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Fire From the Sky: Surviving the Kamikaze Threat
by Robert C. Stern
Naval Institute Press, 2010, 384 pages

Few books have attempted to cover the entire complex story of Japan's aerial suicide attacks during World War II. The Divine Wind: Japan's Kamikaze Force in World War II, by Captain Rikihei Inoguchi and Commander Tadashi Nakajima, remains the standard today, even though it was originally published in 1958. Both authors served as senior officers associated with the Navy's Kamikaze Special Attack Corps from its inception in the Philippines in October 1944. Their book provides few details on the Battle of Okinawa, when three-quarters of aerial suicide attacks took place [1], and the Army's Special Attack Corps, whose airmen comprised more than one-third of those who died in suicide attacks [2]. However, the authors' personal involvement makes their history by far the most influential. The Sacred Warriors: Japan's Suicide Legions (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982) by Denis and Peggy Warner also deserves high marks for its readable style and thorough research using both Japanese and English-language sources.

In Fire from the Sky, Robert C. Stern, the author of more than 20 books primarily on naval topics, makes extensive use of ship action reports and other U.S. Navy documents to chronicle all kamikaze attacks that sank or damaged Allied ships. His book focuses entirely on battle details rather than personal accounts. Each kamikaze attack is described in a generally standard format with ship location, numbers and types of aircraft, battle details, crewmen's actions after hits, ship damage, casualties, and what happened to ships after attack. The descriptions frequently include lengthy excerpts from ship action reports. These attack summaries provide helpful reference information for individual ships, but they make much of the book read like an encyclopedia. It also lacks maps of the Philippines and Okinawa to identify kamikaze attack locations.

After the author briefly presents Japan's kamikaze pilots in the book's introduction, he goes on in Chapter 1 to discuss wartime precursors to organized suicide attacks. The first part of Chapter 2 explains the formation of the first kamikaze unit, and the rest of the book systematically describes, in chronological order, the kamikaze attacks from the Allied perspective. The book incorrectly uses Shinbu, rather than Shinpu, as the original Japanese name for the Kamikaze Corps [3]. Stern states that his book's objective is to assess the impact and effectiveness of the kamikaze weapon. However, other than a few passing comments, only two short chapters directly address this purpose by examining kamikaze tactics in the Philippines and Okinawa. The author's rather straightforward conclusion is that the kamikaze weapon could not win the war or even soften terms of peace despite 16,000 total Allied casualties with 9.4 percent of kamikaze aircraft inflicting damage and an average of 40 casualties per hit or near-miss.

In comparison with other English-language books about Japan's kamikazes, Fire from the Sky stands apart with its excellent photo sequences and detailed captions of individual attacks [4]. Over 20 attacks include three or more photos to display the approach, hit, and damage by kamikaze aircraft. In several places Stern mentions the difficulties in counting kamikaze attacks, since a Japanese pilot carrying out a conventional bombing or escort mission might decide to crash into a ship if his aircraft got hit and damaged. He argues convincingly that the first organized kamikaze attacks took place on October 25, 1944, and previous attacks on Sonoma (ATO-12), LCI(L)-1065, and HMAS Australia, considered by some to be the first kamikaze attacks, were crashes into ships by pilots who made individual decisions rather than planned suicide attacks by Special Attack Corps pilots.

Despite its 20 pages of endnotes and extensive primary and secondary sources, the book's descriptions of kamikaze pilots still contain errors, most arising from the oversimplification of the Special Attack Corps' complex history. For example, Stern writes, “All were volunteers, meaning they had been requested, but not ordered, to join a Special Attack Unit.” Although many pilots volunteered, numerous Japanese accounts state that pilots in certain units received orders to join the Special Attack Corps with no request for volunteers [5]. The author writes that in 1945 the Japanese no longer lined up pilots and asked for volunteers but rather gave them applications or surveys. Again, Stern oversimplifies the facts, since former kamikaze pilots state that even then they were lined up and volunteers were asked to raise their hand or take one step forward [6].

This book review, not including Notes below, was published in the August 2010 issue of Naval History magazine.

Damage to Hazelwood (DD-531) from hit to bridge by kamikaze
aircraft carrying bomb on April 29, 1945. Caused death of 46 men,
including captain and all officers stationed on bridge.


1. Yasunobu (1972, 171) gives a total of 2,503 special attack aircraft that took off and did not return to base. Out of this total, 1,915 (76.5%) aircraft took off during the Okinawa operations.

2. The Tokkotai (Special Attack Corps) Commemoration Peace Memorial Association states that 2,514 men died in Navy aerial special attacks and 1,432 men died in Army aerial special attacks (including 88 men of Giretsu Airborne Unit) (see plaque at Kamikaze Pilot Statue at Yasukuni Jinja Yushukan). These figures indicate the Navy accounted for 64% of aerial special attacks and the Army for 36%.

3. Stern states in a note (p. 342), "Some sources gives this pronunciation as shinpu or shimpu." These are both acceptable alternative romanizations of the Japanese pronunciation as would be shinpuu or shimpuu to recognize the long vowel in the last syllable. However, Shinbu is not an acceptable alternative pronunciation, and its use by the author causes confusion since the Japanese name of many Army Special Attack Squadrons was Shinbu (meaning "military might"), which uses different Japanese characters than Shinpu or Kamikaze (meaning "divine wind").

4. Japanese-language books have been published with photo sequences and detailed captions of individual ship attacks. The most comprehensive is the 700-page two-volume set entitled Shashinshuu kamikaze (Kamikaze photograph collection), edited by Kamikaze Kankou Iinkai (Kamikaze Publication Committee) and published in 1996 and 1997. A shorter photograph book by Hara (2006) also has a similar approach.

