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THUNDER GODS AND KAMIKAZES
THE SUICIDE AIR OFFENSIVES OF WORLD WAR II



"All right you little gods. You've had the balls to come this far, now we'll see if you can go all the way! Me, I'm just an ordinary guy. If you've brought your name cards, you might as well donate them to the war effort, because your not going to need them. And if you're still virgins, you better go out and get laid right away!"

Lieutenant-Commander Goro Nonaka




 
By James Burbeck
One hot summer afternoon in 1944, Lieutenant-Commander Tadanao Miki of Japan's Aeronautical Research Laboratory was called into his commander's office to sit in on a conversation with a visiting officer. Miki's research section had been struggling with guidance problems inherent to German rocket designs recently transferred to Japan via submarine. He had already received many useless design recommendations from well-meaning visitors and was quickly tiring of the distractions. On this particular day the visitor was a Sub-Lieutenant Shioichi Ota, hardly an encouraging prospect. Miki – who was positive that this man had come to offer another ill-conceived idea for rocket guidance – sat down to listen. It was worse than anything he could have imagined. Ota and his superiors had "eliminated" the guidance problem by placing pilots on-board the rockets. The stunned lieutenant-commander quickly pointed out several shortcomings of such an idea; besides the terrible effect it would have on morale, the short range of the weapons would require that they be carried on mother-craft which themselves would be vulnerable to the enemy's burgeoning airpower. Miki was indignant that his research team was being implicated in such a desperate and wasteful diversion.

Unfortunately the decision was already made. Miki and his team would design an operational flying bomb and they were expected to begin soon. A yearlong cycle of increasing desperation had finally reached the point of no return. Japanese armed forces high command previously resisted the idea of special attacks because of the dire consequences such operations would have on discipline. Now they gave in to demands that something be done to stop the Allies. Grudgingly the formation of the Thunder Gods Corps was authorized and the way cleared for construction of special sure-hitting attack craft. The first Japanese Kamikaze and Thunder Gods offensives were soon to become a reality, and for the first time since 1942 Japanese pilots would be "given" the opportunity to regain the initiative, but at the ultimate cost.

The Japanese Kamikaze offensives of late World War Two have become legendary for their determination and effectiveness. One renowned victim attributed to the Kamikazes was the American aircraft carrier USS Franklin. Ironically a Japanese dive-bomber pilot who successfully delivered his twin bomb load was actually responsible for the Franklin's saga. It is a testimony to the devastation wrought by the Kamikazes that virtually all late war losses are attributed to them.


The First Rumblings

The idea for a kamikaze campaign began not with imperial high command but with lower level field officers who began reporting acts of spontaneous body crashes by their pilots and crews. One of the first officers to officially broach the subject was Captain Motoharu Okamura. He and his superiors arranged for the first investigations and reports on the plausibility and designs for premeditated body-crash attacks. The investigations however, were just convenient methods to gain more political leverage and they gave the growing number of proponents the influence they needed. Soon the thunder gods program was well underway despite its relative unpopularity. As the Thunder Gods Corps was officially coming into existence in October, 1944, Vice-Admiral Takijiro Onishi requested permission to use bomb-laden fighters in a Kamikaze offensive at his new command in the Philippines. He received permission with the provision that all participants be volunteers. The stage was now set for parallel suicide attack programs: the Thunder Gods and the Kamikazes.

The special attack program was a divisive issue within Japanese military circles. Many veteran field commanders thought the idea a huge waste of valuable assets. Certainly they were willing to sacrifice themselves, but in genuine combat, not on one-way missions to certain death. Lieutenant-Commander Goro Nonaka was openly critical of the rocket bomb project from the very beginning. He commanded the Betty bombers which were to act as mother ships for the thunder god's Ohka rocket planes, and he anticipated many of the same problems predicted by Tadanao Miki at the research lab; namely the short range of the rocket plane and slow speed of the mother ship. These two factors required Nonaka's men to slowly approach within visual range of an alert American task force in order to release the rocket planes fastened to their fuselages. He saw no way for his bombers to achieve such missions, and became convinced that the bomber crews were as doomed as the Ohka pilots. He was to be proven painfully correct.

