Every culture has some war story of an element that, at some decisive point in history, was beaten, but refused to accept it. They were beaten, but unbeaten; and somehow they came back from those desperate straits to win. Or they lost, but they lost with such panache that they became a national inspiration. Every culture: Texas has the Alamo; the Foreign Legion, Camarone; Britain, Ishandlwana; and the Zulu, Rorke’s Drift.
Japan has more than her share of these tales in her long history; the Divine Wind that ruined a mainland invasion fleet; the 47 Ronin. As a result, if Napoleon taught that “the moral is to the physical as 10 is to 1,” the Empire of Japan used a much higher multiplier. But while an attack against desperate odds makes a great story, betting against the odds consistently is a guaranteed way to lose your stake.
The Americans on the receiving end of this treatment called it the Banzai charge, because the sons of Nippon before embarking on one of these forlorn hopes would raise three cheers for a thousand years for the emperor — banzai! And then they’d charge into the muzzles of the American guns. This behavior was spectacular, indeed, and may have been inspirational to others, but to its practitioners it was not habit-forming.
Not all Japanese attacks were banzai attacks, and not all Japanese officers favored this sort of desperate maneuver. But Americans tended to call those attacks banzai charges anyway. A typical such attack took place on Iwo Jima late in the night of 25-26 March 45. Now, the famous raising of the flag was on 23 February over Mount Suribachi, under which were still teeming tunnel garrisons of Japanese holdouts; and outside the mountain area were still more Japanese, including their commander, Lt General Tadamiki Kuribayashi. Kuribayashi (portrayed fictionally by Ken Watanabe in the movie Letters from Iwo Jima) categorically forbade what he considered futile tactics, so long as he thought the battle might be won.
It was clear by 25 March that the battle was irremediably lost; to a Japanese military professional, surrender was out of the question; and what was left was to sell their lives as dearly as possible. The attack was not a wild charge, telegraphed by screaming and random shots. Instead, an ad hoc unit made up of survivors of three devastated formations — 300 men with rifles, grenades, and edged weapons — crept up to a weak spot on the line, a tent city of aviation units. (Fighters had been operating from the island, and bombers making emergency landings on the island which was roughly halfway between Saipan and Tokyo, since 6-7 March).
The attack was silent and stealthy until discovered, as the Japanese infantrymen penetrated the officer housing tents of the 21st Fighter Group. The aviators fought; a nearby segregated black logistics unit fought; and engineer Marines rushed to the fight and fought. Before dawn, a handful of Japanese survivors withdrew. At least 262 dead Japanese (although there was more interest in burying than counting them), 150 of them in the 21st Fighter Group area, and a little more than a dozen prisoners, mostly those too wounded to resist being taken captive, stayed behind. They had caused a degree of chaos.
Conventional wisdom is that Kuribayashi led this attack, rather than commit seppuku like other Japanese island commanders had done in defeat, but no one really knows. His body was never singled out and the Marines reported burying 262 of them. A decent online history of the campaign records the battle thus (paragraph breaks added):
By the end of D+33, the Japanese had been squeezed into an area of around fifty square yards and the final act in a long and drawn out saga was approaching. The Americans once again tried to persuade the Japanese to surrender but to no avail. With the fighting gradually coming to an end, the remaining few defenders from ‘The Gorge’ and positions along the west coast, around 2 – 300 in number silently infiltrated the American lines in the early hours of 26 March and headed for the bivouac area not far from Airfield No. 2.
Led by sword wielding officers and armed with an assortment of machine guns, rifles and grenades, the Japanese launched a well-planned and coordinated three-pronged attack, not a last-ditch banzai charge, against a mixture of Marine shore parties, Air Force crewmen, AA gunners and Seebees. The Japanese attacked them with determination and the noise from the confrontation brought Marines from nearby Pioneer Battalions and an all-Negro shore party.
Lt Harry Martin of the 5th Pioneer Battalion organised a hasty defence line, rushed into the fight to rescue wounded men and launched a counterattack that momentarily repelled the attackers. The Japanese however returned with an even greater fury an in the confused melee, other American personnel came and joined the frantic struggle. Lt Martin was also killed, earning him the final Medal of Honor of the battle.
By dawn a detachment from the Army’s 147th Infantry had arrived on the scene with tanks but by then it was mostly over. The daylight revealed some 44 airmen killed, another 88 injured, 9 Marines killed, another 31 wounded. Of the Japanese attackers, some 262 lay dead with another 18 captured. Even though it was rumoured that General Kuribayashi (he had been promoted to full General on the 17 March) had led the charge, his body was never found.
The 21st Fighter Group awarded 34 of its survivors the Purple Heart. The 7th Fighter Command Association has a series of pictures that tells the 21st’s part of the story on its extremely good website. (The 7th was known as “the Sunsetters” because that’s what they did to the Rising Sun. Not quite tee-ball era sentiments, those). The pictures all seem to come from the National Archives, but the 7th Association says some of them are from veterans’ collections. These associations are in the last gasp of gathering data from the few remaining survivors. Some of the pictures are quite graphic photos of Japanese dead, so be forewarned before you visit.
What lessons can be learned from this attack?
In retrospect, it seems inevitable, given Japanese Imperial martial culture; but it is such an exemplar of waste and futility as to make a tactician weep tears of frustration.
We don’t know what other options were available to the Japanese, if they even had any. They were under pressure. They couldn’t go underground and blend in (their language and race was a mismatch with most of their enemies). They didn’t believe they could surrender (most Japanese, even civilians, believed that the Americans would torture and murder them). The island was a pile of volcanic rock and ash that offered scant survival potential. While a 300-man unit, an understrength battalion, wasn’t a negligible element, it had no chance of prevailing or surviving against the scores of thousands of Marines, soldiers, Seabees and airmen thronging the island.
Two privates from the same platoon were able to survive underground (literally) by scavenging from American dumps for years after the war; they surrendered in 1949. Matsudo Linsoki and Yamakagi Kufuku were healthy, but lean.
Other Japanese holdouts on islands that offered better concealment, climate and survival necessities held out much longer, into the sixties and seventies in some cases. A collection of these interesting cases is available online, and several of the holdouts have written memoirs, at least two of which have been translated into English.
This post has been corrected to put Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift in their proper places. And we have no excuse, having recently watched Zulu Dawn, which is fairly accurate about the battle of Isandhlwana proper (it takes some license before and after).