by Yutaka Yokota with Joseph D. Harrington
Leisure Books, 1962, 272 pages
Both words in the title Kamikaze Submarine are
misnomers. This book tells the history of the "kaiten," which is not
a submarine, but rather a manned torpedo launched from a submarine and used by
the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II as part of its special attack forces
to make suicide attacks on enemy ships. Also, the Japanese Navy only used the
word "kamikaze" (or "divine wind" in Japanese) to refer to
suicide attacks made by planes. However, the Imperial Navy gave the same
special recognition to both special attack corps plane pilots and kaiten pilots
who died in suicide attacks. The Navy granted these pilots a promotion of two
ranks upon death.
In this book, Yutaka Yokota weaves together his fascinating
personal experiences with the overall history of the development and deployment
of the kaiten weapon. Yokota is highly qualified to write such a history, since
he joined the kaiten program in its early stages in September 1944, went out on
three missions and survived each one, and at the end of the war had spent more
time inside a kaiten than any other pilot. Yokota published his experiences in
Japanese in 1956 (Kaiten Kenshōkai 1965, 70), and he worked together with
American Joseph Harrington to publish this English account in 1962. Harrington
added information to this English book to allow readers to understand the
background and significance of certain Japanese terms. For example, he takes
about a page to explain the meaning and historical background of the hachimaki
(headband) worn by kaiten pilots as they departed for sea.
The book's title was The Kaiten Weapon when
originally published in 1962, but three subsequent reprints between 1966 and
1973 carried the title Suicide Submarine. Finally, Leisure Books used
the title Kamikaze Submarine, probably for marketing reasons since many
Americans associate the word "kamikaze" with any type of suicide
attack. Although the book has the title Kamikaze Submarine, Yokota and
Harrington never use either of these words to refer to kaiten.
The Japanese word "kaiten" literally means
"sky change," with the implication that the Navy hoped this new
weapon would bring about a radical reversal in the course of the war when Japan
was suffering continuing losses. The Naval General Staff approved the
development of the kaiten in February 1944 on the condition it not be used as a
suicide weapon. Although the kaiten had an escape hatch, no pilot ever used it,
and all involved with the weapon considered that the pilot would steer the
torpedo to its final target without ejecting. In September 1944, the Navy
established a top-secret base on Ōtsushima Island in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and
Yokota and other volunteers from the Navy's flight training program went there
to begin training. On November 20, 1944, the kaiten weapons made their first
attacks, which continued to the end of the war. The manned torpedoes only sank
two American ships in total (Warner 1982, 334), but the Japanese Navy lost
eight submarines and nearly 900 lives, including about 100 kaiten pilots, as
part of the kaiten program (Kaiten Kichi 1999, 75; Yokota 1962, 272).
Yokota left Japan three times in submarines carrying kaiten
weapons, but he returned each time without being able to carry out his
objective to sink an enemy ship. On his first mission, after a bombing by enemy
planes and depth charges by enemy destroyers, the submarine developed a huge
oil leak, and the attached kaiten had many large dents. On his next time out,
the submarine had a difficult time sighting enough good targets to launch all
six kaiten. When a target was sighted, the telephone line used to communicate
between the submarine and Yokota's kaiten was completely dead, so he could not
be launched. On his final mission, his kaiten had two leaks in the oxygen fuel
lines, so it could not be launched. The submarine barely limped back to base
after suffering great damage from about 100 depth charges released by two
American destroyers. Yokota's three unsuccessful missions illustrate the many
problems encountered by the kaiten program. The kaiten weapons were plagued
with mechanical problems, and the kaiten had difficulty making successful
attacks due to the Allies' excellent radar. The program also suffered from a
shortage of experienced technicians, and the Navy lacked sufficient submarines
to carry kaiten already produced.
Yokota (far left) with Tembu Group holding cherry blossom branches
The kaiten men spent many weeks training prior to being
assigned to an attack mission, so they had much time to contemplate death. In order
that kaiten pilots would not have a tendency to look behind them as they
approached their final mission, only men with a minimum of family
responsibilities were selected out of the many young Navy men who volunteered.
However, after Yokota, the youngest of four children, visited his family for a
special four-day leave prior to his first mission, he felt his resolve somewhat
weakened for the kaiten program since he missed his family more than he had
realized. From the time Yokota volunteered to become a kaiten pilot until the
end of the war, he maintained a strong belief that he would do whatever
necessary to defend his country, but he did not continually contemplate his
impending death. Instead, he often expressed impatience to make an attack, and
he felt sorry for his fellow kaiten pilots who could not participate in
missions due to lack of submarines. When his friends died during kaiten attacks
or in training accidents, he grieved deeply for them. Also, they brought
courage and inspiration to him to make a successful attack.
This excellent personal narrative about kaiten history has a
few matters not addressed by the book. The author never explains how the
Japanese Navy's estimate of 40 to 50 ships sunk by kaiten could be so far off
from the actual number of two. Also, the book's lack of maps of Japan,
Ōtsushima Island, and Pacific islands makes it difficult for most readers to
picture the location of the action described in the book. Finally, although
Yokota describes his feelings from the time he volunteers for the kaiten
program, he gives very few details about childhood experiences that might
provide more insight into his reactions and emotions as he faced death as a
When the Emperor announced Japan's surrender, Yokota's soul
was in agony and he contemplated suicide. After being committed to die for
Japan for such a long time, he became despondent after the end of the war. He
finally decided to join a small group of other kaiten pilots and midget
submarine pilots in farming a small plot of land as they shut themselves off
from the world. Near the end of 1946, Yokota received a letter from another
kaiten pilot who encouraged him to not shut himself off from life and be a dead
man. The war finally ended for Yokota in April 1947 when he entered the
university to build a new life.
Kaiten Kenshōkai (Kaiten Memorial Association). 1965. Kaiten.
No place: Kaiten Kenshōkai.
Kaiten Kichi o Hozon Suru Kai (Kaiten Base Preservation Society). 1999.
Kaiten Kinenkan gaiyō, shūzō mokuroku
(Kaiten Memorial Museum summary and collection listing). Tokuyama (now Shūnan
Yamaguchi Prefecture: Kaiten Kichi o Hozon Suru Kai.
Warner, Denis, Peggy Warner, with Commander Sadao Seno.
1982. The Sacred Warriors: Japan's Suicide Legions. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.