The Philippines

The Difference
There were two basic types of "special attack" groups. Kamikazes were line pilots who used their own aircraft, commonly fighters, to crash into enemy shipping. Thunder Gods were specially trained pilots who used the Ohka, the manned Japanese equivalent to the German V-1. Once the Ohka's vulnerability became apparent, some Thunder Gods switched to flying fighter-bombers overloaded with standard ordinance. The resulting unit was called the Kemmu Squadron, although it remained closely associated with the Ohka operations. Thunder Gods were true volunteers, whereas an unknown number of kamikazes were pressured into the service. One kamikaze pilot was known to have strafed his commanding officers headquarters building before heading out on his final mission.
Vice-Admiral Onishi arrived at his new Philippine command in early October, 1944, still determined to use the newly approved kamikaze tactics against the approaching invasion fleet. His goal was nothing less than the sinking of all American carriers, which would clear the way for the main Imperial surface fleet to blast the invading transports into the sea. Onishi himself ended up announcing the request for volunteers to the first group of 201st Flying Corps pilots at Mabalacat Air Base. When the pilots and their officers requested to hear approval for the suicide program from their own commander – Captain Sakai Yamamoto – Onishi lied to them, saying that Yamamoto already knew. In reality Captain Yamamoto was hospitalized near Manila due to an automobile accident and totally unaware of what Onishi was telling his men. All 23 pilots volunteered.

Within days the first suicide missions were flown against the Allied fleet at Leyte. The missions had an immediate effect, causing far more damage to the heavily defended American ships than traditional air attacks had been able to inflict. An emotional Admiral Onishi immediately announced the supposed "crushing success" of the new method and told the combined officer corps of the First and Second Naval Aviation fleets that the kamikazes would be used to sweep the Allied fleets from the sea. No further debate or objection would be tolerated.

Meanwhile the first 100 volunteers of the Thunder Gods Corps continued their training while construction of the first 150 Ohka rocket bombs moved at a feverish pace. The original Japanese plans were to deploy the Thunder Gods to the Philippines and Formosa, but American carrier groups and submarines effectively paralyzed movement south from Japanese ports. The magnitude of the American effort was driven home when Japan's new super-carrier Shinano was sunk by the American submarine Archerfish on November 27, 1944. Crated up in Shinano's holds were the first 50 Ohkas to be completed by Miki's Aeronautics lab. This loss was severe enough, but when the carrier Unryu carrying the next 30 Ohkas was sunk en-route to the Philippines a few weeks later, it became apparent that the Thunder Gods offensive would be badly delayed.

As news of these setbacks spread, discipline of the Thunder Gods volunteers themselves became more difficult to control. They had volunteered to kill themselves in the belief that they would be the famous vanguard of an avenging force. Now the Kamikazes had struck the first blows and indefinite delays were being declared, causing the men to feel that their lives were to be squandered. Drinking and insubordination dramatically increased and men took to sleeping off base without permission. Some officers mercifully allowed these indiscretions but others felt the need to maintain discipline at all costs, which in one case triggered a nighttime melee at the Thunder Gods' home base at Konoike.

As the new year arrived, the Allies continued their preparations for the Okinawa invasion, which would be the first large-scale occupation of native Japanese territory. The preparation for this included massive carrier airstrikes against bases in Southern Japan. It was for this developing situation which Japanese high command now found itself ill-prepared.


The First Strike

Enforced Leave
In mid-January 1945, the men of the Thunder Gods Corps were encouraged to visit their families. Even Lieutenant-Commander Nonaka, the flamboyant veteran bomber commander, was ordered home to visit his family who fortunately lived in the nearby town. Before he returned to base early the next morning, he walked out into the cold morning air and suddenly asked his wife to dance, which they did as he quietly hummed a Johann Strauss song.

