A Kennedy on Kamikaze

Danger’s Hour: The Story of
the USS Bunker Hill and the
Kamikaze Pilot Who Crippled Her

By Maxwell Taylor Kennedy
Simon & Schuster, 515 pages, $30

If you happened to search Amazon the other day for “World War II,” you would have been instantly bombarded with 200,093 titles. So any writer—and especially a first-time book writer—who hopes to be heard above the boisterous rat-a-tat analysis of that monumental struggle would be well served to light on an idea that hasn’t yet been handled by a multitude of would-be Brokaws. And good luck with that.

Fortunately, lawyer, environmentalist and historian (and, yes, Robert F. Kennedy’s son) Maxwell Taylor Kennedy has exhaustively examined just such fresh—or, at least, newly interesting—material in his book on Japanese kamikaze pilots. Mr. Kennedy’s thorough account looks specifically at the devastating May 11, 1945, attacks on the United States aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Bunker Hill, off the coast of Okinawa. While the subject has certainly been covered before, for more than a decade there haven’t been many serious journalistic efforts to illuminate the societal, political and philosophical forces that yielded these grimly disturbing final hours of the war. In some ways, then, this is the first substantive appraisal of the airborne antecedents to the suicide attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: The events of that day resulted in the deaths of 393 Navy men (the ship barely survived), making it the worst pre-9/11 suicide-led slaughter of American lives.

In constructing his extraordinary tale, Mr. Kennedy leaned on more than 100 interviews with Japanese pilots and their families, countless conversations with Bunker Hill veterans and piles of National Archive reports. The resulting document is impressive both in scope and attention to detail. (Mr. Kennedy makes great use of footnotes to elaborate on everything from the number-crunching specs of an array of fighter planes to the origin of the word “scuttlebutt”—drinking water barrels were called “butts,” the ship holes allowing the water to drain were “scuttles,” and voilà: water cooler gossip was born.)

The first two-thirds of Danger’s Hour set the scene for the bloody denouement that occurred, cruelly, only 72 hours after the Nazis had surrendered on V-E Day across Europe. Mr. Kennedy sketches the events that preceded the kamikaze program, briskly revisiting Pearl Harbor and the American plans for retaliation. In vivid snapshots, we’re then introduced to several of the 3,400 sailors aboard the Bunker Hill. The ship was so massive that, as Mr. Kennedy writes, “if Rockefeller Center were laid lengthwise on the deck … it would fall twenty-two feet short of the bow.” The vessel was its own insulated province, a small country containing “a jail, a butcher shop, bakery, hospital, dental offices, a general store, a tailor,” and much, much more.

Later we meet the young Japanese men who, with what seems to be only a spasm of doubt, gave up their lives in exchange for their nation’s perceived honor. “Japanese society was based on the Bushido code,” Mr. Kennedy notes, named for the Bushi warriors of the 9th century. Those living by the code would become samurai, and center their lives “on the idea that they were always prepared to die.”

For Japan’s commanders, the tokkotai or “special” plan of attack was the last, desperate act of an irreparably damaged yet still mightily proud military. If Mr. Kennedy rarely draws parallels between these kamikazes and the Islamic extremists behind the twin towers horror, that might be because the circumstances were so vastly different. Whereas Middle Eastern suicide bombers are often products of abject poverty who see an afterlife among so many promised virgins as superior to the narrow reality of their existence, the Japanese pilots were the country’s best and brightest, plucked from university programs just as life was taking off; their leaders motivated them with a drumming of nationalist ideas and symbolic poems carefully written in calligraphy.

Speaking of poetry—Mr. Kennedy’s prose favors the blow-by-blow, pedestrian passage over the lyrical measure. Occasionally, however, a beautiful line emerges: “The wind scattered cherry blossoms across the bodies of the pilots sleeping side by side, waiting for their turn to fly and die”—a delicate flower sprouting from war’s rough terrain. Also, given that the writer spent so many hours speaking with history’s participants, it would have been interesting to hear more first-person accounts, fewer unadorned, nuts-and-bolts descriptions.

But these are narrative quibbles. Mr. Kennedy’s minute-by-minute retelling of the last gruesome plane strike is remarkably complete and compelling—because what emerges here is a most valuable reminder of what this country has endured and the enormous bravery that can be summoned in the face of a sudden, sinking tragedy.

Mac Montandon is the author of Jetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was (Da Capo). He can be reached at books@observer.com.

A Kennedy on Kamikaze