Kamikaze (2)

Last time I was telling you how I had read a splendid book called “Fire from the Sky” by Robert C Stern. The book traces the history of the Japanese kamikaze attacks which began in the Philippines in 1944. It is an excellent and informative book which, clearly, has been extensively researched.

Experience quickly taught the Japanese that attaching two bombs of around 250-500 pounds, depending on the aircraft, could cause a lot more damage than the aircraft itself, particularly if it was only a small plane such as a Zero. The bombs were never released but they were always live. The best places to aim were directly down the funnel or at the base of the funnel. This ship off Okinawa has had damage done to the boilers, presumably via the vulnerable funnel:

Alternatively, the bridge was a good target because it was full of officers. The absolute best target, though, was to seek out an aircraft carrier and to aim the aircraft and bombs at the elevator because this gave access to the inside of the ship. And below decks there might well be an explosive mixture of “aviation fuel” and air. Certainly fire was the main weapon needed to cause large scale damage inside an aircraft carrier. And those two bombs, as well as blowing out partition walls, might also start the very fire needed to damage such a big ship.

The very, very best time to strike was when the US Navy fighters had just returned from combat and were being “safed” which I presume means pumping out the unused avgas and removing any hung-up bombs. Even better, perhaps, was that moment seconds before takeoff, when everybody was ready, propellers spinning, bombs armed, full fuel with perhaps drop tanks too, and all the aircraft, by necessity, extremely close to each other.

This attack was clearly aimed at both the flight deck and the elevator. The ship is the USS Bunker Hill:

Diving an aircraft down to hit a target on the sea is apparently not the most simple of manoeuvres, and the best kamikaze pilots were capable of flipping their aircraft over upside down so that they could see the target clearly as they dived down to hit it. You can see this manoeuvre on the old films of Stuka dive bombers. Here is the version produced for the Luftwaffe Ballroom Dancing Team:

Defenders soon realised what a kamikaze pilot was trying to do, and they soon realised too that machine gun fire and cannon fire was comforting for the people on the ship but of virtually no value whatsoever. Most effective were five inch guns or bigger because the plane would need to be disintegrated to stop it carrying out its mission. On occasion, aircraft still caused large amounts of damage after their wings had been shot off.

It was extremely rare for kamikazes to sink big ships or even to damage them greatly. Much more likely prey were landing craft or the radar pickets protecting the fleet. Smaller ships could not absorb the combination of speed and explosive power. They were either sunk completely or suffered huge casualties. On one occasion a kamikaze blew fifty men off the deck of a warship and none of them were ever seen again.

In one chapter, author Robert Stern lists the casualties for all of the ships attacked between November 27th-December 28th 1944. The first figure represents the men killed and the second figure the men wounded. Thus we have the St Lo with 16 killed and 21 wounded. Here it is:

The Colorado had 19 killed and 72 wounded, the Maryland 31 killed and 30 wounded, the Aulick 31 killed and 64 wounded, the Drayton 6 killed and 12 wounded, the Mugford 8 killed and 14 wounded, the Lamson 25 killed and 54 wounded, the Liddle 38 killed and 20 wounded.  The Hughes had none killed but 73 were wounded, the Caldwell had 33 killed and 40 wounded, the Nashville had 133 killed and 190 wounded, the Haraden had 14 killed and 24 wounded, the Orestes had 59 killed and 110 wounded, the Pringle had 11 killed and 20 wounded, LST 472 had 6 killed and 50 wounded and the two LSTs, Nos 460 and 749, had 107 killed.

And from the Japanese point of view, that is an excellent return for the lives of a relatively small number of men.



Filed under Aviation, History, Pacific Theatre, the Japanese

21 responses to “Kamikaze (2)

  1. Excellent post, John. I’ve done posts on the Kamikaze myself, but still can not even come close to imagining what it must be like to see a plane coming straight for you! Being on a ship in the middle of an ocean gives you NO place to go.

  2. Pierre Lagacé

    The aircraft carrier would be the St. Lo.

    • Pierre Lagacé

      I did not know about the strategy they would use to aim at the target.

