What Are Kamikaze Pilots?

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During the Second World War, the Japanese military enlisted a special attack unit which underwent intense training that taught them not to fear death.

These suicide attack units would fly their planes directly into the enemy target, losing their lives in the process. These pilots were known as Kamikaze pilots.

Kamikaze, which literally translates to divine wind, was a war tactic employed by the Japanese forces in the 2nd World War. The name originates from 13th century, when the dreaded Mongol army was on its way to invade Japan. 

The Mongol army had conquered most of the Asian subcontinent and finally set their eyes on Japan. In preparation, Kublai Khan amassed a colossal fleet of around 1000 ships and set sailed toward the Japanese islands. 

The Japanese fleet was much smaller and Kublai Khan was confident that victory would be theirs. 

But to his surprise, most of his army didn’t even make it to Japan. On their way, they encountered a typhoon so big, that nearly all the ships sank, and with it, his many soldiers. 

Thinking of it as a divine intervention, a blessing from the Gods, the Japanese called this typhoon ‘Kamikaze’.  

How Many Kamikaze Pilots Died?

In 1944, Japan, along with the other Axis powers, was losing badly to the Allies.

Japan’s offensive against the United States was failing on all fronts. The technologically superior US Airforce and Navy had caused significant damage to Japanese planes, ships and submarines.

Japan needed a solution to tip the scales in their favor. This is when Captain Motoharu Okamura suggested suicide attacks on the American fleet as a last ditch effort to save the Japanese offensive.

According to this strategy, highly trained navy pilots would fly their specially designed planes into enemy ships, bringing great destruction to the enemy, while also sacrificing their lives for their nation.

According to estimates by the United States, around 2800 kamikaze pilots lost their lives in WW2 over several suicide missions from 1944-1945. Although, Japanese records show the number to be significantly higher, somewhere around 4000.

Did Any Kamikaze Pilots Survive Pearl Harbor?

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Japanese bomber planes wreaked havoc on the US naval base in Pearl Harbor in 1941. Eight battleships sustained great damage, out of which four sank.

Rumor has it, that Captain Okamura got the idea of kamikaze attacks following an incident that took place during Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

After being hit with an anti-aircraft gun, Lieutenant Fusata Iida intentionally flew his plane into a naval air station. Lieutenant Iida lost his life that day, but not before taking down an important enemy establishment.

This might have been the first recorded use of the kamikaze tactic in warfare. But no official kamikaze mission was sanctioned until 1944.

Kamikaze Attack

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During the 2nd World War, Japan conducted several Kamikaze missions from 1944-1945. With reference to Kamikaze missions, the Battle of Okinawa stands out as the largest and most devastating attack ever.

In the Battle of Okinawa, close to 1500 kamikaze planes were sent to cause massive damage to American ships.

Strapped with a 250-kilogram bomb each, wave after wave of kamikaze planes caused devastation that the US hadn’t witnessed before. According to reports, about 80% of the damage incurred by the US was from kamikaze attacks.

About 200 US Navy vessels were taken down and close to 5000 naval officers, seamen and sailors lost their lives in the battle.

What Happened to Kamikaze Pilots Who Returned?

Kamikaze planes used for these suicide missions were old, and modified extensively to carry explosives.

This meant that lighter engines were used, oil in those engines was only enough for a one-way journey, and some planes had their landing gear removed as well. Pilots were okay with this, because they knew they won’t be coming back the next day.

But because of these modifications, engine troubles and failure to take-off were some of the most common issues kamikaze planes encountered. Sometimes locating an enemy ship was also difficult due to bad weather.

Owing to these problems, Japanese kamikaze pilots had the option to return home, only to face the wrath of their superiors. Military chiefs weren’t concerned about these issues, they were angry that their chance of causing more damage was now lost.

Any kamikaze pilot could return to base for 9 times. But after the 9th failed attempt, he was shot to death for treason.

Were Kamikaze Pilots Forced?

In Shintoism, the major religion in Japan, suicide is much more acceptable than in other Judeo-Christian religions in the west. Killing oneself for your country and your emperor was seen as a matter of pride in the Japanese society.

