Reviewed by Diana L. Ahmad, Ph.D.
The Kamikaze, a well-known unit of the Japanese military in World War II, still fascinates many students of war history. Having just read Rain of Steel: Mitscher’s Task Force 58, Ugaki’s Thunder Gods, and the Kamikaze War off Okinawa, by Stephen L. Moore, I found Stewart’s book a good follow-up to Moore’s monograph. While Moore’s book wonderfully analyzed the actions of the American forces in the battles in the Philippines and Okinawa, he said little about the Kamikaze. It is the opposite for Stewart’s work with little on Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher and Task Force 58, but an in-depth look at the Japanese suicide units as its title implies. While Stewart provides little in the way of primary sources and relies heavily on 1950s publications, the book made sure to explain who the Kamikaze were, how the unit changed over the ten months that they operated, and includes the role of the British and Australians in the battles for the Philippines and Okinawa.
As expected, Stewart starts with an explanation of where the Kamikaze unit’s name originated from, providing a brief history of the Mongols’ attempts to invade Japan in the thirteenth century. Then he returns to World War II, explaining that in October 1944, Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi decided the Kamikaze unit was needed at the Battle of the Philippines because he believed it was Japan’s only opportunity to win the war. The Japanese quickly learned that while they lost only one or two men and one plane per attack on an Allied vessel, the damage caused by the unit to Allied ships and aircraft far exceeded Japanese losses. However, Ōnishi discovered that while the Japanese lost only a few men and planes in the attacks, they could not replace them as Japanese resources and men were dwindling quickly. Despite this, the Vice Admiral continued to believe that Japan needed the Kamikaze in order to reach a favorable compromise to end the war rather than surrendering to the Allies. Unlike Ōnishi, Emperor Hirohito opposed the Kamikaze, although nothing came of the Emperor’s opposition to the unit.
The young men initially chosen for the Kamikaze unit were well-trained pilots. They came from established families and were often university-educated. As the war continued, the Japanese needed to rely on pilots with limited abilities and less flying experience ultimately hurting their efforts to destroy as many Allied vessels and aircraft as possible. In the Kamikazes’ letters home before their last missions, they wrote that death was not as terrible for them as it was for the Europeans or Americans as they believed that their souls would remain close to their families.
While providing readers with an easy-to-read, well-written book, Kamikaze would have been enhanced by manuscript sources from archives in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Ironically, one of the main bases for the Kamikaze was at Atsugi, now an important Naval Air Facility for the United States Navy on the Kanto Plain near Tokyo that provides material and logistics support for the supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan.
Diana L. Ahmad is a Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor with the Missouri University of Science and Technology’s Department of History and Political Science. She is also a Book Review Editor for Nevada State Historical Quarterly.
Kamikaze: Japan’s Last Bid for Victory (Adrian Stewart, Pen & Sword Aviation, Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2020)