Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot

Alli - November 8, 2017

On October 25, 1944, during the Battle of the Leyte Gulf, the Japanese deployed the first weapon of its kind, forever changing the dynamic of Japanese military operations. Japanese suicide bombers, known as kamikaze- or “Divine Wind”- hurtled toward American warships in a desperate effort to swing the war into their favor.

The decision to use these unconventional methods was based on the failure of normal naval and aerial tactics to stop the American offensive from advancing. Thus, the kamikaze pilots were created as a part of the Japanese Special Attacks Units of military aviators. The first group consisted of 24 volunteer pilots from Japan’s 201st Navy Air Group. The mission was to attack U.S. escort carriers- the targets went down quickly. The first target, St. Lo, was struck by an A6M Zero Fighter and sunk in less than an hour; 100 American deaths. The new efforts were considered a success and encouraged the Japanese military to continue these sacrificial methods.

Kamikaze aircraft were basically pilot-guided explosive missiles. Pilots would attempt to crash their aircraft into enemy ships in what was called a “body attack”. These attacks were performed in planes full of some combination of explosives, fuel tanks, torpedoes and bombs. The accuracy proved to be an improvement on the conventional attacks, boasting a 19 percent success rate. In addition to improved accuracy, a kamikaze could sustain more damage than a conventional attacker and still achieve its objective.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Kamikaze Attack on US Ship in the Pacific, 1944. BBC

Captain Motoharu Okamura, a Japanese naval commander stated: “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 will be more than enough volunteers for this chance to save our country.” More than 5,000 kamikaze pilots died in the gulf battle, which successfully took down 34 targeted ships. By the end, more than 1,321 Japanese aircraft crash-dived their planes into Allied warships during the war; killing approximately 3,000 American and British troops.

While these unconventional sacrifices for victory may seem very odd to some, the threat of defeat pushed the Empire of Japan to believe the sacrifice of pilots and aircraft was justified. So what was it like living as a kamikaze pilot, nose-diving to death? The military tactics dehumanize the loss of human life, so sometimes we may not get a clear picture of the type of men who volunteered their lives to the cause of victory. In this article, you will find surprising information about the daily life of the kamikaze pilot– their sacrifice treasured by the country they served.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Japanese soldier of the Imperial Army. Wikemedia

Japanese Soldiers were taught to Commit Suicide to Avoid being Captured

When a Japanese soldier entered the military for training, one of the first things they were taught was to kill themselves with their rifles. How does this make for a good soldier? Some believe this inspiration could go back to the idea of Seppuku, which is a form of Japanese ritual suicide – traditionally of disembowelment, usually reserved for a samurai. This suicide was meant for the samurai to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of an enemy. While the idea and honor in death of Seppuku is reserved strictly for a traditional samurai, it shows that the idea of suicide is preferable to some cultures rather than being captured and risking dishonoring your country.

In the final years, when the kamikaze pilot groups were created, the cadets clearly understood that Japan was fighting a losing war. Therefore, rationalizing their own deaths, they believed sacrificing their lives for the sake of their country’s survival would not be a total waste. Some even convinced themselves fighting to the death could even save the Japanese people by forcing the Allied Forces to make concessions to spare any more loss of life on their end.

This idea of nationalism made people believe the Japanese were sacrificing their lives for the nation-state of Japan. While they wanted to do whatever they could for the Emperor, many first-hand accounts of this patriotism showed that they were fighting for their small, beautiful hometowns- not the overall country. This revelation digs deeper into the psyche of a kamikaze pilot and the reasons they would go to such extreme lengths to win the war.

The new soldiers would train by learning how to pull the trigger with their toes while aiming the barrel at a distinct point under their chin so that the bullet would cause instant death. If a soldier decided to decline this option, his fellow soldiers were instructed to shoot him from behind. They believed there could be no chance of capture – death could be the only alternative.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
CHIRAN, JAPAN – Pilots salute prior to their Kamikaze attack at Chiran Air Base in April 1945 in Chiran, Kagoshima, Japan. Photo by Yasuo Tomishige/The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

All Kamikaze Pilots were “Volunteers”… or were they?

It can be said that many kamikaze pilots unreservedly volunteered for their position; they believed their lives were a small price to pay for their country. However, this enthusiastic self-sacrifice was not always the case among Japanese soldiers. The process to select potential kamikaze pilots left little choice. Prospective kamikaze pilots were given a slip of paper with three options: volunteer willingly, simply volunteer or don’t volunteer. Since these papers had the pilots’ names on them, saying no would be public knowledge quickly and shame would follow.

