USS Bunker Hill hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds off Kyushu, 11 May 1945
As morning bled across the Philippine Sea on 11 May 1945, the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill was crippled by two kamikaze strikes. A Mitsubishi A6M Zero “Zeke” fighter emerged like an apparition from low cloud and quickly dove, dropping a 550-lb bomb that smashed out the ship’s side before itself crashing onto the flight deck and skidding over the side. A huge blaze erupted as some 30 parked planes full of fuel were destroyed. But there was to be no respite.
USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) on fire after being hit by two Kamikazes, 11 May 1945.
Scarcely 30 seconds later, a second Zeke plunged into a near-vertical dive, ghosting through anti-aircraft fire as it let go another bomb, then smashed into the flight deck close to the control tower. The bomb penetrated the deck and exploded, causing infernos to flare up and further petrol explosions. Bunker Hill lost over 400 men, with 264 more wounded, blown overboard or forced to jump to escape the fires. Kiyoshi Ogawa, who flew the second plane, died a hero’s death.
Kamikaze attacking USS Columbia (CL-56) off Lingayen Gulf, 6 January 1945.
On 6 January 1945, with Allied pre-invasion bombardments underway, Japanese kamikaze attacks beset light cruiser USS Columbia like angry bees. After one plane had crashed close by, a second hit Columbia’s port quarter, the plane and its bomb breaching two decks before exploding. Of the crew, 13 were killed and 44 wounded, while the gun tubs were disabled and fires raged. Three days later, as Columbia lay handicapped inshore, another kamikaze struck, killing 25 and wounding 97.
…Columbia hit by the kamikaze seconds later.
As almost daily we read of suicide bombings enacted by blindly murderous individuals in the name of martyrdom, it’s easy to think of suicide attacks as a modern phenomenon. Yet though generally considered a recent trend in history, such difficult-to-defend acts of violence are nothing new. Suicide attacks were occasionally used by European soldiers and dissidents from at least the 17th century on, but the tactic found new force in the form of the kamikaze.
Zeke 52 crash dive on USS White Plains (CVE-66), 25 October 1944.
The attacks on USS Bunker Hill and USS Columbia were two of many such incidents during the Pacific Campaign. World War II was in its final stages, and with the loss of experienced pilots and rapidly declining industrial capacity, the Empire of Japan was increasingly incapable of fighting on an even keel with its opponents. As the Allied forces closed in on its home islands, rather than surrendering Japan saw the need for desperate measures.
The kamikaze Zeke seconds before impact.
With the kamikaze – translated as “divine wind” – the Japanese launched attacks bent on wiping out as much the Allied naval fleet as possible. The pilots deliberately crashed aircraft loaded with explosives and fuel into Allied ships, acting as manned missiles – more accurate and destructive than normal bombs. The sacrifice, both human and mechanical, was a price worth paying. Death was inevitable.
Debris filling the air after the Zeke hits the water just off ship’s port quarter.
The organised kamikaze attacks began in the fall of 1944 following several critical military defeats for Japan. As the sun rose in the sky on 25 October, nine Zeke fighters appeared and launched simultaneous strikes, two of them singling out escort carrier USS White Plains. The gunners responded with heavy anti-aircraft fire, hitting one of the attackers and bringing the second down just yards astern. The explosion sprayed debris all over the deck but only caused minor casualties.
USS St. Lo (CVE-63) first kamikaze attack, 25 October 1944.
Meanwhile, the first Zeke hit by White Plains had banked towards escort carrier USS St. Lo and, trailing smoke, now ploughed into its new target. The plane’s bomb tore through the flight deck and exploded where the aircraft were being refuelled. A fire erupted followed by other internal explosions, including detonations of the ship’s bomb magazine. St. Lo was engulfed in flames and sank half an hour later. Of the 889 men on board, 113 were killed or missing and 30 more died of their injuries.
Kamikaze strike on USS Intrepid (CV-11), 25 November 1944.
