In 1336, Japanese warrior Kusunoki Masashige fought a brave but futile defense at the Battle of Minatogawa. The moment before his inevitable defeat, Masashige committed seppuku, ritual suicide, in front of his attackers rather than surrender or be taken prisoner. Masashige became a legend in Japanese history and his emblem, the kikusui or floating chrysanthemum, became the symbol for Japan’s struggle to death with the Allies in 1945.
On 6 April 1945, the Japanese launched the first of ten massed airborne Kamikaze strikes against the US Fifth Fleet off Okinawa. Operation Kikusui, No 1 consisted of almost 700 aircraft including 355 Kamikaze. US codebreakers knew of the attack and every fighter in the Fifth Fleet was airborne to meet them. Nonetheless, the Allied fighter patrols could only shoot down 200 or so before they reached the fleet. The northern most destroyers on radar picket took the brunt of the initial attacks. Notwithstanding orders to bypass the destroyers and hit the vulnerable carriers closer to Okinawa, most Kamikaze struck the first ships they came across. Once a “gap” was made in the picket line, Kamikaze continued on toward the fleet. 200 more were shot down by antiaircraft gunners. It wasn’t enough.
180 Kamikaze and normal strike aircraft slammed into the fleet. Despite hours and even days of epic damage control efforts, two destroyers were sunk, and four more so damaged that they were sent to scrap after the day’s battle. Four other destroyers and two destroyer escorts were so badly damaged that they required more than 30 days of repairs. One LST and two ammunition ships were destroyed, and one fleet carrier, the USS Hancock, was sent back to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
The Japanese were not pleased with results considering the resources expended. The Americans’ mastery of the fundamentals: damage control, disciplined anti-aircraft fire, radar direction, combat air patrols, intelligence, and fleet logistics provided the fleet a resilience that had prevented a disaster.
Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.