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The Last Kamikaze

By Evan Thomas
8/20/2018 • World War II Magazine

When Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender, Admiral Matome Ugaki decided to lead one final mission.

‘My thoughts ran wild seeking ways to save the empire,” Admiral Matome Ugaki wrote in his diary on the last day of 1944. “Average people have now realized the gravity of the situation, but only too late.” As commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Battleship Division during Japan’s failed defense of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, Ugaki was in a good position to judge. Yet after three years of increasingly disastrous war, Japanese Emperor Hirohito still believed that one great military victory would drive the Americans to the negotiating table and force them to sue for peace.

The proper course, the emperor’s advisers believed, was to bleed the Americans, without regard to Japan’s sacrifice. In February 1945, Ugaki was summoned to the home of the navy minister and given new duties: commander of the Fifth Air Fleet, guarding Japan’s southern flank. The Fifth Air Fleet was to be a suicide air force. Without a fleet following the disaster at Leyte, the navy was committed to human sacrifice.

Ugaki was a natural choice for such a mission. As an admiral, former battleship commander, former operations chief of the Naval Bureau and former chief of staff of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Ugaki had been exalted by the growing militarism of Japan. While subject to the emperor, the military had been elevated above all other branches of government by a flaw in the Meiji constitution, which gave veto power over the formation of a cabinet to the uniformed services. Ugaki had embodied the subtle distortions of the samurai code, bushido, manipulated by the military government to make dying for one’s country the glory and duty of all. The admiral was, like the lowliest Japanese soldier, both honored and trapped.

Like many well-educated, sensitive Japanese men of his time, and all the times that came before, Ugaki was accustomed to ambivalence. Americans needed certainty and tended to view the world in simplistic terms. But Ugaki was used to living with contradiction. It gave depth to a man. Ugaki was deeply read in Buddhist philosophy. He did not smile, but he felt powerfully. Seeking to appreciate the essence of the moment, he wrote small poems in his diary. As a seaman, he began every diary entry with the weather, but then often reflected on nature’s beauty, recalling how the moon “hung on the edge of the mountain” or pining over the last fall of cherry blossoms in the spring.

Ugaki was caught in a web of obligations, sometimes conflicting, to his emperor, to his navy, to his family, to himself. Some of Ugaki’s countrymen were paralyzed by a sense of duty that could not possibly be fulfilled. (The Japanese word for thank you, arigato, can also be translated as “you have placed me under a heavy obligation.”) Ugaki accepted his obligations as the natural order of things. It did not bother him that conflict led to tragedy, to double or even multiple suicides. As a schoolboy, Ugaki, like all Japanese schoolboys, had taken to heart The Tale of the 47 Ronin, the true story of ancient samurai who killed themselves after committing murder to avenge their lord’s honor. Many, if not most, of the great Japanese stories ended tragically; Ugaki, like most Japanese, enjoyed the drama and accepted the outcome as just, or in any case, inevitable.

Ugaki was thrilled with his new assignment. It offered “the key to the gate of the imperial fortunes,” he wrote. He would be headquartered in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, warmed by tropical currents. Ugaki was glad to get out of war-torn Tokyo. Without hot water, he recorded, his piles had become worse.

Ugaki’s first mission was to mount a suicide attack on the American warships anchored at Ulithi. Some two dozen long-range, twin-engine bombers were mustered to plunge into carriers and battleships anchored at the atoll, where they were readying for the upcoming invasion of Okinawa. The night before the raid, Ugaki served an elaborate banquet for the pilots, offering blowfish, a rare delicacy, and many bottles of sake. Speeches were made, toasts were drunk, tears were shed.

But after the mission was launched in the morning, it was aborted and the planes turned around and came home. Intelligence was reporting that the American carriers and battleships had departed from Ulithi. It was all a mistake; the American fleet was still at its moorings in Ulithi. But Tokyo headquarters was distracted and in an uproar. Boeing B-29s had firebombed Tokyo that night, March 9-10, using high winds and incendiaries to create an inferno that destroyed 261,000 homes and killed more than 100,000 people. (Japanese cities, made of paper and wood, were eventually evacuated, but at first the attitude was “fight, don’t run.” Human bucket brigades were formed to fight firestorms.)