During the next few weeks the Thunders Gods Corps was assigned to the newly reorganized Fifth Air Fleet, which was charged with the defense of Southern Japan including Okinawa. The fleet's new commander was Admiral Matome Ugaki, a surviving member of Admiral Yamamoto's old staff and previous commander of Battleship Division One, formerly consisting of the super-battleships Yamato and Musashi. The Thunder Gods were merged with the T-attack Corps, made up of Kamikaze pilots flying fighters and fighter-bombers. Besides conventional aviation – which still accounted for the majority of combat sorties – a total of 162 Ohkas, 108 T-attack fighters and several dozen medium bombers were available for the first wave of special attacks against any American forces which might approach Okinawa.

In late February an American task force moved out toward Iwo Jima, part of another group of islands far to the east of Okinawa, and in conjunction with massive B-29 raids on Tokyo, stormed and took the island in a protracted and bloody fight. By March 1, American aircraft began raiding Okinawa, striking airfields and depots as part of a systematic destruction of the island's infrastructure. On March 17, American aircraft carriers were spotted moving north toward the Japanese mainland and Imperial High Command began mobilizing the Fifth Air Fleet for the final battle. The Americans struck first however, rushing in and launching air attacks which ravaged many of the very bases at which the Thunder Gods and Kamikazes were arming. Not only did American seizure of the initiative disrupt Fifth Fleet's airstrike preparations, but many of the fighters held in reserve to fly protective cover for the Thunder Gods were baited into the air – forced to defend their own airfields. This resulted in the loss of over half of the escorts originally slated to protect Nonaka's bomber crews on their Thunder God missions. In return, only 45 Jill and Frances medium bombers got off the ground and into the American fleet before the attack.

It took two days for Ugaki's Fifth Air Fleet to sort itself out and launch the first joint air offensive. Overly optimistic intelligence evaluations helped to support the decision to launch the ill-advised daytime attack, which included the amazing declaration that American carriers appeared to have no air cover! This statement was justified by the optimistic belief that the medium and light bomber suicide missions of the previous days must have done tremendous damage to the American carriers. In reality the carriers and their aircraft had suffered little and were steaming south to support the coming landing on Okinawa.

At 9:45 A.M. on March 21, Admiral Ugaki gave the order to launch the first joint Thunder Gods assault, even though they would be unsupported by any other kamikaze sorties. Lieutenant-Commander Nonaka bluntly ignored his superior's orders to stand aside and after selecting his best pilots he joined the fleet commanders in the traditional farewell ceremony with the Thunder Gods and bomber crews. The 18 bombers of this first flight only had 60 fighters to escort them, half of whom aborted due to engine troubles. Once the entire flight disappeared over the horizon, nothing more was heard until later that evening when two damaged zeros returned. The main flight had been intercepted by more than 50 American fighters and broken up while still 60 miles from the nearest carrier group. The entire formation was overwhelmed and within ten minutes all the Betty Bombers had either been shot down or forced to jettison their Ohkas in an attempt to escape. Nonaka was last seen flying wingtip to wingtip with three other bombers in a steep dive away from the fight. Nothing more was ever heard from any of the bomber crews or Nonaka.

There was good cause for the celebration that night on board the American carriers. They had decisively defeated a flight of obviously special bombers carrying some sort of winged "gizmos" lashed to their fuselages. Whatever they were, the American fleet commanders were glad they had not been allowed near any of their own aircraft carriers.


Operation Heaven No.1 and Okinawa

The total destruction of the first Thunder Gods assault triggered a tardy reevaluation of the tactics to be used for special attacks. The resulting methods were more effective, but even though they managed to inflict great damage to Allied shipping, Japan had already lost both the initiative and the logistical base upon which to stage major airstrikes.


