Kamikaze Math

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

In Kamikaze Math, “war nerd” Gary Brecher discusses I Was a Kamikaze, by Ryuji Nagatsuka, whose suicide mission was scrubbed on account of bad weather, just as the war was ending:

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.

Imperial Japan had a culture totally foreign to our own:

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.

The key lesson of the book:

The pilots had a good net value; the infantry didn’t. Nagatsuka talks about how crummy suicide was for the “foot sloggers” who died on Saipan, because with a grenade the most they could hope to do was take one or two enemy with them. Even Sgt. Nonaka died cheap, trading the enemy one for one.

But the kamikaze who took out an aircraft carrier was making a very smart bargain, and you can see the Cadets in Nagatsuka’s unit thinking this through, even if they have to talk about it in the fancy (sometimes downright campy) language of Imperial Japan. Nagatsuka puts it bluntly: “One plane against one ship, that was the basic principle.” It works because one fighter is always going to be much cheaper than one carrier.

As the War Nerd has pointed out before, modern carriers are even more vulnerable than WWII carriers, according to the “Millenium Challenge ’02″ war games:

He was given nothing but small planes and ships-fishing boats, patrol boats, that kind of thing. He kept them circling around the edges of the Persian Gulf aimlessly, driving the Navy crazy trying to keep track of them. When the Admirals finally lost patience and ordered all planes and ships to leave, van Ripen had them all attack at once. And they sank two-thirds of the US fleet.

That should scare the hell out of everybody who cares about how well the US is prepared to fight its next war. It means that a bunch of Cessnas, fishing boats and assorted private craft, crewed by good soldiers and armed with anti-ship missiles, can destroy a US aircraft carrier. That means that the hundreds of trillions (yeah, trillions) of dollars we’ve invested in shipbuilding is wasted, worthless.

A few years ago, a US submarine commander said, “There are two kinds of ship in the US Navy: subs and targets.” The fact that big surface ships are dinosaurs is something that’s gotten clearer every decade since 1921.
The signs have been there all along. In the Falklands War, the Argentine Air Force, which ain’t exactly the A Team, managed to shred the British fleet, coming in low and fast to launch the Exocets. And they did all this hundreds of miles off their coast, with no land-based systems to help.

If the Argentines could do that with 1980 technology, think what the Chinese, Iranians or North Koreans could do in 2003 against a city-size floating target like a US carrier.

Leave a Reply