    • Thank you, Pierre. I have altered the text accordingly, but if I have picked to wrong picture to change, please tell me.

      As far as the strategy they used is concerned, there is more to come in subsequent posts, but the biggest problem was that as the best pilots were gradually used up, the quality of the kamikaze attacks declined sharply with the inexperience of the pilots they were forced to use.

  3. It still boggles my mind that they found men will to fly those planes.

    • I must confess that I was originally pretty boggled too!
      I think the main thing is that we are comparing the Japanese men with a different generation of English or Americans. The Allied Forces of 1939-1945 were frequently asked to volunteer for “Operation Certain Death” and they did not hesitate.
      Battle of Britain pilots in 1940 could look up and see the odds of hundreds to one. The same long odds were present with the Doolittle raid on Japan, or the Eighth Air Force bombing Germany in daylight without fighter support in 1942 and 1943. Many squadrons in Bomber Cpommand were replaced two or three times over, both men and aircraft.
      I know that some men did survive, but I would have though that most were well aware of their likely fate. But they kept on, right to the end.

  4. I suppose the Twin Towers was the ultimate example

    • Yes, I suppose it was. Robert Stern in fact devotes two pages to the contrast between the two, right at the end of the book. and there are a couple of blog posts on the subject that I have scheduled for the distant future. There are still some more posts to come on the basic Japanese Kamikazes before we come into the charms of the present era.

  5. Excellent post John.
    I like the reference to ‘the best. kamikaze pilots, it’s not as though they got a lot of practice!

    • As you’ll find in an upcoming post, they had about a week’s training with instructors, concentrating on taking off and then flying in formation. There was also classroom work on how to hide from the American fighters and how to hit the ship and where.
      And you are absolutely right. It was that last bit that was only ever done with little toy models and a table painted blue for the sea. After the attack, there were also observers who reported about what went right and what went wrong to the commanding officers.

  6. Jan

    Before the war, the Americans were well aware of the vulnerability of their carriers’ wooden flight decks, but for (understandable) operational reasons decided not to follow the Royal Navy’s armoured-carrier doctrine.

    • To be honest I’ve never heard of an attack on a Royal Navy ship, although that may be because of the theatre that they fought in. In sharp contrast, an Australian ship was the most kamikazed vessel of all, but that particular vessel was with the Americans closer to Japan.

      • Jan

        [Q] In March 1945, while supporting the invasion of Okinawa, the British Pacific Fleet had sole responsibility for operations in the Sakishima Islands. Its role was to suppress Japanese air activity, using gunfire and air attack, at potential kamikaze staging airfields that would otherwise be a threat to US Navy vessels operating at Okinawa. The British fleet carriers with their armoured flight decks were subject to heavy and repeated kamikaze attacks, but they proved highly resistant and returned to action relatively quickly. The USN liaison officer on Indefatigable commented: “When a kamikaze hits a US carrier it means 6 months of repair at Pearl [Harbor]. When a kamikaze hits a Limey carrier it’s just a case of ‘Sweepers, man your brooms’.”[/Q]

  7. Very interesting John. I never really thought about it like that, but I guess once you’ve aimed your plane at a target, other than a direct hit from a large Caliber gun, or a direct hit on the bomb itself, you are going to hit it through gravity alone. Pictures of a sky filled with anti-aircraft fire do look impressive, but useless for bringing down what is essentially a flying bomb. What a frightening experience it must be onboard the ship being aimed at.

    • Apparently, everybody was more or less permanently terrified and precautions were extensive, with ships equipped with radar all around the fleet, men constantly on watch, patrols of fighters at 15,000 feet, and even a set of weather conditions called “kamikaze weather” which made it easier to tell if they were likely to attack.
      Lots of genuine fear, then, but nobody, anywhere, ever suggested any kind of retreat because of the kamikaze threat. The war was there to be finished, and they were going to do exactly that.

  8. People definitely learn from history. Our prime minister, Rajeev Gandhi was killed by suicide bombers !

    • Giving your life to kill a politician always seems a very strange thing to do to me. It is doubly pointless in India because whatever the issues, everybody knows that India is a democratic country and that Rajiv Gandhi was the people’s choice

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