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Kamikaze Submarine
by Yutaka Yokota with Joseph D. Harrington
Nordon Publications, 1962, 272 pages

Originally published as The Kaiten Weapon by Ballantine Books in 1962, 256 pages

References on this web page use the page numbers of Kamikaze Submarine published by Nordon Publications. The page numbers in The Kaiten Weapon by Ballantine Books are slightly different.

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 (far left) with Tembu Group holding cherry blossom branches

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.

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 kaiten pilot.

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.

The Kaiten Weapon (1962)

Sources Cited

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 City), 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.