Samurai on the Pacific

(To Mario Veronesi)

The feelings of honor, fidelity, courage and devotion were all sublimated in "Bushido " (way of the warrior), code and rule of life of the samurai, derived fundamentally from Zen Buddhism where it incited the bearing of physical pain. The samurai, from the earliest childhood, received the harsh education "Hagakure " (notes on things heard in the shade of the leaves). The author, Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659-1721), a former samurai who became a Zen monk, wrote it in an age of peace and beginning of the decadence of the samurai. The book was adopted for centuries as a samurai code but saw the press only in the 1906. It was not very well known during the years of the shogunate, but later became one of the most famous and taught texts in Japan.

After the opening of Japan to international traffic, the principles of "Bushido " they permeated the rules of the Army and the Navy, and later they were even adopted by the civil bourgeoisie and the class of state officials. It was widely circulated - and underwent the instrumentalization of Japanese militarism in the first half of the 20th century - to the point that the kamikazes carried this text with them as their last death companion. This incredible generalized application of a code of conduct, originally intended only for a class of elected officials, had the power to fanatize an entire people. It may seem impossible, unnatural, contrary to the most elementary logic of things, but it was like this: we can wonder at it, but we cannot but take note of it.

Suicide practice has been a veritable institution in Japan for centuries. In fact, until about 1950, the vast majority of Japanese considered suicide sometimes even a duty, sometimes inevitable, but still very respectable. Among the aristocratic classes and the military hierarchy, as we know, giving oneself death to not survive disgrace required a specific ritual, also based on the Japanese interpretation of religiosity and formal elegance that we know as "Harakiri ". In truth the Japanese have never used this term, which literally means (opening of the belly). The suicide carried out according to precise rules is called for the Japanese "Seppuku " (ritual suicide), this mortuary ceremony is more dramatic than is generally believed. However, most of the Japanese military and civilians who committed suicide in the 1945 following the defeat of the war did so more or less quickly, so they were mostly simple "Harakiri " and not gods "Seppuku ".

Given this, we must not therefore be surprised by the advent of the epic of the kamikazes, they were the extreme epigones of a millenary tradition, which reached its apotheosis in the most dramatic historical moment in the history of Japan, the years of fire, of destruction and pain of the second world war.

Kamikaze (divine wind), is a term that came into use to indicate the name of a legendary typhoon that is said to have saved Japan from a Mongol invasion fleet sent by Kublai Khan (1215-1294) in the 1281. As in the 13th century, so in October 1944, the "Divine wind" he should have saved Japan from an invasion, or from the allied invasion. In Japan the word kamikaze is used only in reference to that typhoon, while the term used for the units that performed these attacks was "Tokubetsu kogeki tai - special attack unit ", usually abbreviated to"tokkStai". While suicide teams from the Imperial Navy were called"Shinpu tokubetsu kogeki tai".

In reality the story of the kamikazes has its distant beginnings before the US-Japanese conflict of the 1941-1945, not to mention entire Japanese death departments that had sacrificed themselves during the Russian-Japanese 1905 war on the assault of Port Arthur, or during the Sino-Japanese War of the 1937. At the time, it was not a real body, created specifically for suicide attacks, but departments that consciously sacrificed themselves when certain circumstances made it necessary.

The first kamikaze corps was formed in principle by the surviving planes of the 201 hunting team; 13 appliances were intended for the percussion attack, while others constituted the escort. The first commander of the body was vessel lieutenant Yukiho Seki (1921-1944). Lieutenant Seki (photo) led one of the three kamikaze hunting groups to his second attack; the first official attack was conducted by Yoshiyasu Kuno (1921-1944) the 21 October 1944, which was unsuccessful. 4 groups were called to his orders, called: "Shikishima"(poetic name of Japan),"Yamato"(the Kyoto region, ancient capital of feudal Japan),"Asahi"(rising sun) and"Yamazakura"(wild cherry tree). The attack took place on the 25 October 1944, during the battle of the Gulf of Leyte, driving a group of five Mitsubishi A6M armed bombs, this designation was obtained by composing the" A "for aircraft on board, the" 6 "because it was the sixth model built for the Japanese Navy and the initial" M "of the Mitsubishi manufacturer, simply called by the allies Zero. In the last years of the conflict, of the 10.937 specimens produced, many were turned into kamikazes. Before leaving, Seki delivered a carefully folded piece of paper. The officer who received it read its contents only after take-off: "a lock of hair for the widow". The episode evokes similar deliveries of the time of the samurai, on the eve of a battle.