Despite the intense pressure, Ugaki's Fifth Air Fleet started Operation Heaven No. 1 with a joint series of conventional and suicide attacks against the American fleet. The offensive was begun in earnest on April 6 with Operation Kikusui Number 1 which launched the largest, best coordinated and best protected suicide mission of the war. Four flights of fighters swept in over Okinawa early in the morning, challenging the American Combat Air Patrols while other aircraft dropped foil strips to block radar. This was closely followed by 60 conventional Navy aircraft and 18 fighter-bombers of the Kemmu Squadron. The curtain of anti-aircraft fire Kamikaze Targets | Click to see imageswhich was now an integral part of any American fleet defense managed to keep out all but four planes. Shortly after noon, another 210 aircraft were dispatched, only half of which were destroyed or turned back by the now fatigued American fighter cover. The remaining aircraft streamed into the air over the anchorages and ships immediately offshore, triggering one of the most dramatic and intense air assaults ever. Over two dozen of the Thunder God's Kemmu Squadron managed to crash into destroyers, minesweepers, ammunition carriers and other larger warships. The next day, as the bulk of American carrier aircraft were distracted by the approaching battleship Yamato and her escort, another 110 aircraft and 12 Kemmu bombers struck, causing more damage.

On April 9, Admiral Ugaki ordered Operation Kikusui Number Two. Two days later 60 Navy planes joined 16 Thunder Gods from the Kemmu Squadron in another attack on American ships off Okinawa. They were followed the next day by 120 army and navy planes accompanying nine Betty bombers carrying Ohkas and 19 more Thunder Gods flying fighter-bombers. This attack was typical in that many of the incoming Betty pilots mistook the American destroyer pickets for the main fleet. They were by then so hard pressed by American combat air patrols that they attacked the first ships they saw, correctly believing that they could ill afford to pick and choose. This particular mission launched the most effective Ohka attack of the war. Thunder God Sub-lieutenant Sabura Dohi – who had been keeping himself distracted with odd jobs around the airbase right up until his departure – crashed his Ohka into the American destroyer Mannert L. Abele. The destroyer broke in half and sank along with one-third of her crew. Three other Ohkas successfully attacked but they only caused moderate damage to their targets.

The effect of these attacks on American morale was immediate and devastating. Within a week, nine American ships were sunk and 78 had been damaged by numerous major air assaults and countless small sorties. The surviving American crews were quickly becoming exhausted from standing 24 hour watches against potential attacks, and the aircraft complements for the carrier groups were thinning noticeably. Even the Japanese began noticing the increase in the number of returning aircraft, whereas previously the American combat air patrols had efficiently chewed up everything sent their way.

During the last half of April and the beginning of May, four more operations were conducted against the fleet operating off Okinawa. The climax occurred with Operation Kikusui Number Six, when on May 11 the large American carrier flagship Bunker Hill was struck by a Thunder God from the Kemmu Squadron. Severely damaged and on fire, the flag was transferred to Enterprise. Even though the fleet managed a 900 plane counterattack on the airbases in Southern Japan the very next day – 28 fighter-bombers from the Kemmu Squadron managed to get into the air, one of which broke through the ring of steel around the American carrier fleet. This pilot crashed into the deck of Enterprise near the forward elevator, causing a stunning explosion and ball of fire which blew the entire elevator hundreds of feet into the air.

Four more special attack operations were flown through the rest of May and June. As the American ground troops on Okinawa slowly cornered the remaining Japanese defenders, the last operation – Operation Kikusui Number Ten – was a complete failure. Not many aircraft could be made airworthy and the few attackers who approached the American fleet were shot down or forced to turn back. That this was the last official operation mattered little, as the entire special attack system was now on the verge of collapse. When it became obvious that Okinawa was lost, all attacks were stopped in preparation for the anticipated attack against the Japanese mainland.

By August the Thunder Gods Corps had been redeployed and was awaiting the new improved rocket planes which were to be far sturdier and longer ranged than the previous models. Since the invaders would be immediately offshore range was less of an issue Kamikaze Flights | Click to see imagesanyway. Many of the men were now almost delirious due to stress. They had already flown missions to sure death, only to be turned back because of mechanical failure or combat damage to the Betty bombers in which they rode. Keisuke Yamamura had been dispatched on three Ohka missions, two of which had him inside the rocket plane itself awaiting release when the missions aborted. Nevertheless he wore an extra-long headband declaring his determination to die and follow his friends.

