- Shinkfield, Des
- Naval Aviation, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Arunta I, HMAS Warramunga I, HMAS Shropshire, HMAS Australia II
- December 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The attack on Port Moresby was meant to be a surprise attack like that of Pearl Harbour, but Yamamoto’s plans were already known. In June 1942 Admiral Yamamoto, supreme commander of the Japanese naval forces, planned to provoke an American attack by seizing Midway, ‘the sentry to Hawaii’ and to destroy the American fleet piecemeal by a combination of air, surface and submarine attacks. It was a bold plan, but Admiral Chester Nimitz already knew about it thanks to the cryptographic team that had given him full details of Yamamoto’s battle plan. Credit was given to a commander, Joseph J. Rochefort, and his team of cryptanalysts. I am interested to find out what part Eric Nave played. I’ll know when I get a copy of a new book A Man of Intelligence by Ian Pfennigwerth, which has been published recently.
Yamamoto had no less than eight carriers, three seaplane carriers, eleven battleships, eighteen cruisers, fifty destroyers and ten submarines, and 272 aircraft embarked in the carriers. Against this force, the Americans had only three carriers, the US Ships Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown, eight cruisers, fifteen destroyers, nineteen submarines and 233 aircraft. In the ensuing battle not only did the Japanese lose four carriers, but the flower of the Japanese aviators and, with the sinking of the aircraft carrier Hiryu at dusk as she was preparing a strike on the American forces, the Japanese hopes of capturing Midway vanished. On 5 June Yamamoto ordered the withdrawal of his invasion force. The US lost the carrier Yorktown.
By February 1943 the ground forces under General MacArthur had cleared the Japanese from the north coast of New Guinea and Admiral Halsey had driven them out of the Solomons. The next step was to bridge the so-called ‘Bismarck Barrier,’ a chain of island bases which had to be captured or neutralized – Wake, Biak, Noemfoor, Morotai and then the Philippines.
Apart from the losses of naval pilots at Midway, Japanese operations in the South Pacific had frittered away even more. In June 1944, in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, otherwise known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, the Japanese lost a further 300 aircraft against the loss of only 30 American aircraft. But in this battle, a captain, Eiichiro Jye in the Choyida, observed that a dozen of his fighter bombers had managed to break through the American defences, scoring a direct hit on the battleship USS South Dakota. Two of them also made suicide attacks. He was so impressed with this that he recommended to his superiors that Special Attack Units should be organized to carry out crash dive tactics on American ships.
Rear Admiral Obayashi supported the idea, but not so Rear Admiral Ozawa or Admiral Toyoda, C-in-C of the combined fleet. However, Rear Admiral Takaijiro Onishi became obsessed with the idea. When he took command of the First Air Fleet in the Philippines in October 1944, something had to be done. He found he only had 200 effective aircraft at his disposal. He made a special visit to Mabacalat near Manila with a view to establishing a Special Shimpu Kamikaze Attack Unit. He called on the 23 experienced pilots to volunteer to become suicide pilots. All of them volunteered. Not surprising. It would have been a disgrace for them not to have volunteered along with the others.
First kamikaze suicide unit
So, on October 20th the first Shimpu Kamikaze Suicide Unit was formed. Posthumously the pilots were promised double promotion if they crashed into an American aircraft carrier. Pilots wore the ‘hachimaki’ of the samurai tradition under their helmets, and a white scarf around their necks. The planes were to carry 550 lb bombs. Onishi hoped the new unit would become the ‘Divine Wind’ which would save Japan again.
When it flowered, this germ of an idea introduced a new and horrible dimension to naval warfare – suicide tactics. There is good evidence that the Japanese Fourth Army in the Philippines quickly followed the lead of the First Air Flotilla and even carried out the first suicide attack of the campaign.
On October 20th 1944 a huge armada of American ships assembled in Leyte Gulf ready for the invasion of the Philippines. HMAS Australia was one of the bombardment group. All had gone well on the 20th, but late in the afternoon a Japanese plane targeted the cruiser USS Honolulu, and torpedoed it. Honolulu was the sister ship of the USS Nashville, MacArthur’s flagship. Was this a case of mistaken identity?