Japanese sources frequently credit RAdm. Masafumi Arima as the inspiration for the beginning of the suicide attacks at the Philippines. Arima commanded the 26th Air Flotilla which was based at Manila. On 15 October 1944, he decided to lead a strike against American carriers near Luzon, an unusual undertaking for an officer of his high rank. Japanese reports claim that Arima crashed his Zero into the carrier Franklin CV 13, but this is unlikely. Neither Franklin nor the other carriers in the American force were hit by kamikazes that day.
The official beginning of the Japanese Navy’s kamikaze units came on 19 October 1944 when VAdm. Takijiro Onishi toured the base of the 201st Air Group at Mabalacat, Philippines. Onishi had just been appointed commander of the First Air Fleet and recognized that Japan’s position in the war was tenuous. He suggested to the air group’s leaders that suicide crashes were their only chance to defeat the enemy. Within the hour the determination had been made to use this extreme attack method and twenty-seven members of the 201st volunteered for the mission. These men were not poorly trained beginners but were ranked among the best pilots in the air group. Lt. Yukio Seki, a graduate of the Naval Academy, was selected as their leader.
What took place at Mabalacat was a new strategy, one that would plan, organize and coordinate this attack method. A new strategy was timely after the loss of 1,500 Japanese airmen in the Marianas. With so many capable pilots gone, it would not be possible to replace them in a short space of time.
The First Shimpu Special Attack Corps, having been formed at Mabalacat, soon went into action. They consisted of four groups, the Asahi, Shikishima, Yamato, and Yamazakura Units. On 21 October 1944, the corps began conducting unsuccessful sorties over the ocean searching for American ships. On the morning of 25 October 1944, at about 0730, six Zekes and their four escorts from the Asahi and Yamato Units found RAdm. Thomas Sprague’s group of escort carriers off Samar. About the same time, Seki led the Shikishima Unit’s five bomb-laden Zekes and four escorts off the field at Mabalacat and, at 1045, spotted another carrier group under RAdm. Clifton Sprague. Their attacks were successful and one carrier was sunk and several others damaged. With the success of these attacks in the Philippines, Onishi’s strategy was validated. From this point on, the use of special attack units would be given serious consideration in any operation.
The experiences of the Japanese during the Philippines’ campaign demonstrated that the use of kamikaze planes was a viable alternative. It had proven to be the most effective attack method, with a high percentage of hits on American vessels. Of the 650 suicide missions flown during the Philippines’ campaign, nearly 27 percent were deemed successful. Part of this success may be attributed to the use of the Zeke. Its good speed and maneuverability gave it an advantage over the many obsolete types that would be flown on the missions at Okinawa. In addition, the first of the kamikaze pilots were veterans with significant flying skills. This would stand in sharp contrast to the kamikaze pilots utilized during the Okinawa campaign, many of whom had only basic flight training.
One might question how the Japanese expected to win the war by the use of such tactics. By the time the American forces invaded Okinawa, it was obvious to the Japanese that the possibility of victory had vanished and that it was only a matter of time before the home islands were targeted for invasion. What did the Japanese high command hope to accomplish by sending its young pilots to certain death? When faced with catastrophic losses, they had few options. In an interview conducted by the Americans at the end of the war Capt. Rikihei Inoguchi, of the Tenth Air Fleet, discussed the program’s goals. Inoguchi had been present at the inception of the kamikaze program in the Philippines. He asserted that the Japanese never expected to win the war using such methods. What was possible, however, was the achievement of acceptable conditions for its termination. If the Americans were to sustain unacceptable losses from the special attack units, then they might be willing to end the war with terms more favorable to the Japanese. Lieutenant Col. Naomichi Jin, who served as Chief of Liaison Staff in the Thirty-Second Army Intelligence during the battle for Okinawa, identified four reasons for the adoption of kamikaze tactics:
- There were no prospect of victory in the air by employment of orthodox methods.
- Suicide attacks were more effective because the power of impact of the plane was added to that of the bomb, besides which the exploding gasoline caused fire-further, achievement of the proper angle effected greater speed and accuracy than that of normal bombing.
- Suicide attacks provided spiritual inspiration to the ground units and to the Japanese public at large.
- Suicide attack was the only sure and reliable type of attack at the time such attacks were made (as they had to be) with personnel whose training had been limited because of shortage of fuel.
Propaganda value was certainly a consideration. Capt. Katsuo Shima, head of the propaganda section of the Naval General Staff, instituted a program that was aimed at convincing the Allies that the Japanese would commit national suicide rather than surrender. The Special Attack Corps was held up as an example of what the Allies could expect. In addition, Japanese news sources wrote compelling stories of the heroism and successes of the kamikaze pilots. In their desperation, the Japanese desire for a weapon that would end the American threat overrode their common sense. The impetus toward further development of the kamikaze concept was spurred on by exaggerated reports of their early success. Civilian workers on the home front were encouraged to emulate the sacrifice of the kamikazes in their daily tasks. If men could willingly go to their deaths for the nation, surely workers at home could be expected to make great sacrifices as well. Pilots committing themselves to the ultimate sacrifice could also look forward to a reward. Almost from the beginnings of the kamikaze campaign in the Philippines, the pilots were given posthumous promotions. At first these were only one-rank promotions but soon a two-rank promotion became the norm.
One of the curiosities of the kamikaze experience was the appearance of a small number of Koreans among the ranks of the Tokko-tai. Crewmen on the destroyer Luce picked up a Korean pilot after they had shot down his plane. He indicated that he was a farmer who had been drafted into the military and forced to become a kamikaze pilot. The Japanese had been accepting Koreans for military service since 1938 and began drafting them in April of 1944. According to some sources, eleven Koreans eventually became members of the Tokkotai. Among them were Capt. Kim San Phil, 2d Lt. Tak Kyon Hyen and Sgt. 1st Class Park Ton Fun, all of whom are honored at the Yasukuni Shrine and the Chiran Peace Museum.