Fighting in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, St. Lo was the first major ship to be sunk by a kamikaze attack, but by no means was she the last. By the end of the following day, 55 kamikazes from Japan’s “Special Attack Force” had sunk a total of five ships and left a further 23 heavily damaged. This success saw an immediate expansion of the programme, and over the next few months over 2,000 planes made such attacks.
Kamikaze plane disintegrates in flames after hitting USS Intrepid.
Some ships, like USS Intrepid, survived repeated hits from kamikazes. On October 30 1944, ten of her men were killed and six wounded when a burning kamikaze crashed into her gun turret. Then on November 25, a force of Japanese aircraft struck back at the aircraft carriers attacking them, and minutes later two kamikazes had hurtled into Intrepid. Luckily, only 11 men were killed and the fires were extinguished in less than two hours.
USS Saratoga (CV-3) burning after five kamikaze planes hit, 21 February 1945.
The kamikaze attacks continued to multiply into 1945. On 21 February, six Japanese planes scored five impacts on aircraft carrier USS Saratoga inside three minutes, with three bombs from the planes also exploding inside the hull. Saratoga’s flight deck was wrecked, her starboard side was holed twice, and large fires flared up in her hangar deck. As night drew in, the flames were brought under control, but Saratoga had lost 123 of her crew.
Kamikaze attack (top left) on USS Missouri (BB-63), 11 April 1945.
The kamikaze strikes spiked from April to June 1945, becoming a central and highly organised part of the last gasp Japanese defence. Waves of planes were sent in – some 1,500 all told – as the Americans landed. The US Navy suffered heavy losses including at least 30 warships sunk or disabled – but there were also near misses. On April 11, a low-flying kamikaze crashed into the side of battleship USS Missouri, its spinning wing causing a fire but only minor damage.
USS Bunker Hill after Kamikaze attack, 11 May 1945.
Yet while ships like Missouri got of lightly, others like Bunker Hill – the most heavily damaged carrier to survive the war – did not. The number of ships sunk by kamikazes is contested, but historians tend to agree on a total of around 50, with hundreds more in various states of damage. Almost 5,000 sailors were killed and about the same number wounded. By the end of WWII, the Japanese had sacrificed between 2800 and 3900 kamikaze pilots.
Yokosuka D4Y3 in suicide dive against USS Essex (CV-9), 25 November 1944.
What drove these young Japanese pilots to turn themselves into flying bombs? The question is not easy to answer – particularly coming from a different cultural perspective and with the passing of generations since the end of the war. Self-sacrifice may have long been part and parcel of war, but embodied in the kamikazes it was ritualised in a way never seen before.
Members of 72th Shinbu kamikaze unit, 26 May 1945.
Japan is steeped in a military tradition of suicide before defeat, central to the samurai code of Bushido: loyalty and honour until death. Under the rule of the Emperor, this formed a heady mixture with the naturally surging wartime nationalism of 1944-5. Students were already required to offer the vow that they would offer themselves “courageously to the State”, and the natural conclusion of this ideology was to give up one’s life.
Photograph of send-off of group of kamikaze found on body of a pilot.
Patriotism, honour and Emperor-worship played their part in spurring men on to sign up with the Special Attack Corp, but the psychological coercion was increased by peer pressure and media propaganda that romanticised the role of the kamikaze. The reality of course was very different. The training regime was not only clinically detailed in preparing pilots for how to attack, but physically brutal. Prior to their final mission, recruits took part in ceremonies involving the Japanese flags, symbolic weapons like the katana sword, and the drinking of sake to induce courage.
High school girls waving farewell to a taking-off kamikaze pilot, 12 April 1945.
Yet unlike most suicide bombers today, many of the kamikaze were well educated and held more liberal, worldly views than compatriots their age. These young men were not simply brainwashed sheep herded into a slaughterhouse but, as their diaries reveal, were clear-minded and mentally prepared about what to expect. This is not to ascribe wisdom to their actions but to hint at the complexity of the underlying reasons and the extreme power of belief in a national and religious cause.