Armed with a half ton of explosives, the crew of an antiquated Val diver bomber set out to crash into a U.S. ship of Okinawa. But fate—in the form of three attacking Corsairs—soon intervened. Kazuo Nakajima still remembers the moment he decided that he wanted to fly fighters for the Japanese navy. As a small boy growing up not far from one of the many airfields dotting the Kanto Plains near Tokyo in the 1920s, he almost seemed fated to develop an early love for planes. “Any chance I got, I would take a packed lunch and ride my bicycle to the airfield to watch the planes take off from morning to night,” he said.
It was his first glimpse of a navy plane on an elementary school excursion to the port town of Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, that made the most powerful impression. Many Japanese navy planes at the time had their tail surfaces painted red for easy identification by rescue boats should the pilot have to ditch in the ocean, and it was this unique marking that stuck in the young boy’s mind.
Now 82 years old, his eyes light up as he remembers them. “The navy planes looked so stylish compared to the army planes….I thought they were fantastic, and I decided right then that I wanted to join the navy.”
Nakajima had been a poor student until that point, and his headmaster was skeptical he would even be able to graduate from elementary school, much less improve his grades enough to enter naval flight training school. But despite having a reputation for fooling around in class, he buckled down—and eventually the day came when he proudly showed a letter of acceptance to his dumbfounded teachers. He entered naval flight school on May 1, 1942, shortly after his 16th birthday.
By late 1944, most Japanese commanders recognized that the war was going so badly that it was only a matter of time until the United States attempted to invade the main islands of Japan itself. Successive blows at Midway, the Solomons and Guadalcanal had not only crippled the offensive capability of the Japanese navy but had also left it with just a handful of experienced combat pilots.
As the Allies poised to strike the Philippines, in what many in Japan feared would be the last battle of the Pacific War outside of the nation’s home waters, senior Japanese naval air commanders decided there was no alternative but to use the desperate tactic of loading planes with bombs and crash-diving them into the flight decks of enemy carriers. The first such crash-diving units sank the carrier Saint Lo and damaged a number of other ships on October 25, 1944, in Leyte Gulf. These initial successes, and the decreasing effectiveness of conventional tactics against the improving defenses of the U.S. Navy, led to the decision to dramatically expand the tactic in the Battle of Okinawa.
The kamikaze attackers, known as tokubetsu kougekitai (special attack units), were originally limited to the Japanese naval air force, but the Japanese army also adopted equivalent units in the last few months of the war. The term kamikaze is usually used to refer to any World War II crash-diving Japanese plane regardless of whether navy or army in origin, but in Japanese it initially referred only to the naval planes involved in the Leyte Gulf attacks. These first crash divers were reputedly named kamikaze (divine wind) after a typhoon that saved Japan from an invading Mongol fleet in 1274. The name reflected both the hope that the units would be instrumental in preventing an imminent U.S. invasion, and the reality that Japan needed a miracle to avoid a crushing defeat.
Through a combination of good piloting and sheer luck, a handful of these Japanese special attack pilots and crew survived their missions and remain alive today. Like most old soldiers, they gather regularly to reminisce about their combat experiences. Nakajima counts himself lucky to be among them.
Although Hyakurihara air base just north of Tokyo had been on high alert since the beginning of March 1945, it wasn’t until the 25th that a meeting was called to announce that the possibility of an imminent U.S. landing attempt on Okinawa required use of the crash-diving tactic in defense of the islands. Petty Officer 2nd Class Shigeyoshi Hamazono was dismayed at the prospect—he had barely escaped with his life in the chaotic Japanese withdrawal from the Philippines less than two months before. A number of his comrades who had been serving alongside him since his first posting in 1943 at the 582nd Naval Air Unit in Rabaul had died in such attacks toward the end of the Philippines campaign.
That week the squadron leader selected crews, taking into account the family circumstances and physical condition of candidates, to fly 14 planes on a special attack mission. As one of only three pilots with combat experience in the group—having flown in the Solomons, Truk and the Philippines—the 21-year-old Hamazono knew he would be on the list. He also knew the odds they faced were poor. He spent the next week trying to keep his mind off the mission by catching movies at the local theater, but was plagued by nightmares and unable to sleep.
