Adrian Stewart, Kamikaze (Pen & Sword, 2020)
There are few more terrifying events for a sailor than coming under air attack. The idea that the pilot intends to crash into you ramps up that fear level exponentially. Yet that is what Allied sailors, mostly Americans, faced as the Pacific War reached its climax in 1944, when Japanese suicide pilots, known as kamikazes, pitched their planes into a dive, heading straight for American ships. This happened day after day, shredding nerves and shattering ships. Adrian Stewart tells the riveting story of a unique but ultimately doomed tactic.
Stewart traces the kamikaze to the code of Bushido, the loyalty code of the pre-modern Samurai warriors. That ethos outlasted the Samurai to become the backbone ideology of the modernized Japanese forces that entered World War II. Death, therefore, held few terrors for Japanese pilots tasked with flying their aircraft into American ships. Stewart points out that such a suicide was not that unusual for pilots who did not carry parachutes: it was the organisation of such men into squadrons for the purpose that was new. This was first tried for the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 where the tactic proved its worth but was too little, too late to change the outcome. Nevertheless, Vice Admiral Onishi pushed the idea further with solid support from the pilots who would fly the ‘special attacks’ missions. Indeed, Stewart sets great store in the sincerity of those men. The attacks continued around the Philippines and if the Kamikazes made it through the fighter and anti-aircraft screen, they caused considerable damage. The Japanese switched to mass attacks on a single target that proved very effective, and they used a variety of aircraft mixed in with normal bombing operations. But the Americans took the Philippines, which fatally cut the Japanese supply lines.
The threat of unconditional surrender motivated continued kamikaze attacks, including Shinyo boats and Kaiten midget submarines, though they had negligible impact. American counter-measures also reduced the Kamikaze’s effectiveness. Kamikazes still caused serious casualties at Iwo Jima in February 1945 and again at Okinawa when 355 planes in a single attack caused carnage followed by mass attacks on consecutive days. But the Japanese could not sustain their losses. Stewart detours to the desperate ‘banzai’ attack of the battleship Yamato group, which was a disaster but not a suicide mission. Another detour examines the Royal Navy’s dealings with kamikazes around Okinawa. In the end, the kamikazes caused many casualties and great damage, but they could not stop the American advance. Stewart concludes by wrapping up the Pacific War with Japan’s surrender and its aftermath.
Stewart’s Kamikaze is a solid overview of a unique wartime phenomenon. He is careful to place the concept of kamikaze into its historical context and provides detailed descriptions of many kamikaze attacks on Allied ships. Sometimes Stewart adds too much superfluous information for the battles where the attacks took place and he deviates into sideshows such as the firebombing of Tokyo and FDR’s untimely death. Stewart also seems a bit too trusting of his kamikaze pilot sources, though that could be just this reviewer’s Western cynicism. Nevertheless, air warfare and military history enthusiasts will enjoy this account of an important element in Japan’s Pacific War.