On August 8 a report came in through military headquarters that a raid by a small number of B-29 bombers had been made upon Hiroshima. It mentioned the possible use of a new bomb and that an investigation was being conducted. It soon became clear that the futuristic A-Bomb which had so long been the topic of speculation had now been used, and that the future itself – both for the Thunder Gods and Japan – was suddenly unclear. Over the next few days news of the Nagasaki bombing, the Russian declaration of war and the negotiations with the Allies trickled into the Thunder God's base. Debate among officers became open. Many senior ranking officers expected to be consulted by their superiors in Tokyo, Vice-Admiral Ugaki not the least among them. All of them expected to continue the war to the last person. Alternatives were not even considered.


When Emperor Hirohito's decision to end the war was announced, the end did not come quietly. Virtually the entire Fifth Air Fleet command rebelled. On August 14, Kamikaze program pioneer Admiral Onishi told a close friend; "It was not I who lost the war, but the Emperor." That evening he committed ritual suicide. Vice-Admiral Ugaki rebelled against the Imperial edict by leading a last flight of 11 Judy dive bombers in a fruitless mission against American shipping near Okinawa. Admiral Ozawa at Naval General Headquarters was furious with Ugaki, not only for disobeying the Imperial Mandate but for taking other men with him in the process of killing himself. Ugaki was denied the posthumous promotion which other suicide mission members usually received. His replacement, Vice-Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka, found himself in charge of a rebellious group of senior officers who were demanding that the Imperial mandate be ignored. He finally convinced them that Fifth Air Fleet's Chief-of-Staff be allowed to fly to Tokyo to hear the orders in person. In the meantime individual men and officers discussed the technical meaning of surrender, what would happen to them, and whether the Americans would kill them. Some groups of men planned spontaneous mutinies, but for each group of mutineers two other groups would refuse to take part, insisting that they wait for formal orders. As each miniature rebellion fell apart, more of the men came to rely on their officer's final decisions.

On the evening of August 19, Vice-Admiral Kusaka was able to call a general meeting of the Fifth Air Fleet's commanders. As he entered the room, it did not escape his notice that all his officers were in their dress uniforms and armed, hands poised on their weapons. He fully expected to be killed within minutes. His Chief-of-Staff then announced that the Emperor had indeed made the decision on his own, and that he was resolute in his decision to end the war. As he re-read the Emperor's announcement, the officers in the room broke into a yelling match, Kusaka strode to the podium and told them "As your commander-in-chief, I came to Kyushu with the firm intention of dying with all of you. However, whether we fight or not is absolutely subject to Imperial mandate. If the Emperor says stop fighting, I must do my utmost to bring the war to an end. I hope you will understand and cooperate. At the same time, I know some of you feel differently. But I will have my way as long as I live. If you disagree with that, kill me before you take any action! I'm ready. Do it immediately!" With that, he sat down and closed his eyes.

Lessons and Afterthoughts

Vice-Admiral Kusaka was spared by his officers that evening. Most of them left the room, some weeping in anger and others arguing. During the following weeks the Fifth Naval Air Fleet was successfully demobilized and the equipment prepared for handover. Kusaka's men were given money and then flown to air bases nearest their home towns. Ironically, the manner in which this war was brought to an end was second guessed by both sides. Many Japanese officers considered that they had been betrayed and that the real battle would have taken place on Japanese soil. More recently some in the United States have questioned their own country's 1945 use of nuclear weapons, thinking with decades-old hindsight that Japan might have been convinced to surrender in some other way. Reading the accounts of these Imperial Navy officers, it is clear that even with the leverage offered by the hopelessness of atomic bombs and a Soviet declaration of war, the Japanese Emperor barely succeeded in demobilizing his own officers. Had the situation been less hopeless, his order to cease hosilities may well have been ignored by large portions of the officers corps, triggering an unknown but probably tragic series of events.

 
  Copyright © 1996-2013 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.
Goro Nonaka and Ryunosuke Kusaka quotes courtesy of Kodansha International.
Images courtesy of the U.S. National Archives, Washington D.C. and the National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida.