Life and Death Aboard the U.S.S. Essex
by Richard W. Streb
Dorrance Publishing, 1999, 347 pages
A Japanese kamikaze pilot in a single-engine bomber hit the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Essex on November 25, 1944. This attack about 100 miles
east of Luzon in the Philippines killed 16 and seriously wounded 44 men. Life
and Death Aboard the U.S.S. Essex contains detailed biographies of the 16
Essex crewmen who perished and provides numerous eyewitness accounts of the
attack. Half of the 16 men killed were Black, and this book describes the U.S.
Navy's discriminatory practices against Blacks and presents biographies of five
African-American Navy heroes during World War II. The remainder of the book
covers a wide variety of topics, including innovations made by Essex crewmen,
the sinking of the U.S.S. Princeton, the near sinking of the U.S.S. Franklin,
and criticisms of certain actions and decisions made by Navy leaders during
World War II.
Richard Streb served as a radar operator aboard the Essex
during the kamikaze attack, and he earned 13 battle stars during his service in
the U.S. Navy from December 1942 to January 1946. Starting in 1980, he spent two decades
searching for information on the 16 men and conducting over 390
interviews with personnel who served on the Essex in order to accurately depict life
on the ship through these men's "memories, musings, and
The first chapter gives 35 firsthand accounts of the great destruction and confusion caused by the kamikaze
attack on the carrier. One crewman gives the following account (p. 4):
I knew we had been hit! I was terrified, but I had to get my
fire hose. I waited until things stopped falling onto the flight deck and then
started across the deck. There lay a man's leg, crudely chopped off. Parts of men
and debris were all over the flight deck. I almost fainted when I saw this huge
ball of fire and small explosions where my battle station used to be. Gone was
the tire repair shop and my fire hose, plus half of the 20mm guns forward. The
magazine for the 20mm was going off. Bullets were whizzing everywhere. Smoke
was dense and suffocating. Men were hollering for help. If you tried to put
them on a stretcher, the flesh would come off the bone. The ones living soon
died. Sad as it may seem, some, which were mostly just pieces, had to be washed
over the side.
The fires resulting from the kamikaze attack were
extinguished in 30 minutes, but 16 men died and 44 men were wounded in the
Kamikaze heads toward Essex
The book's middle part, making up about 40 percent of the book,
includes detailed biographies of these 16 men who died in the kamikaze attack.
Each biography has a similar structure, with information about family history,
childhood stories, personality, hometown details, motivations for entering Navy,
crewmen recollections, and reactions to notification of death. These 16
chapters, each about 8 to 10 pages, reflect the author's extremely thorough
research of the men's lives. He visited and interviewed many family members and
acquaintances to obtain recollections and materials for the biographies, but he
could not find any relative, friend, or neighbor for three of the men despite
extensive and prolonged searches. The biographies collectively portray young men
full of potential even though their families often lived in poverty. Although
these chapters offer many interesting snippets from the past, their extreme
detail makes reading through them a real challenge.
Chapter 38 provides information regarding the 17th man who
died, the pilot of the kamikaze plane. However, the chapter provides few details
to support the conclusion that Yoshinori Yamaguchi was the pilot who crashed
into the Essex. Streb describes contacting a Japanese history professor
and even visiting Tokyo to examine unspecified documents related to the identity
of the pilot. The book states that the kamikaze plane was a Judy, the Allied
code name for a Yokosuka Suisei carrier bomber. However, this plane model
had a crew of two, although later in the war it was flown by just a pilot since
kamikaze attacks did not require a radio operator/gunner (Francillon 1979, 459).
In contradiction to information provided in the book, an authoritative Japanese
source regarding kamikaze attacks (Tokkotai Senbotsusha 1990, 137) indicates that
Yoshinori Yamaguchi flew one of two carrier bombers 
each with two-man crews who
carried out kamikaze attacks on November 25, 1944. Also, these two planes
belonged to the Katori Unit, not the Yoshino Unit as stated by Streb (p. 337).
The author acknowledges, "trying to identify a specific person in a certain
plane on a single day in an aerial battle in the vast Pacific was a researcher's
nightmare" (p. 336). One Essex crewmember (p. 23) indicates that there was
a rear gunner in the kamikaze plane, but Streb says there was no gunner aboard
without indicating how he reached this conclusion. The contradictory information in the Japanese
source and the lack of details regarding how Streb determined the identity of
the pilot lead to questions about the accuracy of the book's conclusions
regarding the number of the crew (one or two?) and the name of the pilot's unit (Katori or
Streb covers a wide variety of topics in addition to the
kamikaze attack. One chapter questions the fleet movements ordered by Admiral
Halsey in the face of a typhoon, which resulted in the loss of three destroyers.
In another chapter, Essex crewmen who witnessed the aftermath of the
bombing of the carrier Franklin believe that the captain's decision to
not abandon ship caused many of the 832 deaths after a Japanese plane dropped
two bombs. In three chapters, Streb describes various innovations and
improvements made by the Essex crew, including the dispatcher who began
directing planes to take off at an angle rather than straight down the deck.
Although some chapters go slowly, such as the detailed
biographies of the 16 men who died, this collection of opinions and firsthand
accounts from Essex crewmen contains many fascinating tidbits. The book
lacks an overall history of the Essex during World War II, but the
personal experiences and recollections of the crewmen provide a unique source of
information about life and death aboard this famous American aircraft carrier.
1. The Japanese source (Tokkotai Senbotsusha 1990, 137) indicates that Yoshinori Yamaguchi flew one of two Type 99
carrier bombers that carried out kamikaze attacks on November 25, 1944. This
plane, which looked somewhat similar to the Judy, also had two-man
crews. Other sources, both Japanese and American, agree with Streb that the
kamikaze plane that hit the Essex was a Judy rather than a Type 99.
Francillon, René J. 1979. Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific
War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.
Tokkotai Senbotsusha Irei
Heiwa Kinen Kyoukai (Tokkotai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association). 1990.
Tokubetsu Kougekitai (Special Attack Corps). Tokyo: Tokkotai Senbotsusha Irei Heiwa Kinen Kyoukai.