Five million German soldiers surrendered to the Allies in Europe. In the Pacific, less than 5% of Japanese forces surrendered. They considered it a disgrace to their families, and instead fought to the death.
Although Allied troops were acquainted with their enemy's sacrificial nature, they were unprepared for what came out of the sky during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Japanese pilots flew their planes and themselves directly into American warships, causing massive damage. So attacked, the U.S.S. St. Lo sank with 114 hands — the first, but far from the last, victims of the kamikazes.
The concept was Vice Admiral Onishi Takijiro's. Japanese air forces were no longer competitive, so Takijiro proposed turning planes into human missiles. The pilots needed little training — takeoffs, but no landings — and a sacrificial dive-bomber would be hard to shoot down. They were called kamikazes, or "divine wind" — typhoons that saved Japan in 1274 and 1281 by driving off Kublai Khan's invasion fleet. Those at home would be inspired by the kamikaze sacrifice. The enemy would be terrified.
Kamikaze pilots were often university students, motivated by obligation and gratitude to family and country. They prepared by holding ceremonials, writing farewell poems, and receiving a "thousand stitch belt" — cloth into which 1,000 women had sewn one stitch as a symbolic uniting with the pilot. Then, in planes wrapped around 550 pound bombs, they would fly off to die.
The most effective use of kamikazes was in the battle for Okinawa. Up to 300 aircraft at a time dove at the Allied fleet. Just the anticipation of kamikaze attacks drove some American sailors insane. The destroyer Laffey was attacked by 20 planes at once. Her gunners got nine kamikazes, but six others severely damaged the ship. As on the similarly damaged U.S.S. Franklin, courage, and intensive training in firefighting, kept the Laffey afloat.
By war's end, kamikazes had sunk or damaged more than 300 U.S. ships, with 15,000 casualties. Several thousand kamikaze planes had been set aside for the invasion of the Japanese mainland that never came. Ironically, the kamikaze — and the sacrificial philosophy behind them — were one of the reasons President Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs.
On the eve of the Japanese surrender, Onishi Takijiro committed suicide, leaving a note apologizing to his dead pilots because their sacrifice had been in vain.