This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Why did Kamikaze Pilots Wear Helmets?

(From May 2007)

A few days ago a friend sent me what she thought was a set of joke questions. Some of them were not actually jokes. 
For example, one was a classic "argument" used by the creationist loony fringe: "If we are evolved from apes, why are there any apes any more?"
This particular question is rather easy to answer, of course. We did not evolve from apes. If we had, then all apes may well have joined us in evolving to humans. Humans and apes evolved alongside each other, from a common ancestor, to fill different ecological niches.
The other question I bothered to answer was, "Why did Kamikaze pilots wear helmets?"
Kamikaze pilots, as seen in the upper left photo, were a creation of Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi of the Imperial Japanese Navy. As Japan was threatened with defeat in the dreadful days of 1944, its army defeated in Burma and in the island campaigns of the Pacific, its Navy decimated, the Philippines threatened by American invasion, Onishi (who wrote such poetry as "In blossom today, then scattered/ Life is so like a delicate flower/ How can one expect the fragrance/ To last for ever?", and who committed seppuku after the surrender) formulated the idea that instead of launching unguided assaults with ineffective conventional weapons, guided missiles would serve the purpose better. 
Impeccable reasoning...only, in 1944, Japan had no guided missile weaponry. Germany had, but Germany was out of reach. What Japan had was a lot of obsolescent aircraft that could no longer match up to their American and British opponents in conventional combat, and which were being shot out of the skies.
Accordingly, Onishi suggested that these aeroplanes, which would seem to be doomed in any case, might be better employed as guided missiles in ramming attacks on Allied battle groups, particularly on the aircraft carriers, as in the photo at the bottom. Since there were no automatic guidance systems available, they had to be guided to their targets by the pilots, who would take off (as in the top right photo) with bombs attached to their planes, and crash them on carrier flight decks, and, accordingly die in the course of the attack.
Such was the Kamikaze ("divine wind") tactic.
Now, of course, seen from that angle, the question is a legitimate one: Why would doomed pilots on a suicide mission wear helmets? isn't the helmet superfluous in such circumstances?
Answer: they didn't.
No World War Two pilots wore helmets. What they wore were leather flight caps (known by the misnomer "flight helmet" just as Balaclava caps are known as Balaclava helmets) with radio headphones and goggles. The flight caps were needed for the following reasons:
First, in the cockpits of those days, the canopy did not fit all that well (and many craft had open cockpits) so they needed flight caps for their heads to stay warm; not a frivolous matter in combat at several thousand metres. And since most heat loss from the human body comes from the head, a cold head could literally cause hypothermia.
Second, goggles were necessary for clear vision (unlike most Hollywood ideas, pilots of the time flew with goggles covering their eyes and not pushed up fashionably over their foreheads - just as modern pilots fly with visors down and not pushed up to show their faces for the camera), and a suicide attacker needed to see the target he was ramming;
Third, the pilots needed radio guidance; and the flight caps had the radio headphones. Despite claims that the suicide pilot took off to die, with just enough fuel to reach the enemy, here is what the Japanese standard operating instructions for Kamikaze pilots said:
Aborting your mission and returning to base: In the event of poor weather conditions when you cannot locate the target, or under other adverse circumstances, you may decide to return to base. Don't be discouraged. Do not waste your life lightly. You should not be possessed by petty emotions. Think how you can best defend the motherland. Remember what the wing commander has told you. You should return to the base jovially and without remorse.
The majority of missions were actually unsuccessful. Among possible reasons were weather conditions that made it difficult to find the enemy fleet, mechanical trouble, such intense anti-aircraft fire that any attack would obviously fail, or the aeroplane could miss the angle of approach and be unable to crash at a vital point. The pilot would then return to base.  
It would be kind of difficult to return to base sometimes from far over the ocean without radio guidance, and even to find the target without radio guidance, and therefore...
In fact, the presence or absence of helmets would not make a significant difference in survivability in a crash. A crash of a military aircraft typically disintegrates the pilot's body into pieces; whether his head is encased in a helmet makes no difference to his fate. Today's pilot helmets are basically meant to carry aids like head-up displays and to protect the pilot's head and neck from injury if he has to eject. That's it.
Given that
(a)ccording to eyewitness testimony...those surviving, were almost inconsolable with depression when flying back and the only thing that could comfort them was the thought of the next mission....
if they had a better chance of dying without "helmets", they wouldn't have worn them at all.  

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