Kamikaze Pilots

Suicide warfare in World War 2, and its military and cultural rationale

10 minutes read.

Japan's Kamikaze pilots and their suicide attacks on American warships in the last year of World War 2, remain one of the most terrorizing memories of this war. As I write this essay, three years after terrorist suicide pilots killed thousands in New York and Washington, and as suicide terrorists kill innocent civilians worldwide, it is important to note that history clearly shows, that those who turned to systematic use of suicide warfare, lost their war.

In addition to the Japanese Kamikaze pilots air campaign, the essay also explores other suicide weapons and tactics in World War 2, and the military and cultural rationale of suicide warfare, in order to better understand this type of fanatic threat that the free world is facing once again.

Kamikaze pilots - Japan's last weapon

Kamikaze, which means "Divine Wind" in Japanese, was Japan's last attempt to balance the ever increasing technological and material advantage of the American forces advancing to Japan. The Kamikaze attack tactic was suggested on October 19, 1944, by vice-Admiral Onishi of the Japanese Navy, when he was assigned to command the air attacks against the huge American invasion fleet off the Philippines, and then realized that he had less than 100 operational aircraft for this task. There was no way to sink or even severely damage the American fleet in any conventional tactic, so the Admiral needed a force multiplier, a way to get a significantly greater striking power from a given force.

The solution was obvious. Guided weapons provide dramatically greater accuracy and lethality than unguided weapons, producing much greater damage per weapon unit and per sortie. Such weapons already existed and were operational for over a year then, but not in Japan. The German Air Force successfully used large radio-guided Fritz-X bombs against battleships and cruisers since September 1943, but Japan had no such weapon, and therefore Admiral Onishi suggested that volunteer pilots will guide their bomb-carrying aircraft all the way to an explosive suicide collision with their American warship targets, acting as a living guidance system, literally becoming "smart bombs".

The new tactic was adopted immediately. Large numbers of pilots, initially qualified and experienced pilots and later air cadets with minimal training who were asked to volunteer, were assigned to "Special Attack" air wings, the official name of the Kamikaze units. Their goal and motto was "One man - one ship".

To increase the Kamikaze pilots chance of successful penetration of the American Navy's dense perimeter defense of fighters and anti-aircraft ships, and reach the main ships in the center, most desirably the aircraft carriers, the Japanese concentrated most of the Kamikaze pilots attacks during the battle of Okinawa in ten large attack waves of mixed Kamikaze and conventional attack aircraft, in an attempt to saturate the American defenses. These large attack waves, nicknamed Kikosui (floating Chrysanthemum), were also coordinated with the Japanese naval and ground operations of the battle of Okinawa, the war's last great battle.

In the first of these Kamikaze attack waves, 355 Kamikaze pilots attacked the American fleet off Okinawa, together with 341 conventional attack aircraft, and in coordination with a naval attack which included the super-battleship Yamato. The result of this massive air strike was six sunk ships and ten severely damaged.

When Japan ran out of ordinary combat aircraft for Kamikaze attacks, slow trainer aircraft were also used. Another aircraft used was the Okha (cherry blossom), Japan's latest new weapon. The Okha was specifically designed as a Kamikaze missile. It was a small rocket-powered aircraft with a large 1200kg warhead in the nose, that was carried by a bomber and dropped 20-30 miles from its target, where its Kamikaze pilot ignited the rockets and streaked to its target. In its final dive, the Okha reached a top speed of 576mph, much faster than any other aircraft, but most Okhas were shot down by American fighters before even being dropped from the carrying bombers.

A total of about 5000 Kamikaze pilots were launched, mostly in the Battle of Okinawa, consuming much of the remaining human and material resources of Japanese air power. The result of their effort was 36 sunk American ships and landing craft, and 368 damaged. The ferocity of watching wave after wave of Kamikaze pilots hurtling down through a dense hail of anti-aircraft fire, and the enormous fiery explosions which followed, terrorized the Americans, but the Kamikaze campaign failed to achieve its strategic goal of stopping the American advance, and American air attacks were launched against the Kamikaze air bases in southern Japan in order to reduce their numbers. Japan lost its last battle despite the enormous sacrifice of its fanatic warriors, and lost the war.

Other Kamikaze units and weapons

The Japanese desperate hope that suicide warfare is the way to avoid defeat, led the Japanese army and Navy to adopt other suicide warfare tactics and weapons. In military terms, the idea was similar in most cases, to use a human to precisely guide a powerful explosive weapon all the way to the target, in order to achieve a lethal direct hit, and by doing so convert a simple weapon to a guided "smart bomb". The Japanese used the following other suicide weapons and tactics, all with lesser success than Kamikaze aircraft :

Nazi Germany also trained and operated suicide pilots shortly before its defeat. The first German suicide unit, the Leonidas Squadron, was established as a squadron of volunteers within the Luftwaffe's top secret special missions air wing (KG200). Its weapon was a manned version of the German jet-powered V-1 cruise missile. This unit trained and reached an operational status, but an approval to use it in combat was never given, mostly because of the availability of Germany's other advanced air-to-ground weapons, that made its operation an unnecessary loss of pilots lives. The German arsenal of advanced air-to-ground weapons included radio-guided bombs, radio-guided missiles, and the Mistel, an unmanned medium bomber with a huge warhead in its nose, that was piloted by a pilot seated in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft mounted over the unmanned bomber. After guiding the bomber to its final dive at the target, the pilot detached the fighter and flew back to base, while the unmanned bomber crashed and exploded on the target. In a sharp contrast with minimally trained suicide pilots, these unmanned bombers were successfully flown by very experienced bomber pilots, who indeed achieved a relatively high success rate, sinking ships and destroying strategic bridges.

