A flowery suicide

***image1***While Westerners find organized suicide attacks extremely disconcerting because they are culturally very difficult to understand, in other societies they are considered a force multiplier for use against a stronger foe.

In 1944, when Japan found itself being overwhelmed by vastly superior American forces, the Japanese military turned informally, and then formally, to aerial suicide attacks. The units that carried out the attacks were called “special attack units” and began with aircraft, but was expanded to man-guided suicide torpedoes and explosive speed boats. The U.S. dubbed this formal portion of the suicide attacks “kamikaze,’ or “god-sent wind,” after the typhoons that demolished huge Mongolian invasion fleets twice in the 13th century. But, in fact, this term was rarely used by the Japanese.

Most of the special attack units used normal Japanese aircraft with large bombs attached. Once the attacks began in earnest, Japanese aircraft designers began to focus on aircraft designed specifically for the suicide mission. One of the most potentially deadly of these weapons was the rocket powered Yokosuka MXY-7 “Ohka,” (cherry blossom) designed by engineers at the University of Tokyo. Cherry blossoms are Japan’s unofficial national flower.

The name was particularly symbolic because the beautiful, but short lived, cherry blossoms reflected the ephemerality of life. The falling blossoms were long-time metaphors for fallen Japanese warriors who died bravely in battle.

The “Ohka” was a tiny, straight-winged wooden aircraft with primitive controls, powered by three quick burning solid fuel rockets and carryied a 2,646-pound warhead in the nose. Designed to be mass produced by unskilled labor, the Ohka had a top speed of more than 400 miles an hour and a warhead delivered at this speed would destroy any ship. The problem with the Ohka was that it had to be carried within 20 miles of its target by a cumbersome twin-engine “Betty” bomber, which proved to be an easy target for the U.S. Navy’s sophisticated air defense system of radar-directed fighters.

The first Ohka attack by 16 Betty carrier aircraft took place on March 21, 1945. But, all of the Bettys were shot down well before they were within range to launch their Ohkas.

Later attacks suffered virtually the same fate, but in a demonstration of its potential effectiveness one Ohka hit the destroyer “Mannert L. Abele” amidships and blew the ship completely in two.

Though the Abele was the only loss to the Ohka, suicide attacks provoked great anxiety in the U.S. fleet, which tried to minimize the potential of the Ohka by dubbing it “Baka,” Japanese for “fool.”

The Japanese tried to develop a longer range version but the war ended before it was even tested. E-mail questions and comments to marshall.michel@ramstein.af.mil.