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Kaiten: Japan's Secret Manned Suicide Submarine and the First American Ship It Sank in WWII
by Michael Mair and Joy Waldron
Berkley Caliber, 2014, 363 pages

Michael Mair's father John served aboard the auxiliary oiler Mississinewa (AO-59) for six months from the ship's commissioning to her sinking by a kaiten manned suicide torpedo on November 20, 1944. John survived his ship's sinking by jumping 20 feet from the burning deck to a clearing in the water blazing with burning oil and by swimming to the nearest rescue boat sent from another ship. For many years his son Michael thoroughly researched Mississinewa's story, mainly through interviews of surviving crewmen but also by examination of written sources such as U.S. Navy Action Reports. About half of the chapters in this book tell the history of the oiler Mississinewa, and the other chapters provide background on the kaiten human torpedo program along with details about the kaiten pilot who sank Mississinewa while anchored in Ulithi Lagoon.

When the 3,418 pounds of explosives loaded into the front part of the kaiten manned torpedo exploded after hitting Mississinewa's starboard side at 0545 on November 20, 1944, the oiler became engulfed in flames and burned out of control. The water with flaming oil around much the ship made escape difficult for those who remained alive after the initial explosion. The 5-inch/38 caliber gun magazine blew up at 0605, and Mississinewa disappeared beneath the surface of Ulithi Lagoon at 0905. The kaiten attack killed 63 men and wounded many more out of total crew of 278 men.

The book's most memorable parts give numerous harrowing eyewitness accounts by Mississinewa survivors and the other ship crewmen who rescued survivors or who witnessed the initial explosion and frightening aftermath. They describe the confusion and terror after the kaiten's explosion, desperate attempts to get off the blazing ship, frightening experiences in the oily water with flames on top, daring rescues by boats sent from nearby ships, and crewmen's feelings after being rescued until they finally reached the California coast and their homes. A few personal stories surprisingly mention men who could not swim, which obviously led to their panic with the ship ablaze and sinking into the water. The story below, put together based on interviews with the crewman involved, the Mississinewa captain, and a crewman from another oiler anchored nearby, provides one example of the many accounts included in the book (pp. 185-6):

Only one man on the ship's bow survived. At 0545 that morning Eugene Cooley had awakened the moment his skivvies caught fire and scorched his skin. He heard a dog's frantic barking coming from under the starboard 3-inch/50 mount and saw the ship's mascot, Salvo. A wave of flame swept over the starboard mount, causing Cooley to forget about saving the dog and find an escape route. The roar of flames behind him convinced the New York boy to abandon ship. Without hesitation, he dived headfirst from the bow into the flaming water. The cool salt water took away some of his fear, allowing him to remember basic water skills. He splashed the flames away, gulped for air, and dived deep, splashing again each time as he rose to the surface for a breath. At last he cleared the flames several yards from the bow, surfacing for the last time amid oil and roiling smoke. Cooley flipped over on his back, choking as his lungs ingested smoke, and nearly blind from oil that burned his eyes. Mississinewa had disappeared behind a black curtain. He distanced himself from the flare-ups caused by fresh AV gas feeding the fire and heard a voice through the din; a small boat from Mascoma suddenly appeared, and two pairs of hands hauled the exhausted boy aboard.


Mississinewa rolls to port, slipping from sight

Several survivors mention the Kingfisher floatplane that came in close to the flaming oil and saved them. Three months after Mississinewa's sinking, the Kingfisher pilot, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Blase Zamucen, and his radioman Russell Evinrude received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal from the Commander of the First Carrier Task Force, Pacific, in the name of the President of the United States. Zamucen's citation reads (p. 225):

For distinguishing himself by heroism in the rescue of survivors of the burning, torpedoed ship. While piloting a cruiser based airplane, he saw the ship torpedoed. He instantly turned his plane and flew low over the then blazing ship and seeing survivors struggling in the burning oil near the ship, with no boats in the vicinity, immediately landed his plane to affect rescue. He taxied the plane to within 20 feet of the blazing oil in spite of the intense heat, smoke, and exploding ammunition and threw a buoyed line to the men struggling in the oil near the flames. Upon towing one group clear of the increasing ring of flames he again approached close to the flames and towed a second group to safety. After the second trip, boats approached the fire and he resumed his station on antisubmarine patrol. His utter disregard of his own safety was at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Navy.