The planes designated for the attack were close to antique. In the final months of the war, Japan had little choice but to use models that would normally have been reserved only for training purposes. Compounding the problem of old planes was the loss of maneuverability caused by the additional weight of the bombs, since many of the special attack planes carried up to twice the normal ordnance payload. Finally, there was the superiority of the U.S. forces, both in terms of technology and manpower, and the fact that the enemy had had time to develop countermeasures to the crash-diving tactic, as its use in the Philippines had been widely reported.
The U.S. invasion of Okinawa began on April 1 in what was to be the last major campaign of the Pacific War. The first wave of special attack missions in defense of the islands began on April 6 as the Kikusui No. 1 operation, named for the floating chrysanthemum that symbolized the Japanese imperial household.
On April 5, Hamazono flew from Hyakurihara base down to Kokubu No. 2 air base in southern Kyushu with the 13 other planes from his unit that were to take part in Kikusui No. 1. His aircraft was, as he had feared, practically obsolete—an Aichi D3A Type 99 carrier dive bomber, code-named “Val” by the Allies.
First produced in 1939, the Val had played an important role in early Japanese victories across the Pacific but hadn’t been used much since October 1943, when most of its pilots were retrained to fly Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. The Val had a crew of two: a pilot and a navigator who doubled as a rear gunner. Its light defenses of just two forward-firing 7.7mm Type 97 machine guns mounted on the engine cowling and one flexible rear-firing 7.7mm Type 92 machine gun left only a slim chance of escape if they ran into enemy planes en route to their target. Hamazono’s navigator for the mission was to be 19-year-old Petty Officer 2nd Class Kazuo Nakajima, who was straight out of flight school and had no combat experience.
After yet another sleepless night, Hamazono was surprised to have a visitor early on the morning of April 6. Kokubu base was in Kagoshima prefecture, where he had grown up, and his elder brother had ridden a bicycle through the night to come and pay his respects and bring Hamazono some of their mother’s homemade rice dumplings.
More than 400 miles to the south at Okinawa, the largest amphibious invasion of the Pacific campaign was underway. Naval support for the Okinawa landing comprised more than 1,200 ships, and it was this naval support against which the bulk of the 10 massive Kikusui operations would be deployed.
Estimates vary on how many planes were involved in special attack missions, but U.S. data shows there were more than 1,900 suicide plane attacks on Allied forces from the first hostilities in late March until fighting ended on June 23. The special attack forces sank about 30 ships and damaged hundreds more during the Okinawa campaign, adding to the tally of a dozen or so that had been sunk in such attacks since October 1944.
The number of Japanese crewmen who died in crash-diving attacks during the campaign may never be accurately known. Records at the Kanoya Naval Air Base Museum in Kagoshima show that 1,575 navy personnel were killed in special attack missions during the Okinawa campaign. Data at the nearby Chiran Peace Museum indicate that 1,036 army personnel died in such attacks over the roughly three-month period, but this number is known to include some deaths unrelated to crash-diving missions, such as paratroop attack casualties. Other Japanese records show slightly higher casualty numbers.
In the end, the rough figures of 1,900 airborne attacks and combined army and navy casualties of close to 3,000 give some idea of the magnitude of human sacrifice incurred by Japanese fliers during the Okinawa campaign.
At 1400 hours, with a full tank of precious gas and a stomachful of his mother’s dumplings, Hamazono climbed into the cockpit of the Val after checking the 250-kilogram bomb under the fuselage and the two additional 60- kilogram bombs on racks under each wing. The plane could barely muster enough speed to get airborne despite using the full length of the runway. Hamazono gently pulled on the control yoke and managed to lift off the ground, but by the time they had passed to the right of Sakurajima—a small volcano lying about 20 kilometers to the south in the middle of Kagoshima Bay—the Val was still only at an altitude of 200 meters.
