The Other Suicide Bombers

One of the most devastating attacks against Americans happened in 1945.

On the morning of May 11, 1945, the USS Bunker Hill was hit and severely damaged by two Japanese kamikaze planes off the coast of Kyushu, Japan. The ship's crew suffered more than 600 casualties.
On the morning of May 11, 1945, the USS Bunker Hill was hit and severely damaged by two Japanese kamikaze planes off the coast of Kyushu, Japan. The ship's crew suffered more than 600 casualties. (United States Navy)
Reviewed by Robert Asahina
Sunday, January 4, 2009; Page BW05


The Story of the USS Bunker Hill and the Kamikaze Pilot Who Crippled Her

By Maxwell Taylor Kennedy

Simon & Schuster. 515 pp. $30

As Maxwell Taylor Kennedy reminds us in his worthy new book, suicide bombing did not begin recently in the Middle East or South Asia. The worst suicide attack against Americans before Sept. 11, 2001, happened six decades ago, in the Pacific ocean off the coast of Okinawa.

On May 11, 1945, three days after the surrender of Germany, two Japanese pilots dive-bombed the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill and, trailing their bombs by a heartbeat, crashed their Zeros into the flaming flight deck of the ship. This kamikaze attack on the flagship of Task Force 58, which was laying siege to Okinawa, was a shocking example of how a determined enemy could score a significant tactical success in asymmetrical warfare.

By this late date in World War II, the fire-bombing of Tokyo and other cities had destroyed the Japanese war machine and devastated the civilian population. Japan's total oil reserves were only 3.7 million barrels, "less than the United States produced each day," Kennedy notes. There was not enough fuel for more than a few hours of flight instruction for the young pilots who would be swept up in the "Divine Wind" of kamikaze missions.

Nevertheless, Yasunori Seizo and Kiyoshi Ogawa, "poorly trained men flying poorly maintained aircraft," succeeded in crippling the Bunker Hill, "the most powerful ship in the most powerful fleet ever assembled," killing 393 Americans and injuring another 264. In all their missions during the war, kamikaze pilots damaged a total of 288 Allied ships and sank 34, at a cost of 3,913 Japanese lives.

Kennedy, an associate scholar at Brown University and the youngest son of Robert F. Kennedy, very adeptly sketches the complex technology of floating behemoths such as the Bunker Hill, which was 22 feet longer than Rockefeller Center is high. He foreshadows the fiery fate of the carrier by pointing out a tragic design flaw: Its central ventilation system pumped fire, poisonous smoke and gases into the interior of the ship after the kamikaze attack ignited the 23,000 gallons of fuel in the aircraft parked on the flight deck. (Kennedy notes that "the 767s that hurtled into the World Trade Center carried approximately 21,000 gallons of fuel.")

But Kennedy is less successful in illuminating the military culture of Japan and the social psychology that turned thousands of young men, most of them between the ages of 18 and 20, into kamikazes. Of course, the suicide bombers were not alive to be interviewed. And the Japanese authorities made a concerted effort to destroy documentation of the "Divine Wind" program.

What Kennedy offers instead is both too specific and too universal. He focuses narrowly, though at length, on the life of Ogawa but touches only sparingly on Seizo, apparently because he had better access to the former's family and documents. At the same time, Kennedy makes excessively broad generalizations about the commitment of Japanese to "Bushido, the warrior ideal of individual sacrifice in favor of the collective society," in contrast to the American "ideal of rugged individuals on an errand into the wilderness." Danger's Hour is far better on the thoughts, feelings and actions of the sailors and pilots aboard the Bunker Hill. Indeed, the book seems like two volumes bound into one: The first half is a thoroughly researched mini-history of naval airpower in World War II up to the Okinawa campaign. The second half, which describes the attack and its aftermath and relies heavily on interviews with American survivors, is a fast-paced, almost novelistic account of suffering and heroism amid hellish fire, smoke and devastation.

Kennedy tells of men who stayed at their posts in the watertight boiler rooms to keep the engines, pumps and electricity running, only to die of carbon monoxide poisoning -- a very different kind of self-sacrifice from that of the kamikaze pilots. Other sailors braved flaming wooden decks and melting aluminum from burning aircraft to rescue their mates below. Still others dived from 50-foot-high catwalks to help weaker swimmers in the shark-infested waters around the listing ship.

Incredibly, the Bunker Hill not only survived the kamikaze attack but eventually made it back, under its own steam, to Port Angeles, Wash., on May 30, 1945.

On August 6, 1945, "Little Boy," the first atomic bomb, incinerated Hiroshima. Kennedy speculates that the kamikazes' "seeming contempt for death, and what appeared to U.S. forces as fanaticism for a lost cause, contributed in no small way to the American decision to use the atomic bomb rather than confront such a radical nation." But the American pursuit of total warfare and unconditional surrender, along with the indiscriminate fire-bombing of Japanese civilians, in turn provoked such fanaticism.

As Kennedy notes, "the Army Air Force's B-29s were utilized largely to carpet-bomb Japanese cities and military-industrial targets. They could have been better deployed bombing strategic transportation hubs and the airfields used to launch the kamikazes that were devastating U.S. naval forces around Okinawa." So the success of suicide bombers, in World War II and today, points to a vulnerability not just in our technology but in our military policy, which relies a bit too much on advanced weaponry and overwhelming force. As Kennedy notes at the end of his book, "a few determined men, willing to give their lives for a cause, may block that policy from ever being fulfilled." ยท

Robert Asahina is the author of "Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad."

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