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The War Nerd September 7, 2007
WAR NERD: Kamikaze Math
One plane for one carrier, and other lessons from Tojo’s Air Force By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 3 of 6

Reading Nagatsuka's story you start to understand why he drooled at the thought that he could settle all this contradictory crap by diving his plane into a U.S. carrier. But another thing you learn from this book is that kamikaze missions weren't as technically easy as you'd think. Being ready to die was the easy part; hitting the target was the tough bit: "Half our planes were caught by ack-ack, and dived into the sea without hitting their objective."

The kamikaze pilots didn't come along till so late in the war that everything was in short supply. The planes they had were junkers, the fuel was usually "A-Go" ersatz that would blow up if you didn't keep your eyes on the dials every second, and recon was a joke. Just finding the target was iffy, as Nagatsuka and his squadron found out. And the lucky suicide boy who got to his target still had a lot to worry about, like hitting a ship, a moving target that was guarded by technologically superior U.S. fighters, hidden by battlesmoke and in the middle of a hedge of AA fire. Nagatsuka says the U.S. gunners invented a new tactic for beating "wave-hopping," low-level kamikaze attacks: "The enemy...explode shells all around their own ships so as to create a screen of waterspouts...." Kamikazes had two options: high-angle dive (which meant facing the fighters) or wave-hopping (which meant AA and waterspouts).

Like most last-ditch suicide techniques, the kamikazes had their biggest successes while the element of surprise was with them. There's a nice little table at the back of the book showing the steady dive in effectiveness, from an October 1944 attack where 18 kamikazes damaged 7 carriers to the August 1945 attacks that had pitiful results: 59 kamikazes died (meaning 59 planes lost too), and only managed to damage three US ships, small-timers at that (1 destroyer, 1 transport, 1 seaplane carrier).

Nagatsuka was young enough to be in on this last stage of the war, the almost pitiful end of Imperial Japan. That's why he lived to write the book: everything went wrong, and the Empire couldn't even mount decent suicide raids.

It wasn't his fault he lived. But when he and his squadron-mates turned back because of bad weather, his CO wasn't in the mood for excuses. You could say that Imperial Japan wasn't big on excuses in general. If a mission failed, you were supposed to make your apologies with a seppuku knife, like General Saito did after the Saipan landings. My favourite ritual suicide in this book is Rear Admiral Inokuchi's. As his battleship, the Musashi, is sinking from American fire, he actually goes to the trouble of slashing his belly open, instead of just waiting to drown. So he goes down with the ship sashimi-style.

That's the thing about the Imperial military elite: they thought way too hard about arranging the perfect death for themselves and not nearly enough about arranging a quick and nasty death for the enemy. There are times, especially in irregular warfare, where Patton's line about "making the other poor SOB die for HIS country" doesn't apply, but it really does apply to WW II in the Pacific, and Tojo's boys should have had it tattoo'd on their foreheads.

They were so obsessed with making the perfect death-scene that they even expected us Americans to be "impressed" with their mass suicide. That's exactly what Nagatsuka says about the thousands of Japanese civvies who walked into the ocean or jumped off cliffs after Saipan fell: "The Americans...should have been moved by the terrifying and yet dignified spectacle of death...." Well, uh, no, Mister Nagatsuka. The Americans thought you were sick freaks. Some things don't translate as well as Top Ramen.

So the Imperial Army had pretty much given up on victory; by 1944 they were running a death franchise, and the one thing that really pissed them off was lower ranks not dying when ordered to do so. So you can imagine how Nagatsuka and his fellow pilots feel coming back to the airfield, ashamed to death of being still alive. Their CO was so disgusted he didn't even give the pilots his honor of bashing them in the face himself. He delegated that job, like a good exec, to a Lieutenant, a younger man with a good right hook:

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Gary Brecher
Browse author
Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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The future of The eXile is in your hands! We're holding a fundraiser to save the paper, and your soul. Tune in to Gary Brecher's urgent request for reinforcements and donate as much as you can. If you don't, we'll be overrun and wiped off the face of the earth, forever.

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