Their flight path took them directly over the lower part of the Satsuma Peninsula, where Hamazono had spent his childhood. As he looked down at the familiar fields where he had gone on picnics as a boy, he imagined he could make out the face of his elementary school headmaster looking up at him.
He saluted as the plane passed Kaimondake, a volcano resembling Mount Fuji that stands sentinel at the tip of the peninsula, while Nakajima released the safety catches on the five bombs. Above, the clouds rolled in as the plane headed out over the ocean with its half ton of primed explosives.
The weather grew steadily worse—something of a blessing for the crew, as it made it easier to escape detection. Nakajima noticed that the No. 2 plane in their formation of three had disappeared.
Given the weight of the bombs and the age of the aircraft, Hamazono estimated they could only manage a speed of about half that of any enemy fighters that might be in the area. If they could avoid interception and find a target, it was said that the time from beginning a crash dive until hitting the ship was about 25 seconds—but in that short timeframe the intense anti-aircraft fire meant that the chances of being killed before impact were extremely high. Hamazono knew it was simply a matter of luck whether the plane broke up in midair or not, but decided that he would try to aim for a large transport ship and dive at a steep 70-degree angle to reduce the chances of being shredded in a storm of AA projectiles.
Shortly after 1615 and about 10 kilometers north of the rocky islets of Ioutorishima, Hamazono saw through a break in the clouds the white glint of two or three objects in the sky—enemy planes. That meant they had been spotted on radar.
The fastest method to alert his wing leader was to fire a few bullets in the direction of the enemy, but the forward guns on the Val seemed to be jammed. Hamazono signaled the lead plane, but the pilot, who had no combat experience, failed to acknowledge.
Nakajima, sitting in the rear, had spotted the enemy planes too. They were above and behind and less than a minute away. Soon about a hundred tracer bullets came raining down. As they whistled past, Hamazono pulled hard to the left on the control yoke and banked the plane to reduce the exposed target area. As the tracer bullets got closer, he entered a steep dive and pulled level only when he left cloud cover. The altimeter showed they had dropped from 4,500 to 2,500 meters—far more than he had intended. As Hamazono quickly headed back up into the clouds he thought he saw flames above and guessed that his wing leader had been shot down. Now the enemy fighters would be coming after his Val.
Nakajima yelled that three planes were headed their way. Hamazono made the key decision to dump the main 250-kilogram bomb to improve speed and handling. That still left 120 kilograms of explosive on each wing—not enough to sink even a small ship, but ample to put a large hole in a flight deck and render a carrier useless if the strike was precise enough. From his previous dogfights in both Zeros and Vals, Hamazono knew that the most difficult planes to target were those flying just over the surface of the water. He dropped the Val dangerously low—just a few meters above the blue swells of the Pacific—and saw for the first time what was chasing them. It was three Vought F4U Corsairs, considered by the pilots who flew them to be the best single-seat fighter of the war—newer, faster, more heavily armed and vastly more maneuverable than the old Val. The mission had been suicidal from the start, but now it appeared as if their deaths would serve no purpose at all. Hamazono looked around desperately for any kind of ship that he might be able to ram before it was too late, but there was nothing in sight, so he dumped the remaining bombs and prepared to engage in what was likely to be a short dogfight.
“I could tell straight away from the speed and the way he flew that the lead Corsair was a veteran with a lot of experience,” recalled Hamazono. By the closing days of the war, Japanese pilots were sent into battle with only a year’s flying experience, while U.S. pilots had a minimum of two. The lead Corsair put the Val in his sights and came in for the attack.
“Its four machine guns were blazing away…as it was my first experience at the front I was very frightened and ducked down between the seats to hide,” admitted Nakajima.
Hamazono rolled hard left and slid the plane away in the same direction. Each time the Corsair attacked from the right, he would slide the Val away to the left, and move away to the right when it came in from the left. After recovering his wits, Nakajima grabbed the rear machine gun and began firing relentlessly at their pursuers as Hamazono continually wrenched the Val from side to side.
