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Suicide Squads: The Men and Machines of World War II Special Operations
by Richard O'Neill
Originally published in 1981 as illustrated edition
Salamander Books, 1999, 272 pages

Although most people associate Japan's suicide attacks in World War II with kamikaze planes, the Japanese Navy and Army used many more types of suicide attack weapons. The military deployed kaiten (manned torpedoes), explosive motorboats, ohka (piloted glider bombs), and midget submarines. At war's end, the military had plans to use other types of suicide attacks in defense of the home islands, such as suicide frogmen (fukuryu) who were to destroy landing craft with an explosive charge mounted on top of a bamboo pole. Suicide Squads provides details regarding the various types of special attack or suicide weapons developed by Japan. In addition, about one third of the book covers suicidal and semi-suicidal weapons used by countries other than Japan in World War II.

This thoroughly researched book has several sections that provide fascinating facts about weapons not covered in detail by most other books on Japan's kamikaze operations and other suicidal weapons. For example, the 25 pages devoted to Japan's explosive motorboats, the Navy's shinyo ("ocean shaker") and the Army's maru-ni ("capacious boat"), provide a detailed history of this suicidal weapon little known to most readers. Although the hundreds of explosive motorboats deployed by Japan scored some limited successes, they encountered heavy gunfire from Allied ships that stopped most of them. Others met with accidents, such as when one boat's engine caught fire, which led to explosions that wiped out the other boats tightly packed together in a cave and killed most of the pilots.

Even though this book has some interesting parts, most readers will have a very difficult time making it through the many facts, such as weapon sizes, weights, speeds, propulsion methods, explosives, and numbers produced. The many details make this a great reference work, but they will prevent most readers from reading it from cover to cover.

O'Neill explains in the Preface that Suicide Squads deals with weapons purposely designed to be suicidal or semi-suicidal, which means the chance of survival of the person making the attack with the weapon was extremely small. No country other than Japan acknowledged a military policy espousing the use of suicidal weapons. Many of the German, Italian, and British weapons introduced in this book have similarities to Japanese suicidal weapons, but they were not deployed officially as suicidal weapons. Most of these non-Japanese weapons, such as midget submarines, explosive motorboats, and manned torpedoes, never got past the development or testing stage.

2001 Lyons Press edition


The chapter on aerial weapons covers the evolution of Japan's kamikaze operations, but O'Neill refers readers to other books (e.g., The Divine Wind by Inoguchi and Nakajima) that cover kamikaze history in more detail. The book Suicide Squads focuses on the variety of suicidal weapons used by Japan and other countries rather than providing an in-depth history of Japan's aerial kamikaze attacks. Also, the book concentrates on military details and includes few personal stories.

This well-researched study makes an excellent reference. O'Neill's objective presentation and insightful comments will greatly assist readers who want to understand Japan's suicide attacks in World War II. Although O'Neill does not include any Japanese sources in the Bibliography, he mentions in the Acknowledgements section that he received assistance and information from several former officers in Japan's special attack forces. Although he presents the material in an unbiased manner, the Acknowledgements section has a very controversial recommendation, ". . . I respectfully urge the Government of Japan to restore state support to Yasukuni Shrine, where the men to whom Japan owes so great a debt are honoured" (p. 9). Yasukuni has become of symbol of Japanese wartime aggression and atrocities to many Chinese, Koreans, and other Asians, and many people question why several war criminals are enshrined there.