The first kamikaze suicide bombers were deployed by the Japanese against the U.S. in the battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, targeting escort carriers. Japanese Naval Cap’t Okamura believed “There will be more than enough volunteers for this chance to save our country.” The first kamikaze plowed into the flight deck of the carrier St. Lo, sinking it in less than an hour, killing 100 men when the bomb magazine exploded. One sailor reports they were ordered not to mention the word “kamikaze’ as the Navy Dept didn’t want the U.S. citizens to know the extent of the damage, nor did they want the Japanese to know how effective the tactic was.
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The tradition of death instead of defeat, capture, and perceived shame was deeply entrenched in Japanese military culture. It was one of the primary traditions in the samurai life and the Bushido code: “loyalty and honour until death.“
Intentional and deliberate crashes into enemy ships had previously been used individually by pilots when they saw they were going to crash anyway, so they maneuvered to steer their dying aircraft into an enemy target to do as much damage as possible. The Japanese military were the first to actually form Kamikaze Units in which men volunteered to become flying bombs themselves with the full premeditated intent of dying while crashing into the enemy, whether or not their plane was damaged.
Not all officers in the Japanese military agreed with the philosophy:
“I cannot predict the outcome of the air battles, but you will be making a mistake if you should regard Special Attack operations as normal methods. The right way is to attack the enemy with skill and return to the base with good results. A plane should be utilized over and over again. That’s the way to fight a war. The current thinking is skewed. Otherwise, you cannot expect to improve air power. There will be no progress if flyers continue to die.”
—Lieutenant Commander Iwatani, Taiyo (Ocean) magazine, March 1945
The Japanese began making “purpose-built” planes to be used in these kamikaze runs, using simple, wooden fuselages designed to use up obsolete engines. The landing gear was designed to be dumped shortly after take-off and reused since the plane would not be landing anywhere once it took off. American military nicknamed these planes “Baka Bombs” (‘baka’ being Japanese for “idiot” or "stupid”.)
The peak kamikaze attack was at the Battle of Okinawa (April-June 1945) where kamikaze attacks put at least 30 warships out of action, but no aircraft carriers were harmed. The attack depleted over 1400 planes. The destroyer USS Laffey was nicknamed “The Ship That Would Not Die” after surviving 22 kamikaze attacks and six hits during this battle.
This is the rear gun turret, on the USS Laffey during the battle of Okinawa on April 16, 1945. Original photo from: www.postandcourier.com