.R. Brown said,
I doubt if there is anyone who can depict with complete clarity our mixed emotions as we watched a man about to die—a man determined to die in order that he might destroy us in the process. 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.
A young sailor aboard the cruiser Montpelier, James J. Fahey manned an anti-aircraft gun. He described the kamikaze attacks in less philosophical and more graphic terms:
Exploding planes overhead were showering us with their parts. . . . The deck near my mount was covered with blood, guts, brains, tongues, scalps, hearts, arms, etc. from the Jap pilots. . . . The deck ran red with blood. The Japs were splattered all over the place. . . . These suicide or kamikaze pilots wanted to destroy us, our ships and themselves. This gives you an idea what kind of an enemy we are fighting. . . . You do not discourage the Japs, they never give up, you have to kill them. It is an honor to die for the Emperor.
Bull Halsey understood the enemy.