Another method of recruiting kamikaze pilots would be to gather all soldiers in a room and ask the group “Who does not want to volunteer?” It proved much more difficult to be the single person who jumped off the bandwagon suicide missions. Those who decided to speak up found that making the choice to not sacrifice their lives would make their lives very difficult and unpleasant.

One account of a soldier who chose to opt-out of this tactic ended up being signed up despite his wishes. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney recounted this particular event he witnessed in his book Kamikaze Diaries: “Kuroda Kenjiro decided not to volunteer, only to be taken by surprise when he found his name on the list of volunteers for the Mitate Navy Tokkotai corps; his superior had reported proudly that all the members of his corps had volunteered.”

The pressure soldiers felt to volunteer was due to the Japanese military motto. At the time, it essentially meant “Death before Surrender”. This idea would be engrained in the soldiers’ minds far before they received the call to become a suicide bomber. In fact, this idea was so prevalent that many Japanese soldiers also participated in banzai suicide charges when faced with certain defeat- even civilians practiced this. One of the most notable civilian acts of suicide came from Saipan, 1,000 captured civilians jumped off a cliff in Saipan rather than be captured.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
72nd Shinbu Squadron, 1945. Alamy

Most Kamikaze Pilots were New Recruits

History has made the revered kamikaze pilots seem like experienced military men, plunging towards certain death for honor. While part of this scenario may be true, the pilots were anything but experienced. Of the approximately 4,000 kamikaze pilots, around 3,000 were referred to as “boy pilots.” These were newer conscripts that came from a program dedicated to train very young boys to serve in the military.

Due to the extreme job description, experience pilots did not typically line up first. Most of the new kamikaze pilots were college students or graduates. The total death toll of Navy kamikaze officer pilots- which included 685 former college students- was 782. Only 12 percent of those who died were professional fighters.

In the Battle of Okinawa, the death toll of the former students was as high as 82 percent. Studies suggest that the branch that sacrificed the most student soldiers was the Navy. In comparison, the Army lost about 58 percent of their former student recruits.

Around one-third of these boy pilots were “student soldiers” who graduated early in order to be accepted into the draft. When the special attack force was formed in October 1944, not a single officer from the military academy volunteered to join.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Chiran High School girls wave farewell with cherry blossom branches to departing kamikaze pilot in a Nakajima Ki-43. Wikimedia.

Most Pilots only Vaguely Thought About Their Enemy

Allied propaganda played a big role on how the world saw kamikaze pilots; this may still dictate how many people think of these daring men. The Allied powers typically depicted the kamikaze as ruthless killing machines determined to kill all others.

However, writer Yuki Tannaka of the Hiroshima Peace institutes argues that many hardly thought of their enemy at all. He argues that the “boy soldiers” in the Japanese army frequently wrote home and give readers a different perception. Tannaka writes:

“In their diaries and letters home, there is barely any reference to their adversaries. The enemy does not exist in their mind. Specifically, virtually no sense of ‘hatred of the enemy’ can be found in their writings. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that these cadets had never experienced actual combat… In the case of these Japanese youths, a concrete mental concept of ‘the enemy’ did not exist at all.

Instead, they were preoccupied with philosophical ideas such as how to find some spiritual value in their brief lives, how to spend their remaining time meaningfully and how to philosophically justify their suicidal act.”

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Abandoned Japanese plane, likely grounded due to engine troubles. Wikimedia

Mechanical Problems Saved the Lives of Many Kamikaze Pilots

In an unlikely turn of events, some kamikaze missions were not a death sentence. Kamikaze pilots were taught to divert and try to return to the base if there was engine failure or any other sort of mechanical issue. As the war trampled on, Japanese aircraft became increasingly outdated. This led to many pilots needing to abort the mission in their unpredictable air crafts.

One kamikaze who survived a mission this way numerous times was Takehiko Ena. He was part of a crew of three who flew a bomber during Operation Kikusui, a suicide campaign during the battle of Okinawa. His luck was threefold: on his first mission, he failed to get airborne. The second mission, engine trouble forced an emergency landing. His third and final mission resulted in a crash landing into the sea due to engine trouble.

While history may look at these particular instances of mechanical failure favorable on the pilots, there was a lot of guilt involved. Many surviving kamikaze pilots reminisce on their failed missions and felt as though they dishonored their families and the other pilots who died on the same missions. Survivor’s remorse is difficult to comprehend. But the bond these bombers formed, locked them together in solidarity.