Ugaki dutifully sent out his bombers once again the next day. Eleven of 24 planes reported engine problems (a reluctance to die was the more likely explanation) and only six reached Ulithi. They caused mild damage to one carrier. The raid was a “complete failure,” Ugaki gloomily recorded.

But he kept sending more young men to die. The plan to thwart the invasion of Okinawa in late March and early April was to overwhelm American defenses with waves of kikusui (“floating cherry blossoms”), suicide planes by the hundreds. Novice pilots—all volunteer, at this stage—were “herded” by more experienced pilots toward their targets. The assault was called Ten-Go— Operation Heaven. The attacks did do great damage, battering hundreds of ships, including Admiral Raymond Spruance’s flagship, Indianapolis (Spruance himself manned a fire hose). But the toll was not nearly as great as Ugaki wished for or feverishly imagined. If one were to believe Ugaki’s diary entries, his kikusui sank every American carrier and battleship many times over. Again and again, Ugaki would deliriously report wildly exaggerated numbers (“confirmed” on March 21: five carriers, two battleships, one heavy cruiser, two cruisers and one unidentified ship sunk). Yet he would lament, “each day we try to finish the enemy task force, and yet they can’t be finished.”

One senses, reading Ugaki’s diary, a man becoming unhinged. He explains to himself that he can send young men off to die “with a smile” because “I had made up my mind to follow the example of those young boys some day.” He went on, “I was glad to see that my weak mind, apt to be moved to tears, had reached this stage.”

Ugaki’s demented bloody-mindedness was shared, not universally, but widely at the upper levels of command. In April, the navy decided that the battleship Yamato should become a suicide ship. With its crew of more than 3,000 men, Yamato was to sail to Okinawa and beach there—to become a giant gun platform until its doom. Long before it reached Okinawa, American planes found Yamato and its escorts. Lanced by scores of torpedoes and bombs, the mighty superbattleship began to founder. As Yamato heeled over, the fleet commander, Admiral Seiichi Ito (who had studied at Yale and had opposed the war), announced, “Stop the operation” and went into his sea cabin to shoot himself. Young officers had been issued lengths of rope (“line,” in maritime lingo), which they hung from their belts, so that when the time came they would resist the urge to escape and instead lash themselves to the sinking ship. In a memoir, Requiem for Battleship Yamato, a young ensign, Mitsuru Yoshida, described the last minutes on the bridge:

I see the navigation officer and the assistant navigation officer face each other and bind themselves together. Knees rubbing and shoulders touching, they attempt to bind each other’s legs and hips to the binnacle….Seeing them, I naturally reach for my side, touching the line readied some time ago. That such might be the end of a special attack was something we fully foresaw.

“What are you doing? You young ones, swim!” Chief of staff [Nobuei] Morishita strikes an angry pose, lacing his angry words with blows of his fist. He hits me from the side. I have no choice but to follow his orders and, changing my mind, throw away the line; still my resentment does not go away.

The popular slogan of the time, Yoshida recalled, was “one hundred million deaths rather than surrender.” But as time went on, some young Japanese men had to be persuaded to volunteer for the special attack forces.

By late April, even the obtuse Ugaki observed that his special attack squadrons were becoming less effective. In Tokyo, Ugaki’s family dependents wanted to flee the burning city. Ugaki at first told them to do their patriotic duty and stay, then relented and let them leave. His family’s chief concern, as least as Ugaki expressed it in his diary, was for the protection of his military uniforms and decorations, stored at his home for safekeeping.

Ugaki himself had taken to living in a cave on Kyushu in order to avoid the American bombers. He was becoming increasingly delusional, claiming in his diary on April 13 that the Ten (“Heaven”) Operation No. 1 “killed Roosevelt.” (FDR died on April 12 of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Ga.) In early May, he mourned the suicide of Adolf Hitler but hoped that the Nazi leader’s spirit would live on in the German people. His one relaxation was hunting and horseback riding, though he complained that the bomb craters now pitting Japan were “dangerous to the horse’s legs.”

