One way trip

(Sample essay from Chapter 8, dealing with 1945)

All sorts of horrible accidents occur during the shocking minutes of interaction between opposing forces in combat. People do the wrong thing at the worst possible moment and the results are far removed from the text-book behaviour that was intended. So it was, when American sailors first saw a Japanese plane come soaring down towards the side of their ship at an angle and speed that meant it would never be able to swerve away from the hull, and instead would crash hard into the vessel – all very unpleasant, but within the bounds of ugly activity that servicemen had to expect out in the Pacific when encountering the enemy.

   Only slowly did the US Navy identify a succession of incidents which indicated a pattern: Japanese planes that showed no intention of discharging ordnance before scarpering. Apparently, those at the controls were deliberately propelling their machines towards the opposition’s assets.

   Confirmation emerged from a German news agency towards the end of 1944, after Tokyo briefed its Berlin allies about new techniques to repel the Americans: pilots of the ‘Divine Wind’ squadron had damaged nineteen US warships east of the Philippines in just one week, using the ‘air torpedo’ method. They each rammed their plane – loaded with explosives – into an enemy battleship as close as possible to the waterline, so the hole in the side would cause the vessel to sink.

   Divine Wind was a translation of Kamikaze, severe storms that had in the past destroyed fleets of Mongolian ships attempting to invade Japan. The Germans reported that the planes were like a ‘V1 with a pilot’, and hundreds of airmen with the necessary ‘noble purpose and special training’ were preparing for the ‘hour of their victorious death’.

   Here was a lousy prospect. Up until now the business of flying military planes had been sold on the notion that it was a highly skilled, prestigious profession which, if pursued with care and judgement in a reliable machine, could achieve marvellous things again and again. Only bad luck might stop those aboard returning to base and describing to colleagues their experiences on that outing. Instead, this scenario treated a one-way trip as a triumphant conclusion to an aviator’s career.

   The US army knew the capacity of the Japanese soldier to fight to the last in defending an island, a port or airfield. Now the navy realised the principle of surrender was not something easily achieved in the Orient. It was imperative to inhibit any Jap planes getting anywhere near the fleets. The ‘crazies’ needed to be eliminated, or at least disabled, well away from their intended destinations.

   Amazingly, the Land of the Rising Sun persuaded more than 4,000 young men that killing themselves at the controls of a plane they had directed into the side of a US ship would be a fruitful way to advance the Imperial game plan. But the Kamikaze craze did not proceed as well as it should have. There was always a dignified ceremony on the side of the runway prior to take-off: a speech about glorious achievement and going down in history; the declaration of intent from the airmen, shored up with salutes and bowing. Then up and at ‘em – though no guns, armour or parachute on the plane, and not enough fuel for a return journey. But, once men have left the ground, how can you be sure they will follow through? Some might toy with jumping out of the plane and swimming to safety. Therein lies a tiny prospect of survival; perhaps even seeing the relatives again. Sod the war, bugger the Emperor – if they could paddle a plank towards the nearest atoll, they might live for years in the jungle; maybe meet up with natives and go native. Better than whamming into maritime superstructures.

   Not every kamikaze achieved the stated aim. Most failed to fly their clapped-out planes to the necessary destination due to malfunctioning, bad handling, or enemy interception. But enough of the suicide squads got through to make a disconcerting dent in the American presence. The aerial lunacy saw the sinking of more than 30 US ships and the drowning of nearly 5,000 sailors. 

   In order to continue with his vital war work, the commander of the Divine Wind brigade patently had a fundamental responsibility to look after himself. Occasionally he had to be flown to distant planning centres to discuss the next batch of one-way journeys. He was travelling to such a meeting as a passenger aboard a military aircraft when it encountered a US fighter, which shot it down, killing those inside. 

   Western newspaper cartoonists reached a point whereby making fun of foreign self-immolators seemed fair game. Several sketches contemplated how convenient it would be if the Japanese leadership took the same sword-to-the-stomach route out as had some of their defeated jungle generals.

   One would-be kamikaze contributor was plagued with misfortune. His first attempt to make a suicidal flight saw him aboard a crummy old plane that could not even get off the runway. A few days later, he was waved off in another aircraft, but this developed mechanical problems so he made an emergency landing at an army base. A fortnight on, there arose another opportunity to do his bit, this time in the company of two others – reflecting the gruesome outfit’s realisation that peer pressure in the air might better keep the boys concentrating on the purpose of their missions. This plane left base, then started to malfunction and came down in the ocean. The crew swam miles to an island where they hung around for months before being rescued. And guess what? By now the war was over. So their services and sacrifice were no longer required.

   Not many kamikaze specialists lived to say they’d done three trips, all with return journeys. But the bigger picture shows that, after the Japanese chose to assault Pearl Harbor, they were on a one-way trip to defeat by the world’s most powerful nation. By March 1945, the USA had shot more than 20,000 Japanese aircraft out of the receding Empire’s skies.

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