October 25th, 1944
The first Kamikaze attack of WWII.
A somber subject for a somber evening here in Juneau, Alaska as I watch an early season light snow develop into a blizzard. Lately, I’ve been researching Marine Corps VMO (Observation Squadron) history and was reminded that two OY-1’s were lost in a Kamikaze attack that sank the aircraft carrier USS Bismarck Sea off of Iwo Jima. That was in February, 1945 and one of the two VMO-4 pilots aboard CVE-95 lost his life that day along with 317 other naval officers and crewman.
The first such “Divine Wind” attacks against American ships began 76 years ago today in Leyte Gulf whose waters lap the shores of Leyte, Samar, Dinegat and Homonhon in the east-central Philippine Island group known as the Visayas. The huge armada numbering over 300 vessels was virtually hemmed into an area about the size of present day Austin, Texas, which meant they hadn’t a lot of room to maneuver evasively at combat speed in the face of these fanatical aviators. The first group of Japanese pilots, only 24 in number, managed to sink the light aircraft carrier USS St. Lo, and severely damage the USS Suwannee which sank later the next day. This was a very promising start and the number of suicide pilots soon grew into a virtual blizzard of volunteers over the next few months. They would eventually sink 32 other ships, damage 368 more, and cause approximately 9,700 Australian, American and British casualties, including 4,900 deaths. The cost to the Japanese Army and Navy air forces was in the neighborhood of 2,800 airplanes and pilots.
Such unprecedented tactics were both unexpected and unfathomable to the Anglo-American allies and were a consequence of them not grasping the fundamental nature of the steadfast foe they were pitted against. The ancient Samurai and Bushido traditions of loyalty to the death in preference to defeat, surrender and dishonor was deeply ingrained in the Japanese military psyche. Captain Motoharu Okamura, famed Japanese ace of the China campaign who organized the suicide squadrons, declared “I firmly believe that the only way to swing the war in our favor is to resort to crash-dive attacks with our planes…” and he predicted that many pilots would volunteer for such duty. He wasn’t wrong; more than 5,000 pilots jumped at the chance to strike a decisive blow at the American fleets and he later referred to them as a “swarm of bees”. *
The decision of the high command in Tokyo to launch suicide raids against the American fleet at Leyte was based on the relative inexperience of their dwindling supply of pilots and the consequent low success rate of conventional air attacks. A piloted bomb was more likely to hit it’s target than a free-falling one, and a single plane had sunk the St. Lo. As long as Japan had willing volunteers for suicide missions, it would wield them. At that point in October of 1944, the B-29 raids against the Japanese homeland had not started and the Imperial leaders could not foresee that sacrificing vital planes and pilots would leave Japan nakedly vulnerable to the high-flying, long-range bombers that were to eventually come and that most of their anti-aircraft defenses couldn’t touch.
Such is the way that decisions blindly sculpt the courses of a war. It was this fateful decision to mount Kamikaze air attacks, coupled with the determined to-the-death defenses of Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa that swayed President Truman to eventually opt for the atomic bomb over a conventional invasion of Japan. As horrific as that decision seems today, it was the wiser and ultimately less costly choice in terms of casualties and suffering on both sides had Operation Downfall been launched. The estimates are mind-boggling and I encourage anyone of an opposing view to at least look at the Wikipedia entry on that proposed operation and then contemplate what you would have done in the President’s shoes. It’s one of those tough ethical questions they ask in university philosophy courses and Truman struggled mightily with it before he gave his go-ahead.
Coming back around to our theme of the L-5 Sentinel, hundreds of liaison pilots undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when the war ended abruptly after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The “Jeep Carriers”, as the CVE’s were known, figured prominently in the Downfall invasion plans with over 75 of those highly vulnerable “flattops” pencilled into the proposed Order of Battle. Many would have carried the L-5’s and OY’s of the Army Air Forces and Marines into combat and the Japanese knew as well as anybody that destroying the “eyes in the sky” of the American forces was a high priority. They had learned the hard way at Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and in the Philippines the devastating power those slow, unarmed “puddle-jumpers” wielded and they, along with the troop transports, would have been first-order targets for the waves of kamikazes that would have inevitably come winging their way.
Thankfully, that didn’t come to pass, and as I watch the snow accumulating outside like the swelling numbers of suicide pilots gathering in 1945, I’ve been spared from telling that horrible tale.
* After the war, Capt. Okamura shot himself as self-punishment for the thousands of young aviators he sent to their deaths on kamikaze missions.