The other German suicide unit, which did see combat action, was the Luftwaffe's fighter wing 300 (JG300), that was ordered, shortly before the end of the war, to use ramming tactic against allied heavy bombers. This tactic was used just a few times and its success rate was not high.

The military and cultural rationale of suicide warfare

The military rationale of suicide warfare of all types, both historically and now, is simple. When planning attacks against what is considered high value enemy targets, military planners often lack truly adequate military resources required to achieve success. This lack is normally bridged by resourcefulness and military talent, and by a greater sacrifice of soldiers. But in extreme cases, and if the mission is not cancelled due to extreme lack of resources, extreme measures are required, measures which would not be used if better alternatives were available. This is true both for a military planner who plans to attack a military target, and for a terrorist leader who plans to mass murder civilians.

As long as they had relatively significant military forces, even if inadequate, the Japanese did not turn to suicide warfare. Sacrifice yes, but not suicide. They switched to the Kamikaze suicide tactics only when their disadvantage became so severe that even common sacrifice of soldiers was simply not enough, and a radical new weapon (guided missiles) was essential, and in its absence, they used the Kamikaze pilots as a substitute.

This military rationale is the same with suicide terrorists. In Al-Qaeda's first attack of the World Trade Center, the attackers used a time-fuzed car bomb, not suicide drivers. Since that failed to achieve the mission's goal, which later even expanded, and since Al-Qaeda's arsenal does not include any cruise missiles or bomber aircraft, their only way to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with the resources they had, was to convert large civilian aircraft to huge cruise missiles guided by suicide pilots.

The point that such extreme measures are used only when the military planners estimate that this is their only alternative, and not just a waste of highly motivated soldiers, is clearly demonstrated by the selective use of suicide warfare by those who do or did use it. Two examples :

The other key element of suicide warfare is the cultural rationale. Suicide warfare is used only by human societies which face an immediate threat that is perceived by them as being so severe that they believe they are facing extinction, whether cultural or physical, or a similar mass destruction.

In such a situation, surrender, or even a compromise with the enemy, is simply not an option. And if the military situation is such that suicide warfare is needed, then many soldiers who believe that they or their families are doomed anyway, willingly volunteer for suicide missions. It is not madness, it is a normal and rational behavior in an extreme situation, that was either demonstrated or at least theoretically accepted by ALL human cultures. Remember the actor Bruce Willis as Harry Stamper in the fiction film "Armageddon"? - one man detonating a bomb and himself to save his loved ones and mankind from extinction in the absence of other alternative. It's a perfect example, even if fictional, of an American suicide warrior.

The most dangerous and tragic part in this rationale of suicide warfare, is that the threat which push human societies to use suicide warfare is perceived, and perception might be false, and can be influenced. The Japanese public was brainwashed for years by its fanatic militarist leaders to believe that a defeat, the first ever in Japan's long history of isolation, would result in the extinction of the Japanese people. The very heavy casualties of Japanese pilots against a huge enemy force, that also killed countless numbers of their friends and families back home with a vast fleet of heavy bombers, further convinced numerous Japanese pilots that this threat was real. With such perception of their situation, preferring to die a little earlier as a Kamikaze pilot in order to save many others, was an easy choice for many.

The threat doesn't even have to be military. For the fanatically religious Al-Qaeda terrorists and their supporting population, with a culture that is not just violently intolerant but also somewhat xenophobic, as the Japanese were, foreign presence on their land, even of civilians, and the penetration of foreign music, fashion, literature, media, and particularly foreign modern ideas, are all perceived as an intolerable cultural threat and even as a deliberate attack. So they fight a holy World War against their perceived enemies, and in the absence of their enemies' advanced guided weapons and mighty military power, they do not hesitate at all to use suicide warfare where considered necessary, to mass murder civilians, and to buy flight tickets to their targets as a very convenient substitute to long range weapons.

I'll finish this essay by reminding that history shows that all those who systematically and repeatedly used suicide warfare lost their war, and the explanation of that is simple. They used it because they were significantly weaker than their enemies, technologically, economically, and therefore eventually militarily, or otherwise they would not have to fight like that.

Related essays:
World War 2 Bombers (7 minutes read)
World War 2 submarines (6 minutes read)
Luftwaffe bomber wing KG 200 (9 minutes read)
German Secret Weapons (7 minutes read)

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