Douglas & McIntyre
Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet

Book details:

October 2008
ISBN 978-1-55365-273-1
6" x 9"
240 pages
16 b&w photographs
$29.95 CAD


  • Winner of the 2011 SHA Deetz Award!

Douglas & McIntyre

Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet

In Search of a Legendary Armada

Excerpt / Additional Content


The Prologue

A Divine Wind
Soaring into the sky of the southern seas,
it is our glorious mission to die as the shields of His Majesty.
Cherry blossoms glisten as they open and fall.
Flying Petty Officer First Class Isao Matsuo, 701st Air Group, October 28, 1944

Kamikaze is a word that elicits instant recognition throughout the world. It is a famous word, a notorious word to some—a reminder of acts of desperation in the final months of a fierce war. It is a name that history will never forget, even long after those who witnessed those acts have passed. Images spring to mind of grainy black-and-white footage of tiny aircraft falling from the sky toward the decks of ships. Flack fills the sky, climbing toward the planes, some of which blossom into flames, break apart, or splash into the sea. Other planes hit, exploding into fireballs that sweep over decks or through superstructures as men scatter or vanish in a rain of burning fuel and torn metal.

Many of America’s children who grew up in the decades after the Second World War relived the war on the televisions and movie screens of their childhood, wondering what led to such brave, at times fanatical, heart-rending, frightening acts.

At just twenty-one years of age, Ensign Teruo Yamaguchi knew, with absolute certainty, that he was about to die. He had volunteered for a suicide mission, one of many acts of extreme sacrifice that he and others of his generation were performing to save their nation from defeat. As he prepared for his last mission, Teruo wrote a final letter to his father to explain his decision:

The Japanese way of life is indeed beautiful, and I am proud of it, as I am of Japanese history and mythology which reflect the purity of our ancestors and their belief in the past—whether or not those beliefs are true. That way of life is the product of all the best things which our ancestors have handed down to us. And the living embodiment of all the wonderful things out of our past is the Imperial Family which, too, is the crystallization of the splendor and beauty of Japan and its people. It is an honor to give my life in defense of these beautiful and lofty things.

The history that Teruo Yamaguchi wrote of dated back seven hundred years, to an almost mythical period, to the only other time when the Japanese had been at the brink of defeat at the hands of an invader on their shores.

In 1281, Khubilai Khan, the Mongol emperor of a recently conquered China, sent a massive armada of warships and troops to subjugate Japan. Seven years earlier, another invading force had been turned back, and so this new fleet was even larger—according to legend, as many as 4,400 ships and more than 100,000 troops set out to do the Khan’s bidding. Two fleets, one from Mongol-controlled Kōryo (today’s Korea) and the other from China, sailed with orders to rendezvous off the coast of Japan and then hit the Japanese with their combined might. With them sailed shock-trained troops, veterans of the Khan’s wars, skilled in the tactics that had carried the swift Mongol conquerors from the steppes of Asia across the Middle East and as far as the gates of Europe.

The juggernaut of Mongol expansion might have overwhelmed Japan, but the Khan’s plans began to unravel soon after the two fleets set sail. Separated by distance and by rivalry, the two fleets never met. The ships and troops from Kōryo landed at Hakata Bay, today’s port city of Fukuoka. There they were met with fierce resistance from Japanese defenders who pushed the invaders off the beaches, back onto their ships and finally back out to sea. The bulk of Khubilai Khan’s forces, however, were still coming. They landed south of Hakata, anchoring off the small island of Takashima in Imari Bay.

There, in a running two-week battle, the Khan’s soldiers and Japanese samurai fought their away across the island’s rugged countryside. Some samurai took to the sea, piloting small boats into the massive fleet. There, on crowded decks, warriors hacked and slashed at each other. Others filled their boats with dry straw and set them ablaze, driving them into the Khan’s fleet. It was a time of incredible bravery as the samurai pitted themselves, Davidlike, against the Mongolian Goliath.

But despite the valour and sacrifice of the Japanese defenders, the battle was slowly, inevitably, being lost to the superior numbers and brute force of the Mongols and their vessels. Japan was doomed, and so the emperor appealed, in devout prayer, to his ancestors, the gods, who had created Japan and ruled it for centuries with his highness as their representative on Earth. The gods listened and answered those prayers.

According to the legend, a divine wind rose that whipped the ocean into a frenzy and sent massive waves into the Mongol fleet. Ships dragged their anchors, crashed into each other and broke apart. Waves swept men from decks, and the weight of their armor pulled them beneath the water while others were pummeled by debris. When the wind and waves had subsided, the Mongol fleet was gone, and over 100,000 men had drowned.