All pilots of the first air fleet asked to be part of the new special attack corps, both the officers and the non-commissioned officers (the latter, not having been initially understood, protested for not feeling dishonored). For these men, as for all the Japanese, surviving the ruin of the empire, without having tried the possible and the impossible to avoid it, was dishonorable.

Faced with the new demands, Japan began to build, for kamikaze tactics, a special plane, a veritable piloted flying bomb, to replace the Zero, born as a fighter. The suicide plane was Ooka (cherry blossom), later called by the Americans "Baka" (in Japanese it is equivalent to stupid). The first version of this aircraft was the Ooka 11, which was carried under the fuselage attached by a twin-engine near the objective, which reached a short distance, after the kamikaze pilot had descended moving from the transporter plane to the passenger compartment of the Ooka, the latter was unhooked and started driven by three rockets (instead of rockets, a jet engine should have functioned, then appeared, due to a delay in construction, on the subsequent versions), heading towards the enemy ship. The first Ooka 11, named "Jinrai "(thunder shot), was produced in September 1944.

At that time the basic kamikazes in the Philippines were divided into three bodies and now adopted other types of equipment besides Zero; the former was in fact composed of 17 Zero, while the latter had 3 medium Suisei bombers and the third had 6 twin-engine P1Y1 Ginga (milky way), the latter type of apparatus is better known under the American name of “Frances ". The 14 and November 15, some of these suicide bombers, attacked the American forces that had conquered a landing head in Mindoro, in the western Philippines, hitting two cruisers and a destroyer and sinking two tank landing ships. At the same time, other suicide devices were thrown on Leyte's US land positions, with a tactic that will then be repeated in Okinawa.

The peak of activity was touched on the 6 April 1945 during the battle of Okinawa, when several waves of airplanes conducted hundreds of attacks during the operation "Kikusai"(Floating chrysanthemums), where 1.465 airplanes were used. The "suicide" mission of the battleship was planned for this battle Yamato that he failed to reach the goal, because he was sunk by Allied planes several hundred miles away.

The most famous "blow" of the kamikaze units took place on Monday 14 May 1945, in the Philippine Sea, at about 150 miles south-east of Kyushu. They were the 6,56 and the ship found itself under the last cloud in which Zeke had entered, as if he had been waiting for that moment, the small Japanese fighter came out from the lower base of the stern clouds, in a fast glide but little inclined, aiming at 'Enterprise. The 40 and the left 20 mm took him under their fire, while the aircraft carrier moved to the left moving the target. The plane continued straight without deviating by one meter, varying its aiming point to follow the juxtaposed ship, falling with its bomb on the ship. The bomb penetrated five bridges in the belly of the aircraft carrier by raising a dense column of gray and white smoke. THE'Enterprise had been badly damaged, the flames spread from the front end of the hangar bridge and lapped at the ammunition depot of the 127 guns on both sides of the forward sector, the flight deck was destroyed up to a meter aft by the demolished elevator. With the twisted bridge and the mouth of the elevator wide open, the "Big E"He was unable to fly his planes. But worse still, her gashes and smoke indicated her being struck by other approaching planes. His losses were slight in relation to the damage suffered: 13 dead and 68 injured. Eight men thrown into the sea were recovered by the destroyer Waldron. The body of the chief pilot Tomi Zai, with personal documents, was found at the bottom of the elevator shaft, he had achieved the result that his superiors of the Imperial Navy had tried in vain to obtain. He had succeeded in ousting theEnterprise from the war. The American aircraft carrier had participated in 20 battles, destroyed 911 aircraft and sunk 71 enemy ships. After Okinawa the fighting of the special attack units continued until the end of the conflict, the last actions took place at the beginning of August. The 15 of the same month, the Japanese government - threatened by the launch of new atomic bombs - capitulated. The following day, Admiral Takajiro Onischi (1891 – 1945), creator and commander of the kamikazes killed himself with the "Seppuku", thus reaching its 2.530 suicide pilots.

