- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

THE STORY OF THE USS BUNKER HILL AND THE KAMIKAZE PILOT WHO CRIPPLED HER

By Maxwell Taylor Kennedy

Simon & Schuster, $30, 463 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY ROBERT F. DUNN

By the last year of the war in the Pacific, Japan was on the ropes everywhere. Her manpower, although still enthusiastically committed, was decimated. Her ships and aircraft were still potent, but few. Her resources, fuel, ordnance and even food for the home front were in short supply. The situation was desperate and desperate measures were called for. Among the most desperate adopted was the tactic of the kamikaze.

Of particular interest in “Danger’s Hour” is the story of how Japan came to employ kamikaze tactics in the first place and the education, selection and training of one special young man, Kiyoshi Ogawa, who gave his life while piloting his aircraft into the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill.

Giving one’s life to one’s country or for one’s friend was not unique to Japan in 1944 and 1945. Nathan Hale gave his life for his country. The Twin Towers, Pentagon and Pennsylvania cornfield assailants gave their lives for their cause on Sept. 11, 2001. As recently as 2008 in Afghanistan and in Iraq, Americans have thrown themselves on hand grenades to save their comrades. But seldom before 1944 had the act of premeditated suicide against an enemy been encouraged and approved as a tactic by highest national authority. In Japan in late 1944 and 1945, it was. This is the story of the implementation of that policy against American warships, one warship in particular: the USS Bunker Hill, a large, fast aircraft carrier of the Essex Class.

On May 11, 1945, Bunker Hill was operating southeast of the Japanese island of Okinawa providing air support to troops engaged in intense fighting there. Shortly after 10 a.m. that morning, the ship was hit in quick succession by two kamikazes. The first came in low and flat from the starboard quarter, strafing as he came, then released a 500-pound bomb that penetrated the flight deck forward, went through the hangar bay and out the port side of the ship, exploding just above the water. The aircraft then hit and skidded up the flight deck through a bevy of parked and loaded planes. Seconds later, Kiyoshi Ogawa barrel-rolled his Zero toward the Bunker Hill, released his bomb, which hit just inboard of the deck edge elevator, then guided himself to eternity against the ship’s island. Death and carnage erupted across the flight deck and throughout the ship.

After the description of the kamikaze hits and the resultant carnage, the rest of the book is a series of tales no less grim or exciting, of individual and collective heroism on the part of all hands in the stricken ship. These are spellbinding. They are told in some of the clearest and most descriptive prose to be found. No novel could be more exciting or better told. A special treat is in the epilogue, a description of the recovery from wartime experiences and the postwar lives of both selected Bunker Hill crewmen and Japanese who had been involved with the kamikaze effort.

Unfortunately, the construct of “Danger’s Hour” is flawed. If one were to read only Chapter 2, Chapter 6, then Chapters 13 through 19 one would have the story. The rest is not only superfluous to the attack on Bunker Hill and the kamikaze pilot who crippled her but is rife with unnecessary narrative, misinformation and erroneous technical detail.

Unnecessary narrative, indeed. These excursions needlessly distract from the story of the kamikaze hit on Bunker Hill and the heroism of its crew in fighting the aftermath. One does not need a history of World War II and what led up to it to appreciate the Bunker Hill story. Among other things, the reader is treated to a review of Perry opening Japan in 1853, what Gen. Billy Mitchell had to say about air power (he died in 1936), a repeat of the “Battleship vs. Carrier Admirals Debate,” a debate that happened only in urban legend, the lead-up to Pearl Harbor and a description of the disaster there, and the American march across the Pacific. Even in that well-known story he makes mistakes. For example, the author alleges that the relocation of Japanese-Americans beginning in 1942 was prompted by the Bataan death march.

Among items of misinformation and incorrect technical detail, consider that Lt. John Powers did not crash-dive into the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku. (He did get shot down shortly after launching his torpedo and crashed into the water). Landing aircraft did not have to stop halfway up the flight deck because of the island. They were stopped on the aft part of the flight deck because that’s where the arresting cables were and because the aircraft that had landed ahead of them were taxied forward and parked. That, of course, precluded the recovering aircraft from landing further forward. Bunker Hill did not burn diesel fuel in its boilers. Instead, it burned Navy Special Fuel Oil, a heavy fuel, not diesel. The Essex class carrier had eight boilers and four engines, not four and two. The air group commander reported to the CO of the carrier, not to the embarked admiral. Much of this, and more, could have been cleared up if the author had asked for a review by someone conversant with aircraft carriers. He, obviously, did not.

From whence came the author’s information on aircraft carriers and a few other things is a mystery. References are sorely missing. The bibliography is impressive, but there’s no way to connect what’s in the text with the bibliography; that is, no footnotes. The one exception with regard to references is the acknowledgment in the text that much of what Mr. Kennedy wrote about kamikaze pilots and their training came from “The Divine Wind,” by Capt. Rikihei Inoguchi, Cdr. Tadashi Nakajima with Roger Pineau.

As a source for information on the training of the kamikaze corps and what it takes to save a severely wounded aircraft carrier, “Danger’s Hour” is a good read with a lot of good information. But Chapters 1 and 3, 4 through 7 and 9 through 12 can be skipped over without missing a thing in the central story. That’s too bad. Had these excursions been eliminated and, say, the pages devoted instead to how the kamikazes of 1945 were precursors to the long-range cruise missiles of 2008, “Danger’s Hour” would have been an important work.

Retired Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is president of the Naval Historical Foundation and lives in Alexandria.

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