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A Glorious Way to Die: The Kamikaze Mission of the Battleship Yamato, April 1945
by Russell Spurr
Newmarket Press, 1981, 341 pages

Yamato, the largest battleship ever built, embodied the pride and spirit of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The battleship saw its first military action in June 1942 during the Battle of Midway. Many Japanese viewed Yamato as a symbol of the country and Japan's military might, not only because of its awesome size and firepower but also because Yamato is the poetic name for Japan. Yamato continues in Japan as a strong symbol of heroism against hopeless odds. On April 7, 1945, the day of its sinking by American bombs and torpedoes, the ship's officers and men fought hard to the end in what the author describes as "a glorious way to die." The fame of Yamato has continued since the end of World War II with commercial films and books about the battleship's fated final mission. These books include a classic piece of wartime literature, Requiem for Battleship Yamato, by Mitsuru Yoshida, a survivor of the sinking of the great battleship. The battleship's heroic image continued on to a new generation with Space Battleship Yamato, a very popular Japanese animation series in the 1970s [1]. In 2199, when Earth has few space ships and has been conquered, the people of Earth recover Yamato from the bottom of the ocean and convert it into a modern spaceship in order to fight against a conquering empire.

Russell Spurr did extensive, in-depth research with both Japanese and American sources in order to write this dramatic narrative of the final days of Yamato. He served with the Royal Indian Navy during World War II, and he worked as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the London Daily Mail. The main narrative covers the period from March 28 to April 7, 1945, but Spurr weaves in historical background throughout the book. The book switches back and forth between different locations on both the Japanese and American sides, such as Yamato, Japanese Combined Fleet headquarters, U.S. Fifth Fleet, kamikaze headquarters at Kanoya Air Base, and U.S. planes attacking Yamato.

The Combined Fleet headquarters designated battleship Yamato and its nine escort ships as a surface special attack fleet. "Special attack" (tokkou in Japanese) meant that Japanese military leaders expected that none of the soldiers would return, with death being certain due to the nature of the attack. The military also referred to attacks made by kamikaze planes, kaiten manned torpedoes, and explosive motorboats as "special attacks," since a "successful" attack would result in death for the person making the attack. Although focusing on Yamato, this book also describes kamikaze and conventional plane attacks made by the Fifth Air Fleet on American ships around Okinawa. The chapters on kamikaze headquarters in Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of mainland Japan, explain that Yamato had no air cover during the mission to Okinawa because planes needed to be saved for the planned mass kamikaze attacks on April 12, 1945.

Smoke Rises After
Explosions on Yamato

 

Numerous details and scores of characters make for slow reading at times, but this thoroughness is also one of the book's strong points. The story lacks a main character, but the book does include quite a few conversations, which makes it easier to read. Spurr writes in the Introduction that dialogues have been included only when participants were certain as to what was said. In writing the book, he had to deal also with conflicting facts and different versions of the same story, but he skillfully deals with these inconsistencies, several times referring to the confusion of battle and the tendency of pilots to overestimate hits in the excitement of battle. The book contains four detail maps, many photos, two detail views of Yamato, an extensive bibliography, a chart of the command structure of the Allied fleet leaders mentioned in the book, and a similar chart for the Imperial Japanese Navy leaders.

Although many books and documentaries on kamikaze operations tell the basic story of Yamato's final sortie, A Glorious Way to Die has numerous fascinating details not found in these other works. For example, the story does not stop after Yamato has been sunk, but rather goes on to describe American planes spraying the sea with machine-gun fire and to tell about survivors struggling against bullets, exhaustion, Yamato's undertow, cold, and spilled oil. Yamato's dead totaled 3,063, and only 269 men survived. Another 1,187 men lost their lives in the escort force. The book tells how a flying boat dramatically rescues an American pilot downed in the midst of the enemy fleet. The Americans lost only twelve men in the battle in comparison to thousands of Japanese.

This book succeeds not only in telling the story of the tragic end of Yamato but also in showing the desperate situation that Japan faced at the end of the war and the courage with which its military officers and ordinary soldiers tried to protect their country even though they faced impossible odds.

Note

1. Space Battleship Yamato was the first animated work of Leiji Matsumoto. He also created the manga episodes on which the three stories in the animation video titled The Cockpit: Kamikaze Stories are based.