Banzai! If the Japanese pilots in WW2 were on a suicide mission, why did they even bother wearing helmets? Today we clear up a few misconceptions.
There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding regarding how Japanese fighter pilots fought in World War 2. Many people incorrectly believe that all Japanese pilots jumped into a plane filled with fuel and explosives for the sole purpose of ramming it into allied targets like terrorists did on 9-11. That’s far from accurate.
Japan did have small, special groups of pilots whose sole purpose were for suicide missions. These were called ‘kamikaze missions’ (Kamikaze means godly or “divine winds” in Japanese). Though, only a small percentage of missions utilized these pilots.
Quite often though, when a Japanese fighter plane was damaged and likely to go down, ran out of ammo, or was unable to fight for some reason during a dog fight, they would often try doing as much damage as they could in one final attack by ramming their aircraft into a target. Sometimes these are also thought of as a kamikaze attacks which is incorrect. Kamikaze refers to the missions that were specifically planned suicide missions and their pilots. In fact, some allied forces pilots would also use their plane to try to cause as much damage as possible in a suicide collision if there were no other options left to them.
So why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets?
If you crash a plane fully fueled and usually lined with explosives, why even bother putting on a helmet? You’re likely going to be vaporized anyways.
The head coverings and helmets used in WW2 was largely a holdover from the previous era where the cockpits were open. Those protected against rain and wind. Closed cockpits were pretty standard in World War 2, but often planes would take off and land with the cockpits open with the belief that it would be easier to escape if something were to happen on landing. Landing and take-offs are still the most dangerous part of flying.
Another reason pilots wear helmets is because they hold your radio earphones. Military regulations require it. When jets became standard, the air forces switched to the hardened ‘brain bucket’ currently used today, though the purpose of this is merely to protect a fighter pilot’s head from being bashed against the canopy during high speed maneuvering, and ejection — not to save him in the event of a crash. Similarly, the kamikaze pilot’s helmet merely helped him complete the trip, not survive it.
Bill Coombes, 1995, “Divine Wind The Japanese secret weapon – kamikaze suicide attacks”.
Ivan Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, p284, 1975