The Japanese word kamikaze translates to "divine wind." It refers to the storms that saved Japan from the invading Mongol fleets under Kublai Kahn, and thus it was the moniker given to the pilots of the Special Attack Force in World War II. The force, known in Japanese as Tokkotai, carried out suicide attacks on the American fleet by crashing their planes, loaded with explosives, into American ships.
The life of a kamikaze pilot was as difficult as it was short. These were young men called on to commit the ultimate sacrifice in the name of their emperor. The group was led by Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi. Approximately 2,800 kamikaze pilots died during the war, according to US estimates. They managed to hit targets around 14% of the time, sinking 34 Navy ships and damaging 368 others. They killed around 4,900 sailors and injured 4,800. These facts about kamikaze pilots are only part of the story, however. The real story is what it was like to serve as a soldier ordered to die for your country.
While some kamikaze pilots certainly did enthusiastically volunteer, this was not always the case. Potential kamikaze pilots were given a slip of paper with three options; volunteer willingly, simply volunteer, or don't volunteer. As these papers had the pilots' names on them, they very rarely said no.
The pressure to volunteer was intense. Japanese military dictum at the time was essentially "death before surrender," and indeed it wasn't only the kamikaze who took this dictum literally. Japanese soldiers would also engage in banzai suicide charges when faced with certain defeat, and even Japanese civilians chose suicide over capture, such as the 1,000 who jumped from the cliffs of Saipan.
In addition to this pressure, often entire rooms of potential kamikazes would be asked who didn't want to volunteer. It is much harder to be the one guy who doesn't want to sacrifice himself, especially when that choice would very likely make your life very unpleasant very quickly.
There is at least one account of a soldier who chose to opt out being signed up anyway. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney wrote in his book Kamikaze Diaries, "Kuroda Kenjirō decided not to volunteer, only to be taken by surprise when he found his name on the list of volunteers for the Mitate Navy Tokkōtai corps; his superior had reported proudly that all the members of his corps had volunteered."
One of the first things all recruits, not just kamikaze pilots, were taught was how to commit suicide with their rifles. They were taught how to pull the trigger with their toe while aiming the barrel at a certain point under their chin so that the bullet would cause instant death.
If the soldier decided to try and escape instead, his fellow soldiers were instructed to shoot him from behind. The edict of death before capture was that serious.
One of the last acts of a kamikaze pilot was to write a letter to their parents, to be read after their mission's completion. Ensign Kiyoshi Ogawa is one pilot whose farewell letter survives to this day. Roughly translated, it reads:
Father and Mother,
It has been decided that I also will make a sortie as a proud Special Attack Corps member. Looking back, when I think of your raising me in your arms for more than twenty years, I am filled with a sense of gratitude. I truly believe that no one else has lived a happier life than me, and I am resolved to repay the Emperor and my father for your kindness.
Beyond those boundless white clouds, I will make my attack with a calm feeling. Not even thoughts of life and death will come to mind. A person dies once. It will be an honorable day to live for the eternal cause.
Father and Mother, please be glad for me.
Above all, Mother, please take care of your health, and I wish for everyone's prosperity. As I will be at Yasukuni Shrine, Father and Mother, I always and forever will be living near you and will be praying for your happiness.
I will go smiling, both on the day of my sortie and forever.
Ogawa was the pilot of the second plane to hit the USS Bunker Hill. The kamikaze attack killed 393, wounded 264, and took the aircraft carrier out of commission for the duration of the war.
One kamikaze pilot named Irokawa wrote in his diary:
After I passed the gate to the Tsuchiura Naval Air Base, “training” took place day after day. I was struck on the face so hard and frequently that my face was no longer recognizable. On January 2, 1945, Kaneko (Ensign) hit my face twenty times and the inside of my mouth was cut in many places by my teeth. I had been looking forward to eating zōni [a special dish with rice cakes for the New Year]. Instead, I was swallowing blood from the inside of my mouth. On February 14, all of us were punished because they suspected that we ate at farmers’ homes near the base to ease our hunger. In the midst of the cold winter, we were forced to sit for seven hours on a cold concrete floor and they hit us on the buttocks with a club.
Then each of us was called into the officer’s room. When my turn came, as soon as I entered the room, I was hit so hard that I could no longer see and fell on the floor. The minute I got up, I was hit again by a club so that I would confess. A friend of mine was thrown with his head first to the floor, lost consciousness, and was sent to a hospital. He never returned. All this savagery was orchestrated by the corps commander named Tsutsui. I am still looking for this fellow.