School children offer flowers as a kamikaze pilot takes off for a final flight
A Japanese kamikaze pilot takes off on a suicide mission during World War II. dlisbona on Flickr.com

A kamikaze was a Japanese pilot from World War II, who was trained to crash his plane into an Allied warship or aircraft carrier. The term could also be used to denote the suicide attack itself. Its root words are kami, meaning the Shinto spirits or gods, and kaze, which means "wind."  Thus, kamikaze roughly translates as the "divine wind."  The more formal term used in the 1940s was Tokubetsu Kogekitai, or "Special Attack Unit."  Today, the word "kamikaze" is used in English as a shorthand for suicidal or reckless behavior, as in "that fly just kamikazed straight into my hot coffee!"

During the Second World War, however, this tactic of suicide attacks was a mark of Japan's desperation. When the tide of the Second World War in the Pacific began to turn against Japan, military leaders sought a more effective way to damage or destroy U.S. and other allied warships.  Slamming aircraft into the ships caused much more damage than conventional bombing could.  

Kamikaze attacks began in October of 1944.  Pilots flew planes laden with explosives straight into the decks of Allied ships.  Even if the aircraft was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire from the target ship, it often could successfully complete its mission, since the objective was to crash in any case.

Between October of 1944 and August of 1945, when Japan surrendered, a total of approximately 3,860 Japanese pilots died in kamikaze attacks.  Just under 20% of them succeeded in slamming their planes into warships.  Usually, the kamikaze pilot had no real option except suicide; the planes were supplied with enough fuel to reach their targets, but not to return home.

As Japan's plight grew more desperate in the waning days of the war, its military leaders sent some of the country's most talented pilots on kamikaze flights.  When trained pilots grew scarce, they began to recruit college students and give them just the bare minimum of flight training needed in order to carry out an attack.

 This appalling waste of human life and potential helped to turn some Japanese people against the war effort.  However, Japanese traditions, such as the samurai code of bushido, state that suicide is preferable to living in defeat.  Perhaps these beliefs made the fate of the kamikaze pilots somewhat more bearable to the pilots themselves, and to some of their families.

Interestingly, the first kamikaze in Japan's history had nothing to do with aircraft. In 1274, the Mongol emperor of Yuan China, Kublai Khan, ordered a massive invasion of Kamakura Japan.  However, his armada was destroyed by a freak typhoon.  Seven years later, in 1281, the Great Khan sent a second, even larger fleet to attack Japan once again.  Almost unbelievably, a second great typhoon destroyed the second armada as well.  These powerful storms became known as kamikaze, or the "divine winds," because the Japanese people believed that their Shinto gods had called up the typhoons to protect Japan from these ferocious foreign invaders.

As Japan's military and industrial strength began to fail in 1944 and 1945, its war leaders hoped that kamikaze pilots would be able to pull off another miracle, and prevent the home islands from being invaded once more by a foreign adversary.

 In the end, however, the United States had a new and even more deadly sort of wind in its arsenal - atomic weapons.  After the American atomic bombing attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, Emperor Hirohito and his war counsel were forced to admit defeat and surrender to the Allied Forces.  Kamikaze attacks ended, presumably for good.