The Kamikaze (神風?, common translation: “divine wind”) [kamikaꜜze] Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (特別攻撃隊?) Tokkō Tai (特攻隊?) Tokkō (特攻?) were suicide attacks by military aviators from the Empire of Japan against Allied naval vessels in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign of World War II, designed to destroy as many warships as possible.
Kamikaze pilots would attempt to crash their aircraft into enemy ships—planes often laden with explosives, bombs, torpedoes and full fuel tanks. The aircraft’s normal functions (to deliver torpedoes or bombs or shoot down other aircraft) were put aside, and the planes were converted to what were essentially manned missiles in an attempt to reap the benefits of greatly increased accuracy and payload over that of normal bombs. The goal of crippling as many Allied ships as possible, particularly aircraft carriers, was considered critical enough to warrant the combined sacrifice of pilots and aircraft.
These attacks, which began in October 1944, followed several critical military defeats for the Japanese. They had long lost aerial dominance due to outdated aircraft and the loss of experienced pilots. On a macroeconomic scale, Japan experienced a decreasing capacity to wage war, and a rapidly declining industrial capacity relative to the United States. The Japanese government expressed its reluctance to surrender. In combination, these factors led to the use of kamikaze tactics as Allied forces advanced towards the Japanese home islands.
USS Bunker Hill was hit by kamikazes piloted by Ensign Kiyoshi Ogawa (photo above) and another airman on 11 May 1945. 389 personnel were killed or missing from a crew of 2,600.
While the term “kamikaze” usually refers to the aerial strikes, the term has sometimes been applied to various other intentional suicide attacks. The Japanese military also used or made plans for Japanese Special Attack Units, including those involving submarines, human torpedoes, speedboats and divers. Nazi Germany formed their own group of suicide aircraft pilots called the Leonidas Squadron, but Hitler demonstrated a greater reluctance to use them.
Although kamikaze was the most common and best-known form of Japanese suicide attack during World War II, they were similar to the “banzai charge” used by Japanese infantrymen (foot soldiers). The main difference between kamikaze and banzai is that death was inherent to the success of a kamikaze attack, whereas a banzai charge was only potentially fatal – that is, the infantrymen hoped to survive but did not expect to. Western sources often incorrectly consider Operation Ten-Go as a kamikaze operation, since it occurred at the Battle of Okinawa along with the mass waves of kamikaze planes; however, banzai is the more accurate term, since the aim of the mission was for battleship Yamato to beach herself and provide support to the island defenders, as opposed to ramming and detonating among enemy naval forces. The tradition of death instead of defeat, capture, and perceived shame was deeply entrenched in Japanese military culture. It was one of the primary traditions in the samurai life and the Bushido code: loyalty and honor until death.