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Answering Fire
by John Wheatcroft
Lunar Offensive Press, 2005, 96 pages

John Wheatcroft served aboard the battleship USS Wisconsin during the Pacific War, so this book's two fictional stories set aboard a battleship can be considered partly autobiographical. The engaging dialogue and absorbing plot in each story reflect an experienced author who has written seven books of fiction and another six of poetry. The first story entitled "Answering Fire" takes up three quarters of the book and tells the story of the visit by Dan and his wife Alma from the US to England in 2003, with Dan's flashbacks to his World War II experiences aboard a battleship taking up a large share of the narrative. The reason for the second story's title of "Kamikaze" only becomes clear at the surprise ending. There are four pages of war photos in between the two stories, but the lack of captions makes it difficult to determine their relevance.

Dan's torments over his ship and its crew's actions in 1945 during and just after the war get triggered by news of the US invasion of Iraq and by his meeting a 57-year old Japanese teacher of English literature name Yuko Miyataka who is visiting England to see places associated with her favorite authors. He experiences depression as he reflects on his experiences almost six decades before. When he thinks back on his ship's blasting to bits with its 5-inch guns a small vessel, probably a fishing boat, on the South China Sea, he considers it to be the first war crime in which he had been a participant. He later remembers the following incident when a Japanese Betty bomber approached his ship and got hit by its guns (p. 33):

Suddenly a puff of black smoke trails from the tail of the Betty. Two parachutes, white handkerchiefs signaling "we surrender," open behind the plane. Letting the doomed aircraft pass out of the lens of my long glass, I focus on the body dangling from one of the parachutes. Guns are still spitting out shells. All of a sudden there is no body, just dangling shreds. The firing doesn't stop as the unmanned chute continues its slow descent. Nor does it end when the chute softly kisses the water and collapses to a small white mushroom bobbing like a patch of plankton. Shells are being pumped into a man who no longer is, is not even a corpse. They're riddling mere fabric. Then silence.

His ship also participated in the shelling of the Japanese homeland "at will without opposition," which at the end of the story leads to his connection with Yuko Miyataka.

As Dan agonizes over his wartime experiences, he mentions Japanese kamikazes several times, but apparently his ship did not get hit by any. He mentions that his ship's antiaircraft batteries shot down two American fighters in a friendly fire incident as they did battle with some Zero fighters who were probably kamikazes. Some facts regarding kamikazes are incorrect. He states that kamikazes sank twenty destroyers in April 1945 during the battle for Okinawa, but the actual number was only four [1]. He mentions that suicide attacks accelerated to a steady flow during the invasion of Iwo Jima, but actually the only significant kamikaze attack near Iwo Jima came on February 21, 1945, when attacks by Suisei (Judy) bombers, Tenzan (Jill) bombers, and Zero (Zeke) fighters of the 2nd Mitate Special Attack Unit sank the escort carrier Bismark Sea (CVE-95), heavily damaged the carrier Saratoga (CV-3) and cargo ship Keokuk (AKN-4), and slightly damaged the escort carrier Lunga Point (CVE-94) and amphibious ships LST-477 and LST-809.

The second story describes the cruel actions taken by a couple of battleship crewmen against a non-commissioned officer who they hated. This short story depicts how resentment can grow when three thousand men on a battleship are crammed together and forced to put up with an officer's irritating attitude. At the story's end, a kamikaze plane slams into the ship and kills 13 men. The hated officer gets an unexpected reward, while the two guilty crewmen escape punishment.

Note

1. See 47 Ships Sunk by Kamikaze Aircraft.