Translated by Mayumi Ichikawa Kodansha International. 215 pp. $18.95 Kamikaze. Even today, almost 44 years since the end of World War II, this word still evokes strong images of terror and destruction, of fanaticism, of a type of warfare almost completely alien to the Western mind. But the suicide attack was not just peculiar to the Japanese. During the war, there were many instances of other nationalities making the final sacrifice in a suicide-type attack. Usually these were spur-of-the-moment decisions when there appeared to be no other choice. The Japanese, however, did take this action much further. Faced with a deteriorating military situation, they made suicide attacks a recognized tactic to be carried out on specific orders and using large numbers of both volunteers (throughout the latter part of the war) and conscripts (in the last stages). There have been other books on the kamikazes, notably "Divine Wind" and "Sacred Warriors," but most of these have been concerned with operations. Hatsuho Naito, by contrast, looks primarily at the men who made up one of the most unusual military organizations in the war, the 721st Naval Flying Corps (the Thunder Gods Corps). These men flew a deadly little rocket-propelled aircraft, really a missile carrying a 1,200-kilogram bomb in its nose, known to the Japanese as the Ohka (Cherry Blossom) and to the Americans as Baka (foolish or crazy). Only about 20 feet long, this tiny aircraft had to be carried by a mother plane to the target area where the Ohka was dropped. The Ohka pilot then fired his rockets and guided his speedy aircraft to the target. Once dropped, the Ohka truly was a suicide plane because it could not be recovered. In "Thunder Gods," Naito first recounts how the Ohka came into existence and the mental anguish of many of those associated with its development. Many Japanese felt that suicide tactics were immoral, yet still designed, built or flew such weapons for patriotic reasons. The most interesting and the major part of the book consists of the stories of the men of the Thunder Gods Corps themselves. Belying wartime propaganda, the book shows that the kamikaze pilots were not automatons; they were human beings and, as such, represented a cross-section of society. There were the disciplined and the undisciplined, the braggarts and the quiet types, the firebrands and the calm ones. Quotations from these men are used extensively throughout the book, although Naito nowhere gives any attribution for the various quoted passages. This is a major weakness for it leaves the impression that the dialogue may have been invented for literary purposes. Nonetheless, the reader does get a feel for these men. There is Shoichi Ota, who came up with the idea for the Ohka, supposedly made a one-way trip of his own on Aug. 18, 1945, then turned up years later trying to borrow money from his former comrades. There is Keisuke Yamamura, who survived three Ohka sorties and the war. There is feisty Goro Nonaka, commander of the bomber squadron carrying the Ohkas, who died in the first attack. And there is Mitsutaha Nishio, who in a touching passage "marries" the maid of an inn before flying out to his death. It would be nice to say that Naito has written a great book, for its subject is extremely interesting. Sadly, he has not. There are several reasons for this. Already mentioned are the extensive unattributed quotations. Another is a melodramatic and occasionally overwrought writing style. Also distracting is a certain looseness in some of the author's terminology. For example, the Allies' nickname for the Mitsubishi G4M bomber -- "Betty" -- is used as a Japanese appellation. In general terms its use as a descriptive term in the book is fine, but having the Japanese fliers themselves continually using the name "Betty" sounds false. Also, "Exploding Cherry Blossoms" may be dramatic but it is doubtful that Ohka really is translated that way. More serious are the errors of fact. Several times Naito makes false claims about the sinking of U.S. ships. Since the correct figures have been available for years, these are egregious errors, particularly for a historical work. Like many of the kamikazes it describes, "Thunder Gods" is a near-miss, not a hit. The reviewer, a historian for the Air Force, is the author of, most recently, "The Little Giants: U.S. Escort Carriers Against Japan."