U.S. pilots flying in formation were equipped with radios and kept communication strong, however, the outdated Japanese planes did not have this luxury. However, it was common practice for the same flight formation team to be maintained through all stages from training to actual combat in order to create and sustain coordinated team actions.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Kiichi Kawano, age 19, serves as a Special Attack Force pilot. ABC

Firstborn Sons Were Exempt

The eldest son in the family holds a significance for many cultures throughout the world. The firstborn son has held a high status for centuries and holds traditions of family hierarchy and inheritance centered around passing on the family name and property to the next in line. In Japan, this important role of the firstborn son was taken very seriously.

It is custom for the oldest son to live with his parents and take over managing the affairs of the family. He has the responsibility to care for his aging parents and provide direction to other family members. When he marries, his wife and children are also included in the household of his parents.

So in 1944, when kamikaze pilots were being selected, firstborn sons were allowed to continue their lives in order to carry on the family name and support their families. This is a definite juxtaposition to the idea that all men were subject to sacrifice themselves in service of the emperor.

Second-born sons were not so lucky. In a personal account of his life as a second-born son and kamikaze volunteer, Paul Saneaki Nakamura talks about his training. He recounts his training took place on the mainland, using gliders instead of planes due to the critical shortages in Japanese aircraft. Luckily, he was never called up for a suicide mission and believed he was returning to his life. However, he would soon discover that nothing was the same.

After the war, Nakamura could not afford to fly back to his home in Okinawa. When he finally returned, he found his community was devastated. He discovered that while he was away, all of the first sons who had stayed behind had been killed during the Battle of Okinawa. It was then that he decided to devote his life to becoming an Anglican priest and spread Christianity across Japan. Later in life, Nakamura became a bishop.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Japanese Emperor Michinomiya Hirohito at his enthronement ceremony in 1926. Emperor of Japan from 1926 until his death in 1989. He was the longest-reigning monarch in Japan’s history. Wikimedia

Soldiers Were Conditioned to Die for the Emperor without Hesitation

Let’s dispel one myth about Japanese Emperors really quick: the Japanese did not see Emperor Hirohito as a living god. This misconception is born from a very similar idea under the Shinto religion. Shinto cannot be separated from Japan, but in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, Shinto became an established state religion.

Many argue that this linked to the cause of Japanese nationalism. This argument sprouts from the Shinto legend that emperors of Japan are descended in an unbroken line from the first Emperor, Jimmu Tenno; and the Japanese people themselves are descended from the kami, who was present at the founding of Japan.

Shinto revolves around keeping a good relationship between the Emperor and his people and that the Emperor rules the country because the gods want him to. Before the creation of State Shinto, this story was just a myth among many others; it did not shape Japanese self-image until the issue of nationalism came along. Now that we all understand the true background of the importance of the Emperor to the Japanese people during this time, we can look at the issue of being taught to die for the Emperor without question.

The unyielding loyalty of the Special Attack Units (aka kamikaze), was clear when they were expected to not only accept their fateful duty but embrace their patriotic demise wholeheartedly. Many countries expect soldiers to fight for their country, but WWII Japan stands out as one that expected its soldiers to die in service.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Kamikaze pilots pose for picture, 1945. Mental Floss

Corporal Punishment Was Widespread and Brutal in the Japanese Army

Irokawa, a kamikaze pilot in WWII wrote about the brutal reality he and his fellow soldiers faced every day:

“After I passed the gate to the Tsuchiura Naval Air Base, “training” took place day after day. I was struck on the face so hard and frequently that my face was no longer recognizable. On January 2, 1945, Kaneko (Ensign) hit my face twenty times and the inside of my mouth was cut in many places by my teeth. I had been looking forward to eating zōni [a special dish with rice cakes for the New Year]. Instead, I was swallowing blood from the inside of my mouth.

On February 14, all of us were punished because they suspected that we ate at farmers’ homes near the base to ease our hunger. In the midst of the cold winter, we were forced to sit for seven hours on a cold concrete floor and they hit us on the buttocks with a club. Then each of us was called into the officer’s room. When my turn came, as soon as I entered the room, I was hit so hard that I could no longer see and fell on the floor.”

The minute I got up, I was hit again by a club so that I would confess. A friend of mine was thrown with his head first to the floor, lost consciousness, and was sent to a hospital. He never returned. All this savagery was orchestrated by the corps commander named Tsutsui. I am still looking for this fellow.”

