At the National Museum of WWII Aviation, we have two sister Tigercats, and by that, we mean they were completed one after the other on the assembly line: 374 and 375. Tigercats did not see much combat during the war as they were built late in 1944 and the war was over under a year later. However, they were built with a specific purpose in mind. The Grumman F7F Tigercat was powered by two Pratt & Whitney 18-cylinder engines providing 2,100 horsepower from three-bladed propellers on each. It could reach speeds of 460 miles per hour and could climb to altitude at a rate of 4,530 feet per minute. All this together means that it was one of the fastest planes in the military. However, many of the fastest planes in the war belonged to the Axis powers; mostly Germany and Japan. Tigercats were built with one deathly purpose: to take down Kamikaze pilots. To get to them before they got to us.
Many people believe that Kamikazes were used throughout the entire war, but that is not the case. Kamikazes were not just pilots who flew their planes into other ships, though this did happen quite a bit. Many times, these were fatally damaged planes simply attempting to make the “best” of a “bad situation.” However, Kamikazes were pilots specially chosen for a “mission of honor” for their emperor: to make suicidal crashes into enemy targets, usually ships. Most Kamikaze planes were ordinary fighters or light bombers, loaded with bombs–not intended or designed to be dropped–and extra gasoline tanks before being flown deliberately to crash into their targets. They also were only commissioned for this honor late in the Pacific campaign, when the tide of victory had surely turned against the Japanese Empire. Surrender was seen as dishonorable and they are an incredibly honor conscience society. The military hierarchy refused to surrender. They were prepared to have every last man, woman, and child defend Japan before they admitted defeat. So, as a last ditch effort, they unleashed the Kamikazes.
“Kamikaze,” in Japanese, means “divine wind” in reference to an historical event that occured back in the 13th century that would solidify a “right of rule” in the minds of the Japanese people, much to the horror of all future Asiatic peoples. In 1274 and 1281, two attempts were made to invade the home islands of Japan by the Mongolian hordes. Both were met with disaster. A typhoon, or what would come to be called a “kamikaze,” destroyed the horde each time. It wouldn’t be until the Doolittle Raid of 1942, the American retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the Japanese islands were successfully attacked by an outside force in the almost 2,000 years of their history. The Japanese believed that these storms were an answer to their Emperor’s prayers and that, thus, they were favored by their gods. That sense of pride was deeply ingrained in the Yamato (Japanese) race and led to the belief that they were destined to subjugate and rule the other Asian races. They believed they were the superior race, just as the Nazis believed that Aryans were the superior race. So deep down, on both fronts, this war was deeply about superior and inferior races.
It was late in 1944, following significant defeats for Japan, a call for Kamikaze pilots drew a response three times the amount of planes available. Age ranged from 17 to 24 years old. Experienced pilots were turned down, because they were needed to train the younger pilots to fly to their deaths. All Kamikaze pilots made a 5 point oath:
- A soldier must make loyalty his obligation.
- A soldier must make propriety his way of life.
- A soldier must highly esteem military valor.
- A soldier must have high regard for righteousness.
- A soldier must live a simple life.
These “Special Attack Squadrons” would fly their planes into battleships, aircraft carriers, and even other planes in a deathly mission of honor. Referring to themselves as “broken gems,” they were driven by a desire to serve their emperor, whom the Japanese of the day believed was a god, and by a desire to honor their family name. They would write letters and poems leading up to their final night on which, there would be a special ceremony where each pilot would have one last drink before heading out on his mission. They knew it was a one way trip.
By October 1944, Kamikaze attacks became largely prevalent and feared, particularly during large Naval engagements as the typical targets were ships. This is why the Tigercat was designed with these specific targets in mind.
Durning the Battle of the Leyte Gulf (in October 1944), the Japanese deployed Kamikaze suicide bombers against American warships for the first time. It would prove costly to both sides. This decision to employ suicide bombers against the American fleet at Leyte, an island of the Philippines, was based on the failure of conventional naval and aerial engagements to stop the American offensive. Declared Japanese naval Capt. Motoharu Okamura: “I firmly believe that the only way to swing the war in our favor is to resort to crash-dive attacks with our planes… There will be more than enough volunteers for this chance to save our country.”
The first Kamikaze force was in fact composed of 24 volunteer pilots from Japan’s 201st Navy Air Group. The targets were U.S. escort carriers; one, the St. Lo, was struck by a A6M Zero fighter and sunk in less than an hour, killing 100 Americans. More than 5,000 Kamikaze pilots died in the gulf battle, taking down 34 ships.
For their Kamikaze raids, the Japanese employed both conventional aircraft and specially designed planes, called Ohka (“cherry blossom”) by the Japanese, but Baka (“fool”) by the Americans, who saw them as acts of desperation. The Baka was a rocket-powered plane that was carried toward its target attached to the belly of a bomber.
All told more than 1,321 Japanese aircraft crashed their planes into Allied warships during the war, desperate efforts to reverse the growing Allied advantage in the Pacific. While approximately 3,000 American and Brits died because of these attacks, the damage done did not prevent the Allied capture of the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.