Broadsides and Suicides: How War Changed During Three Days

Late in October, 1944, two incidents indicated the direction in which modern warfare was moving. In the space of just three days, a longtime foundation of war-making began losing its importance while a new one emerged.

During the battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, ships of America’s 7th fleet surprised a large taskforce of the Japanese fleet at Suriago Bay. Late in the ensuring gun battle between battleships, the Mississippi fired a salvo at the retreating Japanese ships. No one could have known at the time, but that twelve-gun volley was the last salvo fired by one battleship at another. The era of the decisive naval battle was ending.

For over 300 years, battleships had been one of the most important weapons a nation possessed.  By dominating sea lanes, battleships could decide the outcome of wars and the fates of nations.But after this last salvo, battleships stopped engaging each other in direct, decisive battle, and naval warfare came to rely on air and underwater forces.

Just as the age of the battleship ended, the age of the suicide bomber began. This is how William L. Worden, writing for the Post in 1945, described the appearance of kamikazes in Leyte Gulf.

A kamikaze pilot attacks the USS Columbia.

A lone aircraft comes out of a cloud with a strange deliberation. It reaches a spot over the outer rim of ships, and then, seeming more deliberate than ever, the plane tips over into a steep nosedive. It is not a smooth dive. Tracers cut holes in the plane before it is well started down. Bigger shells take off pieces of the wings and crash into the cockpit. But the plane is traveling on a near-vertical course and does not veer.

The plane crashes head-on into the rigging of a ship. A cargo boom swings wildly, wreathed in fire from the plane’s gasoline tanks. The plane [crashes] through radio aerials and cargo lines, and into the sea a hundred feet beyond the target vessel. There it burns awhile, then sinks.

Conservatively, there have been well over 1,000 such dives against shipping all the way from the Philippines to the sea 100 miles off the mouth of Tokyo Bay. [“Kamikaze: Aerial Banzai Charge,” William L. Worden, June 23, 1945]

Suicide dives were not new, as Worden pointed out, nor were they unknown among American fliers.

Individual airmen of most of the world’s flying forces [have], at one time or another, used it as a desperate last-minute attack when they knew they were going to crash anyhow.

You may remember that Maj. Lofton Henderson, of the Marine Corps—for whom Henderson Field at Guadalcanal is named— was last seen diving his flaming, bomb-laden plane into the deck of a Jap carrier that was trying to flee from Midway.

It was also during the battle of Midway that fifteen pilots from a Navy Torpedo Squadron flew directly into the fire of Japanese ships knowing they had almost no chance of survival. (Just one pilot survived.)

The difference between a true suicide dive and the attacks Torpedo Squadron 8 made is an almost indistinguishable hair line.

A kamikaze pilot steers his plane toward a collision with the USS White Plains, October 25, 1944.

The important difference, Worden said, was the official nature of these suicide tactics. The Japanese military had purposely ordered the strategic suicide, making it a part of official government strategy.

Did it work? Official military reports at war’s end concluded that kamikazes had sunk 34 and damaged 368 ships. They had also killed 300 and wounded over 4,000 American servicemen.

The Japanese military might have thought kamikaze attacks would ensure victory. But by the end of the battle for Leyte Gulf, even they realized it was hopeless. Still they ordered their men to continue flying into U.S. ships. And they assured their men that vast numbers of kamikazes were held in reserve to halt any American invasion of Japan. In another Post article, a captured Japanese air commander told his American interrogator that—

“we had a plan to send out our entire kamikaze strength—more than two thousand planes—in wave after wave.”

What damage did be estimate this would have inflicted?

” Fifty to seventy-five per cent of your force,” he said. “All the carriers. Many other ships as well.” He added that they would have saved some six hundred of their best new fighter planes for a last-ditch aerial defense of the homeland. [“A Japanese Officer Explains Nippon Mistakes,” Lt. S.P. Walker, USNR, Nov. 11, 1945]

The Japanese military hadn’t expected that their kamikazes would motivate the Navy to be more vigilant and to fight smarter. They hadn’t considered losing and answering for their barbarities. They couldn’t have dreamed that their suicide bombers would be a factor in America’s decision to use a nuclear weapon on them.

A government that employs suicide attacks ignores the historic failure of terrorism, the inevitable day of earthly reckoning with an outraged enemy, and the fact that America can’t always be relied on to forgive and forget. By stiffening the resolve of its enemies, terrorists forge the weapon that will destroy themselves.