The exultant Japanese dragged exhausted Mongol survivors out of the water and killed them on the shoreline. Troops abandoned by their comrades and left stranded on the beach, demoralized and cut off from escape, were rounded up and executed by the victorious samurai. The gods had saved Japan. Khubilai Khan abandoned his dreams of conquest, and Japan’s shores were not threatened again by an invader for the next seven centuries.

Japan, it was now clear, was a divinely protected land, ruled by a living god who had called on heavenly intervention in the form of a “kamikaze,” a divine wind.

The story of the Mongol invasion and the kamikaze became one of Japan’s best-known stories, a tale that helped build the nation’s pride and belief in its divine status in the decades of industrialization, modernization and militarization that preceded the Second World War. That belief was not challenged in the period of conquest and expansion that brought the Japanese empire new lands overseas, with victories on land and at sea against neighboring China and Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

And this belief was not challenged while Japan renewed its advances through China in the 1930s, or during the heady days of victory that accompanied the country’s rapid expansion across the Pacific following victorious attacks at Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Manila and in other locations throughout Southeast Asia. The flush of victory did not subside until mid-1942, with Japan’s disastrous losses at Midway. Defeats in other battles, the losses of critical island bases, the steady war of attrition with American submarines that sank ships filled with supplies and troops, and the combat losses of ships, airplanes and men—especially skilled men, veterans of combat and the art of war—pushed Japan against the wall. Defeat was imminent as the battle moved closer and closer to the shores of Japan itself.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. Those measures were a call to tokkō, or suicide attacks. The concept, inspired by earlier tales of samurai sacrifice and wartime exploits of taiatari (body-crashing), was born in October 1944 at Mabalacat, a Japanese airfield on Luzon. There, Admiral Takijiro Ōnishi, the newly appointed commander of all Japanese naval air forces in the beleaguered Philippines, met with his commanders and broached the idea of “special attack units.” Formed with squadrons of Zero fighters laden with 250-kilogram bombs, these suicide attackers would crash into enemy carriers.

The hope was that these acts, driven by loyalty, duty and love of country, would turn the tide of the war and save Japan. Perhaps the blood sacrifice of Japan’s warriors would lead the gods to send another divine wind and smash the enemy. Ōnishi named the new corps the “Shinpū Special Attack Unit.” Shinpū is ancient Japanese for a “god wind,” otherwise translated as kamikaze. With this formal designation, the admiral was essentially naming the tokkō unit as descendants of the storm that had destroyed Khubilai Khan’s fleet in 1281.

Others throughout the ranks carried the point forward. Naval Ensign Toshiharu Konada, who had volunteered for submarine service, joined the kaiten (“shake heaven”) corps, the undersea version of the aerial kamikaze, in 1944. Standing at attention with his fellow tokkō warriors, Konada listened intently as his commanding officer told the assembled men, “You know the story of the kamikaze. This time, the kamikaze will not blow. Instead, the kamikaze will be you.” With those sentiments—as Teruo Yamaguchi wrote, “whether or not those beliefs are true”—young men like Yamaguchi went into battle to “shake heaven” through their sacrifice. Their actions remain one of the indelible memories of a long and terrible war.

The tales of the kamikaze are many, replete with stories of bravery, horror and carnage. For the Americans and their allies, who pushed closer to the inevitable victory promised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt with his call to Congress to declare war against Japan following the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the arrival of the kamikaze in October 1944 was a strange and terrible thing. With emotions that ranged from rage and bewilderment to pity and begrudging respect, the men on the carriers, destroyers, tankers and troop ships that faced the kamikaze pilots underwent a trial by fire.

By the end of the war, tokkō tactics had claimed a terrible toll. Japan sacrificed over 1,228 planes and their crews to sink thirty-four Allied ships and damage 288 others. They killed and maimed thousands of Allied sailors. The human torpedoes of the kaiten corps had claimed another two ships and damaged several others at a cost of over one hundred young Japanese submariners. The scope of the horror of the kamikaze attacks, in a war already distinguished by savagery and excess, is still felt six decades after the war’s end. The kamikaze remain the subject of admiration in some quarters, condemnation in others and intense curiosity among generations born after the war.

Neal Nunnelly, a sailor on the carrier uss Anzio, watched as kamikaze aircraft sank the carrier uss Bismarck Sea and mauled the carrier uss Saratoga off Iwo Jima in February 1945. He probably speaks for many of his generation when he said, “We didn’t know or care that the word kamikaze meant a divine wind and came from ancient Japanese history… In my time the word only told us we were dealing with a bunch of psychopaths.” There is more to the story—far more. But Nunnelly is right about one thing. The events of the ancient past sometimes do reach into the future, at times with terrible consequences.