The Tactics of Despair I

By the autumn of 1944, many of the Japanese officers responsible for the day-to-day prosecution of the war against the Allies knew that the likelihood of victory was becoming remote. One of these men was Admiral Takijiro Onishi, a headstrong, arrogant commander who exuded a masculinity and drive contagious to the younger men who served with him. A cult of junior officers worshipped Onishi much as Americans had adored Teddy Roosevelt in his Rough Rider days. On the other hand, many officers equal or superior in rank to Onishi detested his aggressive, showy manners, his bluntness, his condescending attitude toward those who disagreed with him. Onishi was a zealot who impressed his own ideas upon others with unwavering self-confidence.

In 1941 Onishi had been instrumental in drawing up the Yamamoto plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Immediately after the attack he ordered the devastating assault on Clark Field, outside Manila, which virtually eliminated American air capability in the Far East. Onishi had given this order despite the considered opinion of his staff, who felt that weather conditions were bad enough to force a cancellation of the mission. The admiral, however, was not about to lose the initiative—he saw any opportunity to destroy the enemy as precious. The mission was effected despite the weather. Such boldness commanded fierce loyalty.

In October 1944, an American armada appeared near the eastern Philippines. Since the Americans had many aircraft carriers off Leyte, some way had to be found to immobilize these ships while Japanese battleships and cruisers closed in to deal with the outgunned enemy.

The situation was of desperate importance. If the Philippines went under, the Empire would be cut in two and its supply lifelines ripped away. Onishi was sent from Tokyo to Manila to take command of Japan’s First Air Fleet, now reduced to less than one hundred effective planes. His job was to remedy the tactical situation by whatever means available.

To the Japanese naval mind, carriers had always been the biggest menace in the war. Onishi concentrated on them with ferocious intensity. In so doing, he typified the blind spot that Admiral Weneker, the German attaché in Tokyo during the war, noted: “The Japanese admirals always thought of the U.S. carriers. They talked about how many were being built and how many were in the Pacific, and said that these must be sunk … their mission was at all times the American carriers.” Instead of devoting increased efforts to intercepting American supply lines, to attacking merchantmen and transports, the Japanese concentrated on the dreaded carriers.

Admiral Onishi was thinking of carriers on the evening of October 19, 1944, as he drove up to the main headquarters at Mabalacat Airfield on Luzon. Two men met him—Asaichi Tamai, executive officer at the base, and Commander Rikihei Inoguchi, senior staff officer of the First Air Fleet.

Onishi soberly outlined his plan: “As you know, the war situation is grave. The appearance of strong American forces in Leyte Gulf has been confirmed.… Our surface forces are already in motion … we must hit the enemy’s carriers and keep them neutralized for at least one week.” After this preamble Onishi broached a momentous idea: “In my opinion, there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to a maximum degree. That is to organize suicide attack units composed of Zero fighters armed with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-dive into an American carrier.… What do you think?” There it was, the bold desperate plan to stem the tide, to perform a miracle! It was worthy of an Onishi, a violent man given to violent solutions.

He struck the right nerve with his men. Stunned by the magnitude of this savage answer to the enemy’s power, his staff leaped at the opportunity to implement his strategy.

Four special attack units were formed immediately on Luzon. They waited for four days, then five, to strike at the enemy. Finally, a scout plane radioed back the sighting of a large American carrier force.

On October 25, at 7:25 A.M., nine planes rose from Mabalacat and headed east over the vast and lonely Pacific. The men in the aircraft were hoping, in fact eager, to die for their admiral and the Emperor. All wore white scarfs around their necks. Their helmets fitted snugly about their heads, almost concealing the white cloth each man had wrapped around his forehead. This was the hachimaki, a cloth worn centuries earlier by the samurai warriors of feudal Japan who used it to absorb perspiration and to keep their long hair from falling into their eyes. In 1944, the white cloth became the ceremonial emblem of the Special Attack Corps—the kamikazes.

Five of the nine planes were suicide craft. The other four went along to protect them from American interference. Lieutenant Yukio Seki led the mission.

At 10:45 A.M., the unsuspecting carrier force was sighted. It was a group of escorts protecting the beachhead at Leyte. The Japanese came at the perfect psychological moment. For hours the American fleet had been running before the brute power of Admiral Kurita’s force, which had burst out of San Bernardino Straits and turned south to destroy the fleet off Leyte. The carriers and destroyers had fought a tremendous delaying action against Kurita. It was only within the hour that the Japanese had turned and gone back, fearing a trap by other American units somewhere in the general area.

The St. Lo and her sister carriers had secured from general quarters at 10:10, and the crews were relaxing after the terribly close rendezvous with extinction. When Seki and his formation sighted them, the Americans had their guard down.

