Ben Hills, Herald Correspondent

When I fly the skies,
What a fine burial place
Would be the top of a cloud

Farewell poem written in blood on his headband by a kamikaze pilot, quoted by Domei newspaper. Fifty years later, Tadashi Nakajima no longer remembers the names or faces of the brave, scared, reckless young men he sent to certain death in the steel-filled skies over the Philippines.

One of them, almost certainly, was the pilot who crashed his fighter into the foremast of the cruiser HMAS Australia, killing 30 men, the first “kill”by Japan’s new secret weapon – the kamikaze suicide attack.

“How could I know which one it was?” says Mr Nakajima, leafing through sepia-coloured prints in a photo album. “Almost no-one returned from those missions.

“The orders from our commander were quite explicit. He told the pilots: ‘This is an opportunity that comes once in a thousand years. Put forth everything you have. All of you come back dead.’ ”

Nakajima was the flight operations officer of the Japanese 201st Air Group, the Divine Wind Special Attack Force, the first kamikaze squadron. It was created on October 20, 1944, the day before the attack on the Australia.

It was a last, desperate bid to turn the tide of war, to break through the tightening noose of Rear-Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Task Force Group 38, history’s mightiest seaborne force.

The Japanese called the battle for the Philippines Operation Sho-Go, Operation Victory. In fact, it was to be their Armageddon – a defeat so comprehensive that the Imperial Navy virtually ceased to exist, the air force was cut to pieces, the army driven into the hills and the way opened for the all-out assault on the Japanese home islands.

Nakajima believes the high command of the Japanese military realised, even before the first ships of the Allied fleet edged their way into Leyte Gulf, that the war was lost. The kamikaze tactics were invented so that “after the war, the Japanese people could have some national pride”.

The father of the kamikazes – named after the “divine wind” that twice saved Japan by sinking Kublai Khan’s invading Mongol armada in the 13th century – was Nakajima’s commander, Admiral Takijiro Onishi.

Assembling surviving officers of the tattered remains of his air force – by then, there were fewer than 100 operational planes left in the Philippines -at Mabalacat airfield, south of Manila, on October 20, he declared: “Japan is in grave danger … on behalf of your 100 million countrymen, I ask of you this sacrifice and pray for your success. You are already gods without earthly desire … since death is the inevitable fate of our young eagles, they should be allowed to die in the most worthwhile way.”

“Body hitting” tactics had been used by the Japanese air force before -when a plane was hit, the pilot, instead of baling out, would select a target to crash into. But this was the first time any military command anywhere had made suicide an official weapon of war.

It is not absolutely certain that the aircraft that crashed into the Australia set out on a kamikaze mission. Although eyewitnesses said the pilot manoeuvred the plane into the ship’s bridge, it had been hit by Allied fire.

After this, however, Zero fighters with 250-pound bombs attached to them began diving into ships. When the Zeros were wasted, bombers, old patched-up fighters, even training biplanes with canvas-covered wings were pressed into suicidal service. When the bombs ran out, they filled the cockpits with hand grenades.

To Tadashi Nakajima, now 84 and working as a potter in his retirement near Tokyo, the kamikazes were “only normal. If you are a military man you have already agreed to give up your life. That is the way of bushido (the samurai creed).”

Kazuo Tsunoda, 76, who lives in Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, is one of the few kamikazes still alive. An ace fighter pilot who fought in China, Taiwan, Iwo Jima and Rabaul – where he shot down two Australians – Tsunoda owes his life to the fact that he was ordered to escort the kamikazes on their one-way missions, providing covering fire.

All told, 4,000 kamikazes dived to their deaths in 10 months. Forty-nine Allied ships were sunk and 341 were damaged, with the loss of several thousand lives – a sizable toll, although many were small transports, and nothing larger than a cruiser was sunk.

But far from being useless, the kamikazes might have prolonged the war by a crucial few weeks, long enough to forestall the invasion of the main islands and allow the atom bombs to be dropped.

By the northern summer of 1945, the kamikaze spirit had become national strategy – “100 Million Ready to Die for the Emperor” was the slogan, as civilians sharpened bamboo stakes and farm implements and prepared to fight to the death.

If the kamikazis prevented this holocaust – and a number of historians hold this view – their suicidal sacrifice that began in Leyte Gulf might have saved millions of lives, both Allied and Japanese.

Publishing Info

Photograph of Nakajima by Mayu Kanamori
1. Tadashi Nakajimi
2.Kamikaze pilot Kazuo Tsunoda
3. The Australia hit; Captain Dechaineux was killed, Commodore Collins badly wounded
Kamikaze – The Sacred Warriors, by Denis and Peggy Warner with Sadao Seno, Oxford University Press.
The Divine Wind, by Rikihei Inoguchi, Tadashi Nakajima and Roger Pineau, Greenwood Press