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
City in Japan compiled documentation and letters from kamikaze pilots to seek recognition from UN. Stars and Stripes

Pilots Wrote a Farewell Letter to Be Sent to Their Parents Upon the Completion of Their Mission

In their final days, kamikaze pilots were told to write farewell letters to their loved ones. This would be their final act before performing their duty as kamikaze. Below, read the letter from Captain Adachi Takuya to his parents:

“Honorable Mother and Father,

The difficulty of the journey you made to see me was clearly evident in your disheveled hair and in the hollows under your eyes-it made me want to bend my knees and worship before you. In the wrinkles on your brows was vivid testimony of the pains you took to raise me. Words could not express my feelings, and what little I did say was superficial in the extreme.

Yet, although acutely conscious of how little time we had, I saw in your eyes and in your gaze all you wanted to say but couldn’t.

When you took my hand and passed it over your chilblains, I experienced a sense of profound peacefulness, unlike anything I have experienced since joining up -like being a baby again and longing for the warmth of a mother’s love. It is because I bask in the beauty of your deep devotion that I can martyr myself for you-for in death I will sleep in the world of your love. Washed down with my tears was the sushi you prepared with such loving care, for it was like putting your love to my lips. Though I ate but little, it was the most delicious meal of my life.

Honorable Mother, even if I was never able to fully accept the love you gave me, I received so much wisdom from you. And Father, your silent words are carved deeply into my heart. With this, I will be able to fight together with you both. Even if I should die, it will be with a peaceful spirit.

I mean this with all my heart.

The war zone is where these beautiful emotions are put to the test. If death means a return to this world of love, there is no need for me to fear. There is nothing left to do but press on and fulfill my duty.

At 1600 hours our meeting was over. Watching you walk out the gate, I quietly waved goodbye.”

Captain Adachi Takuya, Kamikaze Special Attack Group No. i Seikita. Killed in the Okinawa area on April 28, 1945, age 23.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Kamikaze pilots participate in a ceremony before their final mission. Wikimedia.

Before Taking Off, Kamikaze Pilots Would Have a Ceremonial Drink

Before boarding their planes, kamikaze pilots would line up and have one last drink in a special ceremony- they would be given either sake or water. This particular routine would give the pilots a bit of liquid courage before they embarked on their final mission in this life.

One surviving kamikaze pilot tells of the day he took the drink and his plane took off:

As Keiichi Kuwahara flew out to sea he gazed back with tear-filled eyes towards Japan and the homeland he never expected to see again. On May 4, 1945, he was headed for Okinawa and his mission was clear – crash into an enemy warship, killing himself along with hundreds of troops who were coming to invade his country. “They didn’t need to tell us what to do because we knew. It was simple. We had to get in a plane and crash into a target. I kept looking back, thinking it was the last time I would see the land. As I did the sun came up and made the horizon shine light pink. I thought ‘I have to go in order to defend this beautiful land.’ ”

Kuwahara says: “I struggled to convince myself I had to die. I thought my death would be pointless. Even if Japan won the war my family would die in the gutter because I would not be there to support them. It tormented me. I felt as if I was losing my mind.

“We were told that rather than accept defeat we should offer our lives. There was no choice. We had to follow orders when push came to shove. But we didn’t wish for death.”

But his engine failed, forcing him to crash land. A week later mechanical problems forced him to abort his second suicide mission. His relief at surviving was outweighed by the fear he had dishonored his family and how he would be treated by the other pilots when he returned.

The following day his kamikaze unit was disbanded. Wracked with guilt that he survived while so many of his friends died, he still lays flowers every year for the kamikazes who died. (Mirror)

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo, 1930. At the entrance to the shrine is the Chumon torii. Old Tokyo

Kamikaze Pilots Believed They Would Meet Again at the Yasukuni Shrine

A kamikaze pilot would take off the day of his final mission, his forehead wrapped with a headband sporting the rising sun. This headband was made by a thousand women in Japan and served as part of the ceremony before departure.

The origin of Yasukuni Shrine is Shokonsha established at Kudan in Tokyo in the second year of the Meiji era (1869) “by the will of Emperor Meiji”. In 1879, it was renamed Yasukuni Shrine. This was to be the earthly resting place of those who died in the service of emperor and country. Currently, more than 2,466,000 divinities are enshrined here at Yasukuni Shrine.

These are souls of men who made ultimate sacrifice for their nation since 1853 during a national crisis such as the Boshin War, the Seinan War, the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, World War I, the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident and the Greater East Asian War (World War II). Kamikaze pilots believed they would be reunited at this shrine and their spirits would be at peace for eternity.

Today, the shrine memorializes all those who sacrificed their lives to protect their Emperor and country. Young pilots are depicted in gleaming oil paintings and bronze statues- but the shrine does not mention any context in which their lives were lost. Their images sit there among the others who gave their lives; peacefully silent for eternity.