Kamikaze is a history of Japan’s suicide warriors during the latter stages of the Second World War. Most often associated with the pilots of planes who deliberately tried to crash into allied shipping (there were 2,940 such attempts between Oct 1944 and Aug 1945, the vast majority of which failed in their mission), kamikaze’s also included mini-submarines and also entire ships (for example, the battleship Yamato sailed toward the US fleet in April 1945 with only enough fuel for a one way trip – it never made contact being sunk by US planes with the loss of 3,063 men). Given that the protagonists died and left little in the way of records, the paucity of Japanese material, and the US military’s blackout of kamikaze tactics during the war, Lamont-Brown does a reasonable job of pulling together the relatively limited material available. The narrative is a little dry in places, becoming quite list-like and lacking in personal testimony or stories, and the structure is a little jumbled, but nevertheless I found the book fascinating.
In Admiral Halsey’s words, ‘American’s who fight to live, find it hard to realise that another people will fight to die.’ And this was certainly a point I kept reflecting on – the willingness of some Japanese fighters to selflessly give up their lives in what were quite clearly futile attacks for the greater good of Japan and the Emperor. The logic of the attacks was to discourage the American advance, and in particular the invasion of Japanese territory, by demonstrating how bloody and costly the battle would be. And whilst the American’s quite clearly feared and were distressed by such attacks, they quickly worked out how to deal with them, although a number of ships were hit and some sunk (for example, between 17 Feb and 30 July in Iwo Jima and Okinawa theatres 146 allied vessels received some significant level of damage from kamikaze attacks, of which 48 were scrapped or sunk). Perhaps the Indianapolis was the most significant ship to be sunk, attacked by either a mini-sub or conventional torpedo on July 29, 1945. In his memoirs, Truman admitted that the vessel carried a third atomic bomb intended for Niigata.
I’ll leave the last words to a letter sent by a young kamikaze to his parents.
‘Please congratulate me. I have been given the splendid opportunity to die. This is my last day. The destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the Southern Seas, where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree.
‘I shall be the shield for [the] Tenno and die cleanly along with my squadron leader and other friends. I wish that I could be born seven times, each to smite the enemy.
‘How I appreciate this chance to die like a man. I am grateful from the depths of my heart to the parents who have reared me with their constant prayers and tender love. And I am grateful as well to my squadron leader and superior officers who have looked after me as if I were their own son and given me much careful training.
‘Thank you, my parents, for the twenty-three years during which you have cared for me and inspired me. I hope that my present deed will in some small way repay what you have done for me. Think well of me and know that your Isao died for our country. This is my last wish, and there is nothing else I desire.
‘I shall return in spirit and look forward to your visit at the Yasikuni-jinja. Please take good care of yourselves. […]
‘We are sixteen warriors manning the bombers. May our death be as sudden and clean as the shattering of crystal.
‘Written at Manila on the eve of our sortie. Isao.’