Book Report: the Kamikaze Hunters

My commute to and from work involves a 20-minute ferry ride, which gives me time to catch up on some reading. The first book I polished off was one that had been staring at me from the book store shelves until I finally succumbed to it Will Iredale’s the Kamikaze Hunters (2016, Pegasus Books).

 

The title’s a little deceptive – you might be inclined to think it was about U.S. Navy or Marine Corps pilots. Not so – this deals with a much less thoroughly covered area of World War II, the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm’s operations in the later years of the war.

 

And it doesn’t just cover the Pacific – combat starts with the Home Fleet’s attacks on the Tirpitz in European waters. But really, the book starts much earlier, with the training of a handful of men who would go on to fly Corsairs from British carrier decks. Iredale mixes in contemporary letters and recent interviews splendidly to paint fully realized portraits of these men. One trick he accomplishes is to avoid tipping his hand that one of these men doesn’t survive the war. Usually, authors telegraph someone’s demise by quoting only their letters or third-person versions of their stories; Iredale deftly avoids this so when the pilot is lost it’s a genuine surprise.

 

The attacks on the Sumatran oil fields are discussed in depth, as are the raids capping the Japanese special attack airfields. Iredale does an excellent job of explaining these raids; I’m building a Firefly FR.I that flew during them, and I was unaware their primary task, improvised on the spot, was to bust barrage balloons (which they were not great at!).

 

Of grim interest are the accounts of kamikaze attacks on the British Pacific Fleet and its armor-decked carriers, which were more resilient in shrugging off suicide planes than their American counterparts (but paid for it in carrying fewer aircraft). Just the same, the crews suffered horrible injuries and death the same as any men exposed aboard U.S. carriers.

 

The book also touches on the incredible aircraft attrition rate for the FAA – only about 15 percent of it suffered during air combat. The rest owed to deck accidents and kamikaze damage.

 

There are a couple of boo-boos – Iredale repeats the myth about the Japanese carries at Midway having packed flight decks when they were bombed, and at one point says the carrier crews overpainted their aircraft’s camouflage with blue paint (in reality, attrition and a change in painting specs turned FAA carrier units blue all on their own).

 

Corsairs take center stage, but there are also Hellcats. Avengers, Barracudas, Fireflies and Seafires – a virtual airshow of types. But it’s the brave young airmen who are the stars of this excellent and eminently readable book. Strongly recommended for students of the Pacific War.

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Book Recommendation 1: Clash of Carriers

A lot of people’s heroes are dashing dudes who excel at sports, or world-famous figures whose actions evoke earth-shattering change. One of my heroes is an almost unknown bald, bespectacled guy who lives in Oregon and writes for a living.

I just finished Barrett Tillman’s Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II, his book on the Battle of the Philippine Sea. This is really the first major book on this battle (Tillman did a monograph on it for Phalanx a while back), and it’s the kind of history everyone who’s into the subject can appreciate: the strategy’s here, but it doesn’t come at the expense of first-person narratives. Those narratives don’t interrupt the larger picture of the battle. It’s a thin rope to walk, but Tillman’s great at this. He can focus on individual stories in the midst of talking about huge battles, and they never feel like digressions – they’re just part of the story. It takes a special genius to do that.

Combine that with Barrett’s bottomless trove of resources (he’s been interviewing aviators for years, in the process preserving their stories), and the story of this massive battle can be told in exhaustive detail – from both the Japanese and American sides. Tillman draws character sketches of the various commanders – the overly-cautious Keen Harrill, the diametrically-opposed “Jocko” Clark, and the pilot-friendly Marc Mitscher, to name a few. The same goes for the pilots who flew during the “Marianas Turkey Shoot;” their exploits are front and center, and not just the fighter pilots like David McCampbell and Alex Vraciu, who each racked up big scores, but bomber pilots like Cook Cleland who flew on “the Mission Beyond Darkness” to strike the Japanese Mobile Fleet. One of the more remarkable incidents in the battle came as the carrier Hiyo was sinking; her captain remained on the bridge as she sank – only to be propelled to the surface – and safety – by an underwater explosion! This is perhaps the best fate a Japanese ship captain could have been granted during the war.

The book includes an exhaustive order of battle, kill claims, and other information. It’s a great read and a great reference – and a great way to get inspired to build a Hellcat, Dauntless, Avenger or Helldiver.