M. A. Mitscher,
Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy

Earlier chapters cover the creation, development, and testing of the kaiten weapon by Hiroshi Kuroki and Sekio Nishina. The weapon was based on the Type 93 torpedo, nicknamed the Long Lance. Kuroki and another kaiten crewman died in a training accident when their kaiten torpedo got stuck in the bottom of Tokuyama Bay on September 6, 1944. Nishina carried Kuroki's ashes with him from Otsushima Kaiten Base when he led the Kikusui Unit to make special (suicide) attacks against American ships. Two Japanese I-class submarines carried four kaiten apiece to attack American ships at the Ulithi anchorage. Before sunrise on November 20, 1944, submarine I-47 successfully launched all four kaiten, but submarine I-36 got off only one while the other three jammed in their racks on top of the submarine. The kaiten piloted by Nishina hit Mississinewa, but the other four kaiten did not hit any ships. During the war a total of 106 kaiten pilots lost their lives including 15 men killed in training accidents.

The main sources used by the authors to describe the Japanese kaiten program were published English translations (Kaiten Weapon (1962) by former kaiten pilot Yutaka Yokota and I-Boat Captain (1976) by former I-47 submarine commander who carried Nishina and three other kaiten pilots to Ulithi) and information provided by Japanese contacts familiar with kaiten operations such a former kaiten pilot Toshiharu Konada, who was Chairman of the Kaiten Association for many years. The book has a ten-page Bibliography that demonstrates the thoroughness of research for the book.


(Left to right) Kaiten pilots Ens. Akira Sato, Sub. Lt. Sekio
Nishina, Sub. Lt. Hitoshi Fukuda, and Ens. Kozo Watanabe
 were carried to their Ulithi launch point by submarine I-47

After an exciting Prologue that introduces the kaiten attack at Ulithi, the first three chapters get the book off to a slow start with general information about attack submersibles, the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Battle of Midway, which seem to have little direct relevance to the book's main theme. The book's subtitle refers to the kaiten as a submarine, but it is more appropriately termed a torpedo. The kaiten manned torpedo was launched from a mother submarine, but it was not an actual submarine with the ability to maneuver independently underwater over a wide range. The confusion starts in the Prologue when Nishina's kaiten is described as "a tiny manned submersible carrying a torpedo just launched from its mother submarine" (p. 3). In reality, the kaiten is a torpedo itself and does not carry a separate torpedo. A little later the kaiten weapons are referred to as "special attack submarines" (p. 11) even though this phrase more properly refers to the Japanese midget submarines that carried out tokkō (special attack) operations throughout the war. The authors confusingly refer to kaiten attack on Mississinewa as the "first suicide attack by a Japanese submarine pilot" (p. 18), but this more appropriately refers to nine midget submarine pilots who lost their lives during the Pearl Harbor attack, since they expected to lose their lives during their attack mission that had been designated as tokkō (special attack).

Many WWII ship histories get told by a former crewman, but this book has snippets from numerous Mississinewa crewmen with no central character. The Japanese side of the attack is presented in much the same way with quotations from many different sources, but in some places the authors make assumptions about the kaiten pilots' thoughts and feelings that are not warranted such as an overemphasis on their dedication to the Japanese emperor. For example, the final thoughts of kaiten pilot Sekio Nishina, who died in the attack on Mississinewa and who did not radio back any messages during his attack run, are presented as follows (p. 3): "He thought of his life and he thought of his death. He thought of the men who would follow after him, inspired by his success, and the family he had left behind in his island nation. Most of all he thought of the emperor and the sacred mission to save his country. All these fragmented images flashed through his mind in seconds, then he was consumed by the task of holding his craft on course." Of course, nobody really knows what Nishina thought during the last minutes of his life as his kaiten entered the lagoon at Ulithi and headed toward Mississinewa.

The middle of the book contains 16 pages of historical photographs including kaiten weapons and pilots and the oiler Mississinewa and crewmen. A detailed map of Ulithi Atoll shows locations of key U.S. ships when the kaiten attacked, and another map indicates the five kaiten torpedoes' most likely routes and final points where they were destroyed based on available evidence. Michael Mair researched for many years and collaborated with Minoru Yamada, navigator of submarine I-53, in order to determine where the two submarines launched the five kaiten and what happened to the kaiten after they left the mother submarines. The known evidence is clearly presented to arrive at what most likely happened, but in the end the fate of each of the five kaiten cannot be determined with complete certainty. One appendix tells the story of underwater dives that resulted in the eventual finding of the sunken oiler in 2001, and another appendix tells about the dive in 2013 by Mair to explore the underwater remains of Mississinewa.