In the closing days of World War II, the US and the rest of the allies had defeated Germany and Hitler was dead, Italy had capitulated, and Mussolini was executed by partisans. Only Japan was left and the US was tightening the noose around the Japanese homeland.

A successful but bloody island hopping campaign had put the Americans on the doorstep to the homeland. No longer would American B-29s have to fly from long distances at the limit of their range to bomb Japan. Now with airfields on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, they could hit Japan with near impunity. The B-29 raids were taking a dreadful toll on the Japanese war machine, the civilian populace, and the morale of the nation.

The Japanese were desperate to deliver a blow to the US airbases where B-29s were stored.  The plan was to deliver “suicide commandos” by air to destroy the B-29s and damage their bases and fuel depots. To fulfill this need, the “Giretsu” Combined Special Forces Airborne Unit was formed, assembling experts in sabotage and demolition.

The Giretsu Special Forces Unit was task organized in a simple Direct Action (DA) mission breakdown; each commando carried HE and WP grenades and a pistol beside his assigned weapon.

  • Command section (10 men)
  • Light Machinegun team (1 x LMG)
  • Messenger team
  • Signal team
  • 1st-5th Platoons, broken down by sections:
  • 1st Section (4 men including section
    leader): 1 x Type 99 rifle, 2 x Type
    100 SMGs, 2 x pole charges, 4 x Type 99
    AT charges
  • 2nd Section (3 men): 1 x rifle, 1 x Type 99
    LMG, 1 x pole charge, 4 x Type 99 AT charges
  • 3rd Section (3 men): 1 x rifle, 1 x SMG, 1 x
    pole charge, 4 x Type 99 AT charges
  • 4th Section (3 men): Ix rifle, lx SMG, Ix
    Type 89 grenade discharger,
  • 5th Section 1 x pole charge, 4 x Type 99 AT charges.

Mock-ups were prepared of the B-29 bombers which were the primary targets of the commandos. But the Japanese soon learned that their standard Type 99 magnetic mine would not adhere to the B-29’s aluminum skin. Special mission weapons would have to be developed. They developed a special pole charge (hakobakurai) with a suction cup that packed 4.5 pounds of explosive which would damage or destroy the bombers. They also had a 15- foot “chain charge” which was designed to be thrown across the wing of the target. The explosive was designed to separate the wing from the fuselage.

On May 15, 1945, the Japanese 6th Air Army requested use of the Giretsu Special Forces Unit to neutralize the American’s Okinawa airbases. The commandos moved to Kengun airfield on Kyushu in preparation for “Operation Gi”.

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The Japanese plan and tactics were simple. Once on the ground, the commandos were to destroy or damage as many American aircraft and supplies as possible and then hold the position to the last man.

The night of May 24-25, 1945 saw the Japanese launch their suicidal operation against the Yontan Airfield on Okinawa. Nine twin-engine aircraft (Ki-21 “Sally” Bombers) of the 3rd Dokuritsu Chutai (“Independent Company”), commanded by CPT Chuichi Suwabe took off from Kumamoto Army Airfield from the mainland of Japan. Each of these aircraft carried 14 commandos, destined to attack the Yontan airfield.

The Japanese had sent six waves of conventional bombers against the base. Then five of the bombers carrying commandos appeared over Yontan at 2230 hrs. Four of the Sallys had been shot down by US fighter aircraft. The remainder tried to come in a very low altitude.

Alert American anti-aircraft (AA) gunners, shot down four more. One Sally’s wing was blown off and struck an antiaircraft position, temporarily burying the gunners. The remaining Sally belly-landed with wheels on the runway, eventually coming to rest near a control tower.

Once on the ground, the surviving dozen or so Japanese disembarked from both the nose and side hatches. The commandos having rehearsed this scenario wasted little time and rushed in among parked US aircraft, clamping on hakobakurai charges and hurling grenades.

Wrecked US Army aircraft at Yontan. (US Army photo)

American pilots and grounds crewmen, not accustomed to being in ground warfare panicked. Not realizing that the Japanese had only about a dozen men, they thought the Japanese had landed in force. They took to cover and were firing, widely ineffective harassing shots at the Japanese commandos. They called for immediate ground support from nearby Marine infantry. But they wouldn’t arrive until dawn.

Chaos reigned supreme on the airfield. The Japanese commandos ignited a fuel depot containing 70,000 gallons of aviation fuel and the night sky was illuminated with spectacular geysers of flames that cast a surreal glow on the deadly events that would ring the airfield all night.

The Japanese had inflicted heavy losses on the US aircraft at Yontan, destroying nine and damaging 26 more. Marine infantry arrived at dawn and began the systematic clearing of the airfield.

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All 69 Japanese commandos were killed in the attack in addition to the nine bombers that were destroyed either in the air or on the ground after landing. The final commando was found at 1 p.m. the next afternoon hiding in the brush before being dispatched by the Marines.

Two Americans were killed and 18 more were wounded in the daring attack by the Japanese. But the damage inflicted by just the dozen or so commandos that made it to the ground showcased the amount of damage that they could have inflicted had all nine-aircraft made it to Yontan instead of just one.

Crash landed Sally Bomber at Yontan airfield (US Army photo)

The Japanese planned all along on the raid being a suicide attack, so no exfil plan was needed making the operation much simpler from a planning standpoint for them. However, their primary targets, the B-29s were not at Yontan, so while the raid was very successful in the amount of damage inflicted by such a small force on the ground, their ultimate objective, the American bombers weren’t affected at all. The PBY4Y Privateers were converted B-24 bombers that the US used as long-range patrol bombers.

US aircraft losses:

  • 3 F4U Corsair fighters
  • 2 PB4Y Privateer patrol bombers
  • 4 C-47 transports.

US aircraft damaged:

  • 22 F4U Corsairs
  • 3 F6F Hellcat fighters
  • 2PB4Y’s
  • 2 C-47s

Apparently, the Japanese had also planned a major airborne suicidal operation codenamed “Ultra” later that summer. The plan was to assemble 200 transport aircraft and bombers to carry 2000 more commandos from the Giretsu Special Forces Unit and crash land simultaneously at the US B-29 bases of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam.

But the US dropping of the Atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9 curtailed those plans. Emperor Hirohito took to the radio soon after to announce that the Japanese people must “bear the unbearable” and that hostilities should end.

This Giretsu suicide raid by the Combined Special Forces Unit is revered in Japan, with a special shrine erected in Peace Prayer Park on Okinawa which marks their heroic but futile efforts.

 Photos courtesy US Army