The Japanese bored in low. At 10:50, a warning went out to the carriers: “Enemy aircraft coming in fast from overlying haze.” At 10:53, a plane roared in over the St. Lo’s ramp, then went into a steep dive and crashed on the flight deck near the center line.

At 10:56, the gas below decks ignited. Two minutes later, a violent explosion rocked the ship. A huge section of the flight deck was gone. Flames roared up one thousand feet. By 11:04, the St. Lo was a mass of flames.

She sank twenty-one minutes later.

While the St. Lo burned, the other suicide planes banked and screamed straight into their targets. Not one missed. The Kitkun Bay, the Kalinin Bay and the White Plains were torn by explosions as steel smashed into steel at hundreds of miles per hour. Five planes had hit four ships. One carrier was sunk, the others badly damaged. This kamikaze mission was successful, as was another launched from Mindanao earlier that day. Onishi formed new units immediately.

During the next several months, the United States Navy became increasingly aware of the murderous suicide planes. In January 1945, when MacArthur sent an invasion fleet to Lingayen Gulf on Luzon, nearly forty warships were damaged by the new squadrons. Though the landings of General Krueger’s Sixth Army were successful, worried American admirals hoped the kamikazes were just a temporary expedient, not to be repeated on a wide scale. They did not know Admiral Onishi’s Special Attack Corps by name or organization. They did not know that equipment and personnel had been deployed to multiply its strength many times.

In March 1945, as Japanese intelligence sources reported increased enemy interest in the area around Okinawa, only 350 miles from Japan, Onishi had the satisfaction of having his Corps integrated into the defense plan of this island. Indeed, at the highest levels in Tokyo, Army and Navy staff officers were convincing themselves that the suicide planes could change the course of the war.

For some months after Saipan fell in July of 1944, American strategists had looked for the next most strategically desirable islands to invade on the way to Japan. Following the Honolulu conference that summer, MacArthur had carried out the occupation of Leyte in October. He now stood on Luzon. Once Iwo Jima was taken, Admiral Nimitz had wanted to invade Formosa—but Formosa was eventually ignored in favor of Okinawa. Sixty miles long and the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa could be used by the United States both as a jumping-off point for the invasion of Japan and as a base for intensive bombings of the Home Islands of Kyushu and Honshu.

Fresh troops of the newly formed Tenth Army were to mount the assault on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. Under the command of Simon Bolivar Buckner, the son of a Confederate general, the Tenth was composed of veteran outfits molded in the jungles of other waystops to Japan. Its divisions were already hallowed: the First Marines from Guadalcanal, New Britain and Peleliu; the Second Marines, as reserve, from Tarawa and Saipan; the Seventh from Attu and Leyte; the Seventy-seventh from Guam and Leyte; the Ninety-sixth from Leyte; the Twenty-seventh from the Marshalls and Saipan; the newly formed Sixth Marines made up of men from Eniwetok, Guam and Saipan. The soldiers and Marines, elite troops of the Pacific, would need the experience gained in countless confrontations with the Japanese; for even as they clambered into transports for the pitching ride to the shores of Okinawa, other Americans were suffering from the newly revised defense tactics of the Japanese on Iwo Jima.

The Imperial General Staff in Tokyo had decided that the tactic of the banzai charge was too costly, and the “meet them at the beach” theory was replaced on Iwo by “let the enemy come to us.” On that island, the Japanese stayed in caves and poured fire down on the heads of the Marines, who had trouble even getting a glimpse of them. Heavy artillery was used as an integral part of Japanese weaponry, and the corpse-strewn beaches of Iwo showed that for the first time in the long island-hopping trail to Tokyo, the Japanese were literally tearing the Americans to bits.

The same tactics awaited the Tenth Army at Okinawa, where General Mitsuru Ushijima, a tall, stocky veteran of the war in Burma and, most recently, superintendent of the military school at Zama, was in command. A realist, Ushijima understood the power that would be brought against him. Not wanting to squander his resources, he planned a bitter end defense on the southern part of the island. Japanese last-ditch strategy for Okinawa included kamikazes at maximum strength. Ushijima would wait to spring his trap until the kamikazes had come down from the Home Islands and destroyed the hundreds of ships standing offshore. With American land forces cut off from their apparently endless supply of manpower and material, Ushijima could attack and win a crushing Japanese victory. The kamikazes were the key. If they failed, Ushijima was as good as dead.

The general watched passively as United States Army combat teams occupied the offshore Kerama atolls in late March. He watched passively as the first soldiers strolled onto Okinawan beaches on April 1.

Forty-eight hours later, the American Ninety-sixth Division crossed the waist of the island and reached the eastern shore. Then, while the Sixth Marines wheeled north, other units moved south toward the capital city, Naha.