While the aerial dance continued, Hamazono tried to remain on a rough north by northwest course in the general direction of Kyushu. The plane was using up fuel at a much faster than normal rate due to the engine being at full throttle in many of the sudden power maneuvers, but he wanted to give the Val even just a small chance of returning to base.
Following one violent bank to the left, five or six bullets burst from above through the cockpit and sliced a line inches over Hamazono’s right shoulder and down in front of his left foot. The smell of gasoline wafted through the cockpit. Hamazono looked down to see blood dripping from his right hand.
“I didn’t feel it at all until I saw the blood,” he remembered. “Then I wondered at what point I’d been hit. Even then, I didn’t have much time to think about it.”
The Corsair continued to attack relentlessly. Then suddenly, silence.
The lead U.S. fighter rejoined the others, and the three planes formed a line facing the Val so that any escape left or right would be covered. No dodging was possible this time, Hamazono thought. A shootout wasn’t an option either: Nakajima had used up 540 rounds, and there were barely 40 bullets left. His only choice was to dive, and try to escape as low as possible across the ocean.
The Val skimmed across the waves, its crew clenched in fear, awaiting the final hail of lead that would finish them off. But when Hamazono peered up through the bullet-riddled canopy, he saw that the Corsairs were banking away. Inexplicably, they had given up.
Hamazono initially felt a brief sense of relief, but then gulped as he looked down at the fuel gauge. They were flying on a nearly empty tank. “I was 99 percent sure that we wouldn’t be able to get back to land,” he said. “If we could evade the Americans for a bit longer, I thought we stood a chance of pulling off a forced landing in the Amami Islands.” But this option wasn’t appealing to the hardened pilot who had prepared to throw himself at the enemy in defense of Japan. A forced landing would put them out of action for weeks, as it would be difficult to get back to the mainland from the remote island chain several hundred kilometers south of Kyushu.
“It was very distressing [because I knew that] if we could get back we would soon be able to go on another attack,” Hamazono explained. He ruled out a forced landing and decided to try to return to Kyushu despite the odds.
Miraculously, the two young men managed to navigate the battered Val back to Kagoshima for a crash landing after dark in the woods near an army air base at Chiran. Hamazono and Nakajima remember little after the impact, but found out later that some local residents had extracted them from the wreckage and carried them to the army hospital.
Hamazono regained consciousness the next day around lunchtime and realized he had gotten off lightly, with only a few minor injuries. Nakajima, too, was barely scathed. The two men were given some time off to recuperate at a hot spring, but once they had recovered, the crew of the Val was ordered to part ways. Hamazono, as one of the few pilots with significant frontline experience, was asked to take on temporary training duties at Hyakurihara air base, while Nakajima was sent back into the rotation with a novice pilot partner. Hamazono was scheduled to fly another kamikaze mission sometime in August, but the war ended before the final order was posted.
Nakajima and his new partner were so lacking in piloting skills that they were reassigned to standard training. He says today that if he had been sent on another mission with his new pilot, he doubts they would have gotten very far.
Both Hamazono and Nakajima still have no idea why the Corsairs decided to abandon their attack on that overcast April afternoon. To the American pilots with their superior planes, the Val must have looked like an easy target, peppered with bullets, slow and low on fuel.
“Perhaps they ran out of ammo, or ran out of gas—or maybe they just figured our plane was about to drop out of the sky anyway,” said Nakajima. “I can’t explain it—but it is for that unexplained reason that I am still alive.”
Bennett Richardson is a Tokyo-based writer whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor and South China Morning Post. Fumiko Hattori is a researcher and translator who served as associate producer for the award-winning 2007 kamikaze documentary Wings of Defeat (wingsofdefeat.com). For further reading, they recommend: The Divine Wind, by Rikihei Inoguchi and Tadashi Nakajima with Roger Pineau; Blossoms in the Wind, by Mordecai Sheftall; and The Sacred Warriors, by Denis and Peggy Warner.
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.