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How Japan's Kamikaze Attacks Went From Last Resort at Pearl Harbor to WWII Strategy

Not until nearly three years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor did Japan adopt suicide aerial attacks as official military strategy.

On the infamous morning of December 7, 1941, Japanese fighter pilots made final arrangements for their deaths. The aviators penned farewell letters and slipped them into envelopes along with locks of hair and clipped fingernails that their loved ones could use for their funerals. After a moment of prayer at makeshift Shinto shrines, the airmen shattered the silence with two sharp handclaps before downing ritual sake shots.

The Japanese pilots prepared as if their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor would be their final times in the cockpit. But they were not on a suicide mission. Fate would determine whether they lived or died.

Should death become his destiny, though, First Lieutenant Fusata Iida vowed to end the lives of as many of the enemy as he could. According to Gordon W. Prange’s authoritative account, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese pilot told his fellow airmen, “In case of trouble I will fly straight to my objective and make a crash dive into an enemy target rather than make an emergency landing.”

Hours later, Iida was strafing the Naval Air Station Kaneohe with gunfire when he suddenly smelled gasoline. A glance at the gauges of his Mitsubishi Zero confirmed his fears. Enemy fire had pierced his fuel tank.

Using hand signals, the doomed pilot informed his comrades of his plight before waving good-bye. With his Zero hemorrhaging fuel over the American naval air station, Iida banked sharply and circled back toward its hangar, perhaps to implement the emergency plan he had discussed earlier. With no intention of being captured and no hope of a safe return to his aircraft carrier, the aviator might have been trying to inflict as much damage as possible upon the enemy by divebombing into the hangar. If that was the case, Iida overshot his mark and fatally crashed into a hillside.

The burial of Japanese pilot First Lieutenant Fusata Iida at Pearl Harbor after his fatal crash. 

The burial of Japanese pilot First Lieutenant Fusata Iida at Pearl Harbor after his fatal crash. 

Japanese dive-bombers at Pearl Harbor were not kamikazes.

During the air raid, another crippled Japanese plane crashed onto the deck of the USS Curtiss. Although the Japanese pilots might have deliberately aimed for enemy targets after sustaining catastrophic damage, that was not the intention of their mission.

“The Imperial Japanese Navy fighter pilots were perfectly willing to sacrifice themselves if there was no way out other than capture, but that is different than deliberate suicide,” says Burl Burlingame, an historian at the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor. “The term kamikaze has entered the English language and has come to mean any one-way, deliberate act of self-sacrifice. As such, it has been used and misconstrued by pop-history writers. At the time of Pearl Harbor, the official, sanctioned use of deliberate suicide missions was a few years in the future.”

Burlingame says that Iida, although he aimed for an American target with his plane, was not a kamikaze pilot. “If he had had a shot of making it back to the carrier, he would have done so.”

Japanese pilots receiving last orders before bombing the American Pearl Harbor military base in 1941.

Japanese pilots receiving last orders before bombing the American Pearl Harbor military base in 1941.

Japan used kamikazes as a last-ditch effort.

By the summer of 1944, the Japanese air force had grown short of skilled pilots, modern aircraft and fuel while American forces continued to press westward as they leapfrogged across the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The situation grew even more dire after the United States captured Saipan in July 1944, bringing the home islands of Japan within range of America’s new long-range B-29 bombers.

With World War II slipping away and conventional attacks failing to stop the American offensive, the Japanese military decided to turn their airmen into suicide bombers. “In our present situation I firmly believe that the only way to swing the war in our favor is to resort to crash-dive attacks with our planes. There is no other way,” declared Japanese naval Captain Motoharu Okamura. The Japanese would fight like bees, he said. “They sting, they die.”

M.G. Sheftall, author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze, says the use of suicide pilots was “embraced as a last shred of hope by a Japanese populace cowering in terror in the face of looming defeat under bombs from American B-29s.” Sheftall says the Japanese high command was driven by “a combination of pragmatic military objectives,” including the need for a decisive weapon to use against an enemy who had near-total air superiority and “specific Japanese sociocultural compulsions, such as face-saving and symbolic gestures of contrition regarding failure.”

Kamikaze pilots drinking a glass of sake before their attacks during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on December 10, 1944.

Kamikaze pilots drinking a glass of sake before their attacks during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on December 10, 1944.

Kamikazes appeared nearly three years after Pearl Harbor.

The new terror descended from the sky during the October 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf. In this battle, kamikaze pilots, named for the legendary “divine wind” that twice saved Japan from 13th-century Mongol naval invasions launched by Kublai Khan, deliberately flew their jury-rigged Zeros into American warships. Beginning in the spring of 1945, the Japanese military also deployed specially designed rocket-powered planes called ohka (Japanese for “cherry blossom”) that were launched from bombers and directed toward enemy targets by kamikaze pilots.

“There will be more than enough volunteers for this chance to save our country,” Okamura predicted. However, Sheftall says far more suicide pilots were compelled to become kamikazes than were willing participants. “The vast majority were not elite military academy ideological descendants or inheritors of the samurai worldview, penning farewell poems in rock gardens while cherry petals fell around them. They were, overwhelmingly, barely educated farm boys in their teens and/or college students whose military deferments had been cancelled by the worsening war situation in 1943 and who had opted for air service instead of the muddy, bloody infantry. From the perspective of Japanese academy-graduate military culture, they were considered to be—and used as—cannon fodder.”

A Japanese suicide plane attacking the USS Missouri during the Battle of Okinawa 1945.

A Japanese suicide plane attacking the USS Missouri during the Battle of Okinawa 1945.

The use of kamikazes peaked during the bloody Battle of Okinawa, when suicide pilots swarmed American vessels. In one 80-minute span alone, more than 20 kamikazes targeted the destroyer USS Laffey, which managed to survive the assault. No divine wind, however, would save Japan from defeat in World War II as the United States continued to close in until the country surrendered unconditionally in August 1945. 

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