October 21, 1944 marks the first actual kamikaze attack by a Japanese pilot. It’s somewhat coincidental that the event took place when it did, as the Japanese had just initiated an organized kamikaze plan the day before (the same day General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines). Based from of an airstrip outside the Philippino town of Mabalacat, the pilots would fly their bomb-laden planes into enemy ships. The biggest prizes were, of course, the carriers and battleships, but any enemy ship would serve.
But this first attack wasn’t part of a kamikaze squadron, as they wouldn’t see action for a few days. No, this was more of a random act and, unlike most of the subsequent attacks over the next 8 or 9 months, it wasn’t directed at a U.S. ship. The pilot, behind the stick of a Mitsubishi Ki-51 Sonia, was one of a group of flyers attacking ships near Leyte Island, where the famous Battle of Leyte Gulf would commence in a couple days.
Having made a run at the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (shown above), he flew away, only to reverse course and fly straight into the Australia’s superstructure (the tallest area there above the front two gun mounts). The crash showered the ship with debris and burning fuel, and snuffed out the lives of 30 sailors, including the ship’s commander. Miraculously, the 450-pound bomb the plane was carrying failed to detonate, or the damage would have been catastrophic.
This was the first of thousands of such attacks that would take throughout the remainder of the Pacific War. It was also the first of six such successful attacks that the Australia would survive, though other ships were not so lucky. Nailing down a precise number of vessels sunk by the “Divine Wind” attacks has proven nearly impossible, but 50 is in the ballpark. Nearly 5,000 soldiers, sailors, and officers would be killed by them.