Pioneers of ‘100 million special attacks’
Fierce battles developed both on land and in the air during the Battle of Okinawa. In October 1944, Navy Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi led suicide crash attacks in the naval battle off Leyte in the Philippines. The attacks—which Onishi had previously called “heresy” in command—soon became the main feature of the operation.
On April 5, 1945, the Koiso Cabinet resigned en masse. Kantaro Suzuki was promptly ordered to form a Cabinet. The next day, tokkotai, the special attack suicide air unit of the Army and Navy took off from Kanoya, Chiran and other bases in Kyushu and Taiwan, taking part in the Kikusui (Chrysanthemum and Water) Number One operation, targeting U.S. warships steaming around Okinawa. On that first day, 340 airmen on 222 sorties died. Many of them were university students who had been mobilized. The next day saw 140 deaths in 90 aircraft. On April 12, 193 airmen on 109 sorties died, and on April 16, 244 others on 157 sorties lost their lives. The special attack suicide missions continued until August, even after the Battle of Okinawa ended. According to the Tokkotai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association, those who died in the special air attacks in the Okinawa area numbered 3,002 from mid-March to the end of the war. The number accounted for almost 80 percent of the total deaths in Japan’s special air attacks.
The incessant suicide air attacks caused chaos among U.S. forces. Damaged warships crowded the U.S. anchorage in the Kerama Islands. The flagship of U.S. Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher was also damaged.
Only 26 smaller ships, including destroyers, were sunk, while 164 ships including some aircraft carriers were damaged.
In the Kikusui Operation, human bombs Oka (Cherry Blossom) and training aircraft Shiragiku (White Chrysanthemum) also went on missions. Mother aircraft carrying one Oka each under their bodies became perfect victims for U.S. Grumman fighters. Shiragiku could only fly at a speed of 220 kph, less than half the speed of Zero fighters. According to Commander of the Fifth Air Fleet Matome Ugaki, who sent special attack pilots, “Tokkotai units are becoming short of equipment; we have to cover the loss with the training aircraft.”
Young pilots—who had been trained for only a short period of time, and could barely fly the aircraft—tried to fly the training aircraft on suicide missions to break through the line of U.S. destroyers with radar, crashing into the enemy ships while dodging anti-aircraft fire.
On April 5, the Combined Fleet ordered the Second Fleet led by the giant battleship Yamato to conduct special attacks on Okinawa from the sea. Commander of the Second Fleet Seiichi Ito was not convinced of the plan, saying it was a reckless act rather than a combat operation. The following day in his office onboard the Yamato, Ito’s Chief of Staff Ryunosuke Kusaka told him, “Please carry out this plan, as we will be the first of 100 million tokkotai to be carried out.” Ito responded, as if his concerns were gone, “In that case, I don’t have anything to say. All right.”
The idea to have the Yamato sacrifice itself off Okinawa came from the Combined Fleet’s Senior Staff Officer Shigenori Kami. Kami said, “If the Yamato survives, people will say it was of no use.” His statement was approved by the Combined Fleet’s Commander-in-Chief Soemu Toyoda and the Naval General Staff. Recalling the time, Toyoda said after the war, “I didn’t think there was no chance of success, but I concluded it would be a miracle if it went well.”
At this time no senior staff in the Navy could make level-headed judgments as the war situation continued to deteriorate.
Toyoda told the Navy: “The future of the Empire lies in this very action. The reason for ordering you to carry out this incomparably heroic operation...is to pass on the country’s glory to future generations.”
The Second Fleet left the Inland Sea (Seto) on the afternoon of April 6. The next day, the giant battleship Yamato and five other ships were attacked by 386 U.S. fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo planes and were sunk in waters north of Okinawa. The emotional decision—to die heroically—took the lives of 3,700 naval personnel who sank in the seas south of Japan.
The special attacks around Okinawa were just the start, as Kusaka said. While the tokkotai attacks took place there, the government and the military headquarters were making preparations for the battle on the mainland following the guidelines of the Imperial Army and Navy’s Operation Plan. The U.S. forces had planned Operation Olympic, which was to land on the southern part of Kyushu in the autumn of 1945, and Operation Coronet, to invade the Kanto Plain the following spring.
After the defeat in Okinawa, the Japanese government and the military tried to consolidate the Army and Navy. However, the only countermeasure that was left was the desperate attempt—“100 million people’s tokkotai attacks.”
The Army drafted 1.5 million reservists to form 40 new divisions for the battle on the mainland. Most of them were either untrained or old soldiers around 60. The Navy prepared 5,200 fighters—half of them were training aircraft, of which many were biplanes called “Aka Tombo [red dragonfly].” The final stronghold was manpower. The Koiso administration decided in March 1945 to form National Volunteer Corps under the slogan “100 million die heroic deaths.” In June, during a conference in the presence of the Emperor, the policy for the battle on the mainland was approved. To make the volunteer corps into a combatant corps, new legislation—the National Volunteer Military Service Act, to mobilize men aged 15 to 60 and women aged 17 to 40—was put into effect.
Everything was now on a much bigger scale—letting the citizens sacrifice their lives as a defense corps, which had previously happened in Okinawa, now became a nationwide policy. One day, weapons used by the volunteer combatant corps were put on display at the Prime Minister’s Office. Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki glanced at them and said in amazement, “This is really bad.”
What he saw were muzzle-loading firearms, bamboo spears, bows and two-pronged weapons used to snare people.