“Does the enemy intend to destroy all of the cities in this country?” Admiral Ugaki wondered in his diary on June 18. The answer was yes, unless Japan surrendered unconditionally. “We could bomb and burn them until they quit,” General Curtis LeMay told the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. The only hitch was that by October he would “run out of cities to burn.” By mid-August, LeMay’s XXI Bomber Command was scheduling “burn jobs” on no fewer than 16 urban-industrial areas per operational day (usually every three or four days).

Ugaki was preparing himself for the apocalypse by becoming a “nihilist,” he wrote in his diary, in order to “clear the mind.” In July, he proudly read in the Naval Gazette that he had been awarded the First Order of the Sacred Treasure for his achievements, and he inspected secret underground hangars where the navy was building thousands of suicide boats for the American invasion. He was informed that he was now commander of all kamikaze planes—but ordered not to fly them. The empire was holding back its tokko forces for the final battle, Ketsu-Go, the “Decisive Operation.”

Japan was, in effect, preparing for mass suicide. The scale of the carnage is appalling to contemplate. The battle for Okinawa had cost 12,000 American lives and 200,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians. The death toll for the Battle of Kyushu alone would be many times that. The Japanese had more than 7,000 planes hidden in caves and tree groves. According to historian Richard Frank, the Japanese planned to “saturate the invasion fleet with as many kamikazes in three hours as they had sent against Okinawa in three months.” Schoolgirls, organized into the “Patriotic Citizens Fighting Corps,” were given bamboo spears and practiced bayoneting posters of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

Japan had lost close to 3 million people. The country was facing mass famine; as many as 10 million people were suffering from serious malnutrition. The emperor and Japan’s war leaders knew that the war was lost, but they did not know how to end it. One faction wanted to secretly negotiate a peace through the Soviet Union, but another group clung to the hope that Operation Ketsu would be so deadly that the Americans would agree not to occupy Japan or end the imperial system. American code breakers watched the Japanese heading down both tracks, trying to enlist the Soviets with peace feelers while at the same time preparing for Armageddon. Armed with their Ultra intelligence, it is no wonder that the Americans saw a potential trap, another Pearl Harbor—that the Japanese would try to lull them with diplomacy while girding for a violent surprise.

As ever in this war between uncomprehending nations, mistrust led to escalation. President Harry Truman launched a new and fearful age—by dropping two atomic bombs, on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. Both cities were flattened in blinding flashes. In the meantime, on August 8, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. Finally, Hirohito stopped his bitter hand-wringing. The emperor was worried about his jewels, literally. If the Americans invaded Japan, they might capture the imperial regalia—a sword, jewel and mirror that were symbols of 2,600 years of kokutai, the Japanese polity of divine imperial family and loyal subjects. Hirohito determined to surrender unconditionally, if the Americans would allow the emperor to carry on as divine ruler.

It was a close thing. The Americans rejected an initial secret peace offering that would have preserved consider able imperial authority during the occupation. They demanded complete subordination of the emperor. During these delicate negotiations, Admiral Takijiro Onishi, the creator of the kamikaze units, burst into a meeting of Japan’s war rulers on August 13 to deliriously cry, “If we are prepared to sacrifice 20,000,000 Japanese lives in a special attack effort, victory will be ours!” When a Japanese diplomat explained to the emperor that he risked losing his throne, the emperor reluctantly accepted the American terms. Meanwhile, hotheaded army officers were plotting a coup to kill all the emperor’s advisers. The last gasps of madness fizzled, in part because the army officers searching the palace could not find and destroy the recording of Hirohito’s surrender speech. On August 15, Japanese listening to their radios at noon heard a voice they had never before heard, that of the sacred crane, the Showa Emperor—the reedy, thin voice of Hirohito.

His speech was beautiful, if, in parts, a little mindboggling. He never used the word surrender. He acknowledged, with breathtaking understatement, “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” But he told his people they would have to “bear the unbearable” and “endure the unendurable” and lay down their arms to avert not just the “ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation” but also “the total extinction of human civilization.”

