Remembering the Kamikaze Attacks of January of '45

Gabe Pressman recalls the kamikaze attacks of World War II, which he witnessed 68 years ago.

As the 7th Fleet approached the beach at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines in early January 1945, we saw the flames engulfing Manila. The guns of our battleships, cruisers, destroyers and airplanes had been pounding the Japanese positions for hours. And the fire set by these explosions seemed to be the last throes of Japanese rule in the Philippines.

But, the next day and, on subsequent days,  the Japanese military unleashed a last, desperate effort to fight back. The new weapon was the kamikazes, suicide planes that would smash into major American vessels -- hoping to sink them or at least inflict maximum damage on these ships.

I remember how stunned we were to see the first kamikazes aiming themselves at American vessels. The battleship USS California had been pounding Japanese positions with its huge, 16-inch guns. Suddenly, a Japanese fighter, a "Zero" I think it was, darted out of the sky and slammed into the forward part of the battleship.

The plane was hit by fire from the battleship’s guns several times. The California’s crew managed to make temporary repairs on the spot and continued its critical mission of shore bombardment. The ship caught fire but speedy damage control kept it afloat. Forty-four of her crew were killed,  155 wounded. We watched from the deck of our tiny ship, a submarine chaser -- as this scene, incredible to us, unfolded. We found it hard to believe that the Japanese pilots were so dedicated to the emperor they were ready to commit suicide to serve him. .

Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the World War II commander of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, once said that the only aspect of the Pacific War that was entirely unanticipated in pre-war planning were the kamikazes. 

Looking back at the last months of World War II, it’s clear that what Japanese militarists described as kamikaze or “divine wind” had little divine effect.  

The early months of 1945 were, for the Japanese, dramatic but futile. Their suicide missions couldn’t stave off  the death of the empire itself.          

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