5. Below are examples of Navy and Army pilots who received orders to join the Special Attack Corps with no request for volunteers.

Navy - All Zero pilots in the 205th Air Group (over 100 men) were ordered by Cdr. Tamai in early February 1945 at Taichu Air Base in Formosa to become members of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps (Hisayama 2009, 230). Captain Kawamoto, Tokushima Naval Air Group Commander, ordered the formation of the Kamikaze Corps Shiragiku Special Attack Unit in early April 1945 (Yoshitaka Fujioka in Nagasue 1997, 219). Five Tokushima Shiragiku Squadrons with 56 pilots and navigators died in suicide attacks after taking off from Kushira Air Base in May and June 1945. Captain Nara, Ooi Naval Air Group Commander, also ordered the formation of the Kamikaze Corps Shiragiku Special Attack Unit (Nagasue 1994, 88). Nobuya Kinase (Tokkou 2006, 265) does not remember volunteering for a special attack squadron at Tsukuba Naval Air Base. Jinno (2000, 88-127) gives details of orders for the formation of the Azusa Special Attack Unit from the 262nd Air Attack Unit of the 762nd Air Group but does not mention any request for volunteers. The Azusa Special Attack Unit included 24 Ginga bombers and 72 men. At Genzan Air Base in Korea during April and May 1945, orders assigning men to special attack squadrons were announced almost every day with no consideration for volunteers (Ozawa 1983, 132).

Army - On October 21, 1944, the first Army special attack squadron, named Banda, was formed at Hokota Air Base by order without any request for volunteers (Fukahori 2001, 98-9; Nagasawa 2004, 110-1). The 18 men of the Special Attack Corps 6th Hakko Squadron (also known as Sekicho Squadron) received orders at Shimoshizu Air Base on November 6, 1944, with 17 men later dying in special attacks (Toshio Yoshitake in Tokkou 2006, 134-5; Osuo 2005, 191). The 62nd Sentai formed a special attack squadron of three Sakura-dan Ki-167 heavy bombers with 18 men by announcing the assignment and having written that "attack will be special attack" on a blackboard without asking for volunteers (Hayashi 2005, 68-73).

6. Imamura (2001, 101-3) describes that in February 1945 special attack unit volunteers at the Tokyo Detachment (renamed Tokyo Naval Air Corps on March 1, 1945) were asked to come one step forward. On February 4, 1945, the Army's 22nd Shinbu Squadron was asked to volunteer by raising their hands (Hayashi 2007, 110; Osuo 2005, 195).

Sources Cited

Fukahori, Michiyoshi. 2001. Tokkou no shinjitsu: Meirei to kenshin to izoku no kokoro (Truth of Special Attack Corps: Orders, devotion, and bereaved families' hearts). Tokyo: Harashobo.

Hara, Katsuhiro. 2006. Shashin ga kataru "tokkou" densetsu (Legend of "special attacks" as told by photographs). Tokyo: KK Bestsellers.

Hayashi, Eidai. 2005. Juubaku tokkou sakuradan ki (Heavy bomber Sakura-dan special attack plane). Osaka: Toho Shuppan.

________. 2007. Rikugun tokkou shinbu ryou: Seikansha no shuuyou shisetsu (Army special attack Shinbu barracks: Detention facility for survivors). Osaka: Toho Shuppan.

Hisayama, Shinobu. 2009. Aozora no kouseki: Moto zerosen pairotto ga kataru kuusen to tokkou no kiroku (Flight path in blue sky: Record of air battles and special attacks as told by former Zero fighter pilot). Tokyo: Sankei Shinbun Shuppan.

Imamura, Shigeo. 2001. Shig: The True Story of an American Kamikaze. Baltimore: American Literary Press.

Jinno, Masami. 2000. Azusa tokubetsu kougekitai: Bakugekiki "Ginga" sanzen kiro no kouseki (Azusa special attack unit: "Ginga" bombers' 3,000-km flight path). Tokyo: Kojinsha.

Kamikaze Kankou Iinkai (Kamikaze Publication Committee), ed. 1996. Shashinshuu kamikaze: Riku kaigun tokubetsu kougekitai joukan (Kamikaze photograph collection: Army and Navy special attacks, Vol. 1, October 1944 to March 1945). Tokyo: KK Bestsellers.

________. 1997. Shashinshuu kamikaze: Riku kaigun tokubetsu kougekitai gekan (Kamikaze photograph collection: Army and Navy special attacks, Vol. 2, March 1945 to end of war). Tokyo: KK Bestsellers.

Nagasawa, Michio. 2004. Tokkou soukessan (Special attack bottom line). Tokyo: Kojinsha.

Nagasue, Senri. 1994. Kaerazaru tsubasa (Wings of no return). Fukuoka City: Kaichosha.

________. 1997. Shiragiku tokkoutai: Kaerazaru wakawashitachi e no chinkonfu (Shiragiku special attack unit: Requiem to young eagles of no return). Tokyo: Kojinsha.

Osuo, Kazuhiko. 2005. Tokubetsu kougekitai no kiroku (rikugun hen) (Record of special attack corps (Army)). Tokyo: Kojinsha.

Ozawa, Ikuro. 1983. Tsurai shinjitsu: kyokou no tokkou shinwa (Hard truths: Fictitious special attack myths). Tokyo: Dohsei Publishing Co.

Tokkou: Saigo no shougen seisaku iinkai (Special attacks: Final statements Production Committee. 2006. Tokkou: saigo no shougen (Special attacks: Final statements). Tokyo: Aspect.

Yasunobu, Takeo. 1972. Kamikaze tokkoutai (Kamikaze special attack corps). Edited by Kengo Tominaga. Tokyo: Akita Shoten.