Obviously, this sentiment changed gradually as the new generation of Japanese students went to universities to learn, among other things, about the futility of war and the importance of freewill.

But in WW2, Japan was most likely to lose before the end of the war. It needed volunteering young men for their kamikaze tactic, which was the only strategy that brought them any fruitful results.

So, all young men over the age of 21 enlisted themselves in the armed forces to fight for their country. Most of these recruits were university students and were trained exclusively for the kamikaze squadrons.

When orders for them to go on kamikaze strikes came through, they were given three choices:

  • To volunteer willingly
  • To volunteer simply
  • To not volunteer at all

But the truth is that they were indoctrinated during their training to repress their emotions and to consider the importance of attaining martyrdom for their country. Committing suicide was taught to be a matter of great honor for them.

Journal entries, letters, and wills left by soldiers truthfully express their fear of dying and the sadness that their deaths will bring to their families. But most of them felt like they had no other option but to volunteer.

How Many Kamikaze Pilots Survived?

The Kamikaze tactic is such, that the fatality rate for both the attacker, and the enemy is 100%. Most kamikaze pilots flew into battle knowing it would be their final mission. 

Many kamikaze pilots managed to survive because Japan surrendered after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

According to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Japan had close to 5000 modified kamikaze planes at the time of surrender. The total number of kamikaze pilots who survived is unknown, but two such Japanese soldiers had given their testimonies to The Guardian in 2015.

When Was the First Kamikaze Attack?

Led by one of Japan’s brightest pilots Captain Yukio Seki, a small squadron of five zero fighters flew towards Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, on the morning of October 23, 1944. This was the first officially sanctioned kamikaze attack.

So far, the United States had been successful in vanquishing the Japanese offensive. But these suicide pilots embarked from the skies and took down one of the American aircraft carriers called USS St. Lo.

The enormous 8000-ton enemy carrier sank to the bottom of the sea, killing over 100 American sailors. Over the next two days, 50 more suicide bombers sank 7 more escort carriers and 40 more enemy ships in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

What Was the First Ship Hit By Kamikaze?

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According to war reports, USS St. Lo is the first major ship officially sunk by a Kamikaze attack. Many believe that Captain Yukio Seki was flying the plane that hit this warship.

Without caring for his life, Captain Seki flew his plane into the enemy ship, hoping to meet his fellow pilots at Yasukuni shrine, after his death.

For the first time, Japan’s chances of squashing the American offensive seemed likely. The Kamikaze strategy was a huge success and Japan went on to use the strategy again.

FAQ Relating to What Are Kamikaze Pilots

The deadliest weapon in the world isn’t a physical weapon, it’s a psychological implement called fear. Throughout history, armies have discouraged their enemies to fight by creating a sense of fear – Fear of defeat, fear of capture, and fear of dying.

But Kamikaze pilots took the fear of dying out of their system, even if they were somewhat forced to do so. Here are a few frequently asked questions about these reluctant brave hearts:

What Does Kamikaze Pilot Do?

A Kamikaze pilot willingly crashes his specifically modified plane into an enemy target. These planes have their landing gear removed to fit maximum amount of explosives, which can weigh up to a ton.

This made their survival impossible, if they chose to commit to these suicide missions.

Did Any Kamikaze Pilots Ever Survive?

Kamikaze warfare was never seen as conventional attacks. If a pilot went on kamikaze attacks, he knew he would not survive.

Although, many pilots managed to survive after Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945.

What Happens If a Kamikaze Pilot Survived?

If a Kamikaze pilot survived, they would have to face the wrath of their officers, at having failed the suicide attacks, and the shame for not sacrificing their lives for their country. The ones who managed to survive after 9 failed attempts were charged for treason and shot dead.

What Does Kamikaze Stand For?

Kamikaze stands for ‘divine wind’, since it was seen as a divine intervention in favor of Japan. It was a massive typhoon that managed to destroy the majority of the Mongol fleet, when they were on their way to invade Japan.

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