News | March 23, 2023

Kamikaze, Japan’s Last Bid for Victory

By Cmdr. Peter Mersky, USNR (Ret.)

By Adrian Stewart, Pen & Sword Aviation, Yorkshire, UK. 2022. 209 pp. Ill.
This author’s list of previously published works, most of which come from Pen & Sword, deals with United Kingdom units in WWII, so he is in home territory once more. Few of these other books are listed in the bibliography. The soft-cover edition of this book, which was originally published in 2020, joins a fairly lengthy list of books on this evocative subject that caused a great deal of late-war angst in the American and British navies. Most of the books begin or delve somewhere in the text about the psychology of national suicide meant to either prolong the war in the Pacific or to give some kind of meaning to Japan’s evitable defeat in the long, bloody conflict when the war in Europe was just about to end with Germany’s unconditional defeat and the demise of its main perpetrators, namely Adolph Hitler.

While offering a fairly good history of the Kamikazes’ derivation, development and ultimate use, there are a few errors that could have been deleted beginning on page 1, in using the Allied code name of the Aichi Type 99 carrier dive bomber, Val. The system of code names for Japanese aircraft did not actually enter use until late 1942, much the same as other familiar types such as “Zeke” for the most well-known Japanese aircraft, the A6M Zero-sen fighter, which along with the Aichi D3A dive bomber, cut a large swath across the Pacific beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 (We hope to review two recent books on the attack toward the end of 2023 on the 82nd anniversary of the event that thrust America into the war).

A couple of comments that deserve amplification:

Page 10: includes a darkly humorous note that declares that Vice Adm. Chuchi Nagumo, leader of the Pearl Harbor strike force, committed suicide at the end of the war, but his body was never found. If so, then how could we know he killed himself? Where was Nagumo at this time? The author is not clear, but the admiral was at Saipan, the Marianas, in June 1944, and killed himself on Jul. 6 when it became apparent that Saipan was lost. His body was recovered by U.S. Marines, and he was later buried at Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura.

Page 128: “an army [sic] Hamp,” which requires better definition because “Hamp” was the initial code name given to the Navy’s A6M3 Zero with clipped wings for better maneuverability. However, when Gen. Hap Arnold saw it, meant to honor him as formerly Chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, then later of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was definitely not happy and demanded it be changed, and it was, to “Hap.”

Stewart includes different personalities, especially the many Japanese admirals and flight commanders who were involved in developing the strategic situation around the Philippines and the eventual creation of the Special Attack units that became the overall Kamikaze corps. All of which bothers me as he seemingly appears to highlight the Kamikaze pilots as the last-ditch effort to sacrifice themselves in the defense of their country, giving up their young lives trying to kill as many of their enemies as they could, often without the strategic success necessary to change the inevitable outcome of the war.

So many years of reading articles and books gives this as the sole reason for the Special Attack squadrons that did not succeed. His bibliography does not include the classic account of a young operational Imperial Army fighter pilot’s experience (only 16 at war’s end), also titled “Kamikaze,” by Yasuo Kuwahara and Gordon T. Allred and published in 1957 by Ballantine and still available in a modern edition from American Legacy Media (2013). It remains one of the most personal and finely written accounts by a Kamikaze veteran, who, in the event, was scheduled for his last flight but never flew the mission having been in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, when a B-29 dropped its atomic bomb. Did the author of this book ever read the book by a very young aviator who had actually escorted his best childhood friend on his final mission?

There is an in-depth discussion of the introduction of organized Kamikaze units during the campaign to keep the Allies from retaking the Philippines in October 1944, describing the carnage of the U.S. fleet carriers, destroyers and transports from aircraft launched from Japanese airfields already in the Philippine islands.

The author seems to waffle back and forth in supporting the Japanese side, then that of the Allies, then again praising the Japanese courage and fortitude, the Allies’ luck and courage in defending their ships. While he omits Yasuo Kuwahara’s Kamikaze, he does include “The Divine Wind,” a highly readable joint account by three very involved U.S. Navy and Japanese officers, published by the U.S. Naval Institute in 1958 and still available.

Details of Britain’s Royal Navy’s and Royal Australian Navy’s experience with the suicide aircraft are not usually available to American readers, but Stewart’s book does give interesting examples to this side of the Kamikaze story.

Although this new account of the suicide units has overly long chapters, and also raises questions of whether Japanese Emperor Hirohito could have controlled his die-hard ministers who wanted to continue the war even in the face of the undeniable, quickly-growing strength of the Allies as they marched inexorably toward the Home Islands, it is worth reading and adds to the story of the late air war in the Pacific.

Thanks to Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, USN (Ret) Director of Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), Matthew R. Proietta, Cataloging Librarian, Navy Department Library, Histories and Archives (NHHC), and Michael Crutch, leading U.S. Naval Aviation historian.