Hirohito’s subjects listened, and almost all obeyed. There was very little armed resistance against the Americans after Hirohito’s speech. In Tokyo, commanders disarmed and took the propellers off aircraft to prevent fanatics from seizing them. Many military men tried to cover up their complicity in Japan’s defeat or destroy evidence of atrocities that might be used in war crimes trials. For many days after the emperor’s speech, it was sardonically said, the sky over Tokyo was black with the smoke of burning documents. Some officers turned their shame and anger on themselves. Hundreds committed suicide, some in the painful, traditional way of hara-kiri (literally, belly-cutting). Admiral Onishi, the kamikaze creator, wrote a haiku:

Refreshed,

I feel like the clear moon

After a storm

Then he slit his abdomen and stabbed himself in the chest and throat.

Ugaki listened to the emperor’s speech at an airbase on Kyushu, where he was preparing for Ketsu-Go. Because of static, he had trouble hearing the emperor’s words, “but I could guess at most of it,” he wrote in his August 15, 1945, diary entry, his last. “I’ve never been so ashamed of myself,” he wrote.

Ugaki had already decided that he would lead the last kamikaze mission. His plan was to “ram enemy vessels at Okinawa.” He decided he was not guilty of insubordination, not exactly (“we haven’t yet received the cease-fire order,” he rationalized). At 4 p.m., he drank a last toast with his staff, stripped his dark green uniform of badges and rank, and picked up the short samurai sword given him by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, whom Ugaki had served under as chief of staff of the Combined Fleet. At the airfield, 11 Suisei (“Comet”) dive bombers had been lined up. Their two-man crews, with Rising Sun headbands affixed, were standing at attention. Ugaki protested that he only wanted five planes to go with him, but the commander of the unit insisted on accompanying Ugaki “at full strength.”

Ugaki turned to the pilots. “Will you all go with me?” he asked. The flight crews did not hesitate. “Yes, sir!” they shouted, raising their right hands.

A small crowd had gathered. Among the curious was Hiroshi Yasunaga, the floatplane pilot with Admiral Takeo Kurita’s fleet who had survived Leyte Gulf and was now a reconnaissance pilot, temporarily but fortuitously grounded because of tuberculosis. Yasunaga watched as Ugaki tried to climb up on the wing of a plane. The kamikaze commander seemed a little plump, Yasunaga thought. He stifled a snicker when a noncommissioned officer was summoned to give Ugaki a shove from the rear to boost him into the rear seat.

Ugaki saluted his officers and turned to salute the crowd. Yasunaga and three of his fellow pilots refused to return the salute. They believed that Ugaki should have chosen to die alone and not take 22 young men with him.

The planes roared off against a setting sun. Three later returned with “engine trouble.” At 7:24 p.m., as darkness was settling over Japan, Ugaki’s last message was received. He was going to “ram into the arrogant American ships,” he vowed, “displaying the real spirit of a Japanese warrior….The emperor Banzai!”

Less than 15 minutes later, at about 7:40 p.m., crewmen of LST 296 were “unloading foodstuffs” but mostly drinking beer at the island of Iheyajima off Okinawa when they heard aircraft engines. Some seven or  eight planes came around the small island. As jazz music blared over the PA aboard LST 296, a few men waved and threw beer cans. Then the planes opened fire with machine guns and someone yelled: “They’re Japs! Kamikazes!” Lights were doused and men ran to their anti-aircraft guns.

All the kamikazes were shot down or crashed into the sea. In the morning, the men of LST 296 found the smoldering cockpit of one of the Japanese planes, crumpled upside down on the beach. It held three men, not the usual two. The third man was dressed in a dark green uniform. His head was crushed and his right arm was missing. A small sword lay by his side. Soldiers came and tied ropes around the feet of the dead men and dragged them out of the cockpit using a jeep. Without ceremony, the corpses were buried in the sand.

 

Evan Thomas is assistant managing editor of Newsweek magazine. He has won a National Magazine Award and is the author of six books, including John Paul Jones.

Originally published in the March 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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