The Horror of the Human
By DANIEL FORD
America met suicide bombers in October 1944, while liberating the Philippines. Even in the carnage of World War II, the shock was terrible for the sailors who saw Japanese planes plunging into their ships. Of 1,200 kamikaze (the word means "god wind") sent against the U.S. fleet in Leyte Gulf, perhaps a quarter scored a hit or a damaging near miss.
The parallels with the Sept. 11 hijackers are eerie.
The parallels with the Sept. 11 hijackers are eerie. Though it wasn't meant to return, a kamikaze plane was usually fully fueled, since the fuel-air explosion could do as much damage as the 550-pound bomb it carried. The pilots made a fetish of personal cleanliness and (sometimes) chastity. And like the al Qaeda terrorists, they were equipped with a book of uplifting thoughts and mundane suggestions: "Transcend life and death." "Keep your health in the very best condition." "Be always pure-hearted and cheerful."
The kamikaze were mostly in their teens or early 20s, "chick sparrows" with fewer than 100 hours of flying experience. Many joined straight from secondary school or the university. A few were mature pilots who would have been better employed in conventional units; one was an admiral. They came from all segments of Greater Japan and included Christians, Taiwan Chinese and Koreans, as well as the archetypal farmer's son schooled in the Shinto tradition. Most of them went to their deaths joyfully, though the authors of "Kamikaze: Japan's Suicide Gods" (Longman, 274 pages, $24.95) are not entirely clear on this point and perhaps, in the end, it is hard to know.
Albert Axell is an American who once taught in Japan; Hideaki Kase is a Japanese writer. Their background gave them unusual access to documents and oral histories, but it also encouraged them to tell the kamikaze story from the Japanese perspective. They identify the Boeing B-29 that scorched Japan as a "Flying Fortress," a name belonging to an older and smaller bomber. And they often accept Japanese accounts at face value, when a quick check of Western sources would have shown them to be wrong. A kamikaze instructor tells how he and his mates flamed three British bombers over Burma in March 1942 -- a riveting story but mistaken. No British plane was lost in that particular combat.
The instructor, Takeo Tagata, eventually became a kamikaze himself, scheduled to fly and die in late August 1945. Spared by Japan's surrender, he was still alive and unrepentant in the new millennium: "We had no choice but to resort to those tactics," he told the authors.
Were the tactics effective? You bet. Messrs. Axell and Kase calculate that 1,900 kamikaze dove to their deaths in the battle for Okinawa, in April 1945. The exchange: 35 American ships sunk and more than 300 damaged, and 5,000 American sailors killed, making Okinawa the most costly battle in the history of the U.S. Navy. (Some of the damage, it is true, was caused by conventional air units. Not only was it difficult for the sailors to tell the difference but Japanese pilots sometimes spontaneously converted a bombing or strafing attack into tai-atari or "body crashing.")
The authors reject the parallel between the Japanese and the al Qaeda suicide pilots, arguing that the kamikaze attacked only military targets. True, but military targets were all they had. Japan arguably invented terror bombing, with its raids on the Chinese capital of Chungking in the summer of 1938. Perhaps it would have shrunk from sending pilots against a New York skyscraper, but I doubt it.
In any event, the defining element is not the choice of target but the employment of human beings as a throwaway bomb-delivery system. Russian, German, British and American pilots also flew their (often crippled) planes into enemy targets, as the authors are eager to note. But there is a world of difference between a pilot choosing death and a staff officer sitting down to plan a suicide mission for others to carry out. ("Frankly," said a kamikaze who survived, "I hated staff officers.") Kamikaze flights weren't an adjunct to Japanese air operations but their principal tactic in the war's last year.
The Japanese navy, too, employed "human torpedoes" (with cockpits for their "pilots") against American ships. Even civilians were caught up in the glory of suicide: Fumiko Fujii drowned herself and her two daughters in December 1944 so that her husband could join the kamikaze corps, which wasn't then accepting family men.
The man who planned and organized the kamikaze was Adm. Takijiro Onishi, who walked the walk, committing ritual suicide within hours of Japan's surrender. It would be nice to think that Onishi was inspired by remorse, but it seems to have been pique: The government had ignored his appeals to continue the fight. In the Japanese tradition, Onishi sealed the act with a poem: "Now all is done / And I can take a nap for a million years."
Mr. Ford is the author of "Flying Tigers" and other books about military aviation.