On This Day

kamikaze plane, Mitsubishi Zero
Mitsubishi Zero A6M5 Model 52c are sent back from Korea to Kyushû island, to take part in a Kamikaze attack.

On This Day: HMAS Australia Struck in First Kamikaze Attack

October 21, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Oct. 21, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a Japanese plane struck the HMAS Australia in a suicide attack. It is widely credited with being the first kamikaze attack, though the first true kamikaze attack might not have occured until Oct. 25.

Attack on HMAS Australia

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The HMAS Australia, a 9,850-ton heavy cruiser in the Australian Navy, had since early 1942 operated in the South Pacific. It protected the islands east of Australia and engaged Japanese forces in battle several times, most notably in the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Savo Island.

On Oct. 20, 1944, the Australia took part in the Allied invasion of Leyte in the Philippines, made famous by the image of U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur wading ashore. The following day, the Japanese launched an attack on Allied ships.

In the early morning, a badly damaged Japanese plane set itself on a collision course with the Australia. “Just look at this,” called a gunnery officer aboard the ship. “She’s aiming for us.”

A captain from the Shropshire, a neighboring cruiser, related the incident: “The aircraft was hit and touched the water but recovered. It then turned east again and although under heavy fire, passed up the port side of Australia, and crashed into the foremast at [6.05 am].”

The plane was carrying a 441-pound bomb, but it did not explode. Still, it inflicted serious damage to the ship and its crew. In total, 30 crewmen died. An additional 64 men were wounded, 26 critically.

The Australia survived the attack and was repaired in 1945-46. It returned to the water after the war and was retired in August 1954.

Background: Kamikaze Attacks

It is widely accepted that the attack on the Australia was deliberate. “[A]mong those of us who saw the incident, there was no doubt as to the pilot’s suicidal intention,” stated an observer onboard the Australia. Whether it was a kamikaze attack is debated.

The kamikaze, meaning “divine wind,” campaign was introduced in 1944 as a last ditch effort by the Japanese to ward off the Allied advance. Kamikaze pilots were given planes containing powerful warheads with the order to crash into an enemy target. A kamikaze attack differed from a “jibaku” attack, in which a pilot would voluntarily crash his damaged aircraft.

It is unknown whether the pilot was ordered to launch a suicide attack against the Australia. Historian Richard L. Dunn, citing the book “The Divine Wind,” says that the pilot likely was not, and that the first kamikaze attack did not come until Oct. 25.

According to the book, kamikaze tactics were approved on Oct. 19 and the first kamikaze pilot flew on Oct. 21—the same day as the attack on the Australia—but returned without finding a target. Four days later, several kamikaze pilots launched the first organized attacks, striking the escort carriers Santee and Suwannee. “This success and the resultant publicity was the occasion for a great expansion of the Kamikaze effort,” writes Dunn.

Kamikaze attacks were used for the remainder of the war, which ended 10 months later. “From an estimated 2,800 sorties, approximately 14 percent hit a ship and 8.5 percent ended in the sinking of a ship,” according to Max Gadney in World War II magazine. “The exact number of ships sunk by kamikazes is uncertain … but estimates range from 34 to 56.”

Kamikaze pilots carried a manual with them in the cockpit instructing them how to carry out the attack. One paragraph reads, “Transcend life and death. When you eliminate all thoughts about life and death, you will be able to totally disregard your earthly life. This will also enable you to concentrate your attention on eradicating the enemy with unwavering determination, meanwhile reinforcing your excellence in flight skills.”

Historical Context: Battle of Leyte and World War II

The Battle of Leyte Gulf took place near an island with the same name, just off the coast of the Philippines.

On Oct. 20, 1944, Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned to the Pacific front after a two and a half year absence from the region. MacArthur and the Allies sought to recapture both Leyte and the Philippines as a whole.

The ensuing clash was the largest naval battle in world history. By the battle’s end, Allied forces had crushed the Japanese fleet.
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