On April 5, the bulk of the Tenth Army ran headlong into General Ushijima’s concealed defenses. He unleashed his personal surprise, the largest concentration of artillery assembled by a Japanese army in one place during the whole war. Two hundred and eight-seven heavy fieldpieces began to fire at American soldiers burrowing frantically into shallow foxholes. The advance to the south stopped abruptly. The dying began.

On April 6, Onishi’s kamikazes came in great strength. From Oita and Kanoya, from airfields scattered throughout the island of Kyushu, hundreds of men lifted their airplanes into the sky for a final sortie against the enemy. Their foreheads were girdled with the white hachimaki; their farewell letters had been mailed to their families.

The first American units to detect the presence of suicide craft were picket boats, destroyers placed to the north of the invasion beaches. These graceful gray warships slipped through the calm seas, their crews listening carefully to electronic equipment on board or searching the skies for the telltale specks.

The destroyers were both guardians and sacrificial lambs. While alerting the main line of ships to the south, they would offer themselves as targets to the kamikazes in order to keep them away from the huge capital ships hovering about the beaches.

The Japanese came singly, in pairs and in large groups. Most of them concentrated on the small picket ships. A few drove farther toward the beaches. During the morning, the pickets suffered badly as the Divine Wind blew across their bows. The sky was filled with black clouds of flak and the sea was laced with white necklaces of pom-pom fire as the destroyers blasted the oncoming planes. Though the Japanese incurred severe losses, the destroyers too showed effects of the combat. At least fifteen ships received gaping wounds from hurtling aircraft.

The U.S.S. Bush was not one of those struck on the morning of April 6. Well into the afternoon, she and her complement of more than three hundred men had escaped any physical damage. Only the men’s nerves showed strain. Exhausted by hours at battle stations, they were forced to keep a constant, nerve-wracking vigil.

Then, at thirteen minutes after three, a single-engined kamikaze was sighted dead ahead and low on the water, headed straight for the Bush at Picket Station One.

The enemy craft was employing evasive tactics to upset the aim of the ship’s gunners. It dipped and rose, sometimes coming within ten feet of the ocean. Tracer bullets reached for it in vain. It bored in at the Bush, which twisted desperately to avoid a collision.

At 3:15 the kamikaze smashed into the destroyer at deck level between Number One and Number Two stacks, demolishing the galley, laundry, sick bay and repair locker, and rendering the automatic-firing guns inoperative. Although the Bush caught fire, it seemed possible to save her. Another destroyer, the Colhoun, moved closer to offer help.

For over an hour the stricken Bush labored in the swells as her crew sought to repair the damage. The dead were removed from the shambles. The wounded were treated as quickly and efficiently as possible. The Bush continued to ride the ocean in a reasonable state of seaworthiness. Knotted lines were hung over the side so that sailors could escape enemy planes coming directly for their positions. In this way, the affected crew members could avoid both machine gun attacks and an ultimate crash dive on their particular position. The captain hoped to spare lives by this unusual expedient.

At 4:35, the crew of the Bush was horrified to see American air cover disappear to the south without any prior warning. Crippled and exposed, the ship lay helpless as the kamikaze attack intensified. Ten to fifteen fighters approached from the north. They circled the destroyers below, then veered off. One headed unerringly toward the Bush, its guns blazing. It smashed into the port side, nearly cutting the destroyer in two. The Bush was now a derelict, both sides gaping, wreckage and death inside her hull. Just before twilight a single plane flew over at mast height and soared away to the port side. Then it wheeled slowly and began a last run, holding a level course just above the water. The men on deck were paralyzed at the sight. It tore into the middle section of the Bush. Her back broken by violent collisions with three aircraft, she settled lower in the water. The ship was finished. Sailors began to abandon her. The forward and aft sections of the picket each pointed toward the sky. As water rushed into the jagged tear amidships, the battered destroyer slid slowly beneath the sea.

In the twilight, survivors of the slaughter dotted the ocean. The grueling and ferocious struggle with a fanatical enemy had taken its toll among them. One after the other, officers and men were seen hysterically stripping off their life preservers. In a frenzy, they swam off to some imagined haven, some refuge from the maddening horror of the kamikazes. Thirty-three men struck out for safety without their life jackets, without any real hope. One by one they sank beneath the waves.

Others waited quietly for rescue ships to pick them up. As destroyers moved among them, the last tragedy of the Bush was enacted. Reaching out for lines, for a helping hand, several men smashed their heads against the hulls and sank in silence. Others were swept by waves into the screws of ship propellers and disappeared in a froth of blood. Ten sailors died in these last moments, bringing to a total of eighty-seven the men lost aboard the U.S.S. Bush.


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