The Navy and the Japanese Army never had problems recruiting volunteers for kamikaze missions; in fact there were three times more volunteers than the available planes. As a result of this, experienced pilots were discarded, as they were considered better employed in defensive and teaching roles. Special ceremonies were often held immediately before the departure of the kamikaze missions, in which pilots carrying prayers of their families were given military decorations. These practices helped to romanticize suicide missions, thereby attracting other volunteers. Each member of the crew was given the short sword of the samurai in reference to "Seppuku". It was one of the first occasions when the link between the" was clearly indicatedBushido " and military ethics. Also "the Hachimaki"famous white bandana with patriotic motifs drawn, it was another trait in common with the kamikaze units, it alluded to the time of the samurai, it showed boldness and determination, reminding the crew of the meaning of its sacrifice. According to the legend the young pilots of the kamikaze missions often fly south-west from Japan over Mount Kaimon, high 922 meters. The mountain is also called "Satsuma Fuji"(pointing to a mountain symmetrically, like Mount Fuji but located in the Satsuma region). The pilots, while in the air, looked at the mountain and greeted their country. The residents of the island of Kikajima, east of Amami Oshima, they say that the pilots threw flowers while they were leaving for their suicide mission.

In February of the 1944 a production plan was launched for a new baptized weapon Kaiten, literally "that subverts the heavens". The production of the new weapon remained secret, the strategy of special bodies was anticipated and the sailors shared the fate of suicide pilots. Otsu was a small island in the Inner Sea, pilots were trained here Kaiten. Although antecedent to the special bodies of Admiral Onischi, the Kaiten he entered the scene after them and the primacy of a planned strategy competed with the planes of the Imperial Navy. Suicide sailors struck in the shadows and were never wrapped in the aura that surrounded their fellow aviators, hiding them a darkness that was too dense, an impenetrable secret.

Why so much insistence on human torpedoes, despite the failures? It depended on the desperate situation, the crisis of the naval fleet, the technological difference with America that by now seemed unbridgeable. Everything was thought of: boats loaded with explosives, frogmen "Fukuryu"(creeping dragons) coming down from small boats with little chance of return. Suicide boats, named"Shinyo"(shake the ocean), or collision boats loaded with explosives that weighed up to two tons. These fast motorboats were driven by a man and reached speeds of around 30 knots, usually equipped with two depth bombs or "An explosive charge. Those loaded with depth bombs were not really suicide boats. In fact the idea was to drop the depth bombs and then disengage from the target before the outbreak. However, the wave from the explosion would probably killed the crew or at least submerged the boat.Shinyo"6.200 were built for the Imperial Navy. About 400 of these boats were transported to Okinawa and Formosa, the rest was arranged camouflaging along the coasts of Japan, for a final defense against the American invasion. They were ready in early January 1945 for the American landing in the Lingayen gulf During the attack many were neutralized by cannons and in subsequent US landings did not make that decisive contribution for which they were built.The water suicide bombers did not report brilliant successes nor to the Philippines, neither to Iwo Jima nor to Okinawa.

When the war ended, the public image of the kamikaze pilots changed drastically. The survivors were regarded with suspicion or indifference and often judged fanatical and ultimately judged responsible for the war. Over the decades, after the end of the American occupation in the 1952, the kamikaze pilots regained the status of national heroes, as during the final stages of the war. Much of this turnaround in public opinion was born thanks to the efforts of the "Chiran Peace Museum" in Kyushu of Kagoshima Prefecture, a museum for kamikaze pilots, opened in the 1975 in the former "Chiran Air Base", where 436 left pilots of the Imperial Army who never returned. Shortly before departure they were all photographed and the images are now displayed at the Chiran peace museum, they had between the 17 and the 28 years. Most wore an aviator helmet and glasses on their foreheads. A thousand photographs occupy the walls of the first room of the museum. Silent, visitors observe the faces of these men, they approach the captions to read their latest messages, their latest poems handwritten with care and leave room for imagination, perhaps by looking at the objects that bring good luck that accompanied the flight of those who had received the "red sheet": the order to leave for the front.

The museum has become a popular tourist destination with over 500 thousand visits a year. In addition to this museum, we mention the "Kaiten Memorial Museum", dedicated to kamikaze sailors. Books, films and other museums have contributed significantly to the revival of the reputation of these men.

(photo: web)