Japanese Kamikaze pilots
Despite what we may assume from the current, highly reported tactics and rationale of suicide bombers, they were not always exclusively the preserve of terrorist organisations.
Some of the first suicide bombings of the twentieth century involved the Japanese military, fighting as they were in the Second World War. Faced with the overwhelming naval aerial superiority of the Allied forces in the Pacific, they desperately resorted to the use of the Tokkotai. This ‘special attack unit’, popularly known as Kamikaze or ‘divine wind’, consisted of planes and boats loaded with bombs. The pilots were instructed to crash into naval targets. Their ranks were plucked from volunteers from conscripts or universities.
The militaristic Japanese culture at the time forbade any form of surrender, and the leap from this sense of death with honour, to volunteering as a human bomb was not such a large one.
The Tokkotai were first deployed at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. A plane struck the St Lo aircraft carrier, triggering a fire which eventually sunk the ship. Their use peaked at the Battle of Okinawa where 30 Allied ships were sunk or put out of action. In total around 3,860 suicide attacks were carried out by the Japanese before the end of the war.
Their impact in addressing the balance of naval power in the Pacific, however, should not be over-estimated. It was expensive and often the planes lacked the penetrative force to sink a ship – only around 50 ships were sunk by Tokkotai.
But the attacks did have a real and lasting psychological impact on the Allied sailors. Admiral Halsey, commander of the US Third Fleet declared that it was ‘the only weapon I feared in war’. The attacks also sent a message of fanaticism and intimidation to Japan’s enemies.
Unlike modern suicide bombings, the Tokkotai attacks were directed exclusively at military targets. That said, the themes in the Japanese tactics of a military imbalance, indoctrination, and psychological intimidation can be seen years later – and are today seen in suicide bombings by non-state groups.
It is hard, then, not to see the dark foreshadows of the September 11th 2001 attacks in the tactics of the Tokkotai.