A Kamikaze Pilot’s Tale of Terrorism

Posted November 20, 2008 at 4:59pm

On May 11, 1945, a 22-year-old Japanese pilot flew his plane into one of America’s largest and most complex aircraft carriers. His nosedive into the USS Bunker Hill killed nearly 400 Americans and devastated a symbol of the nation’s grandeur and naval prowess.

More than 60 years later, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy’s “Danger’s Hour” tells the story of that sacrificial mission, the most serious suicide attack against America until Sept. 11, 2001.

In the twilight of World War II, the Japanese, all but decimated in the Pacific, unleashed the kamikaze pilots, deploying the country’s best and brightest young men as human projectiles.

“The sailors knew they were witnessing an entirely new era of war,” Kennedy writes ominously of the Americans who watched kamikazes take out their first targets.

If the kamikaze pilots ushered in a new era, “Danger’s Hour” shows we have yet to find our way out of it.

Though it lacks explicit references to 9/11, the book is an unmistakable attempt to use history to understand the present.

“That’s why I wrote this book,” Kennedy said. “I just really wanted to try to understand how al-Qaida could convince 20 people to commit suicide to hurt us. It’s difficult to reach suicide bombers.”

For the most part, Kennedy is successful. He paints dramatic images of the schools and bases where Japanese youth learned unwavering deference to the militarist regime and describes with chilling clarity the morning the most gifted recruits were asked to “volunteer” to be kamikazes.

Kennedy’s naval history is based on hundreds of interviews with would-be suicide bombers, their families and the Americans who survived the attack on the USS Bunker Hill. Kennedy’s research is thorough — from the USS Bunker Hill’s action and casualty reports to the final musings of Kiyoshi Ogawa, the kamikaze pilot who sent the ship up in flames.

“Young cherry blossoms will not die without flowering for the country,” Ogawa scrawled in a poem on a Japanese scroll along with the words of nine other pilots scheduled to die the same day. “I am going to be a fire ball that shines seven times.”

Indeed, throughout the book, Kennedy leaves little to imagination, writing in impressive detail down to the tubs of raw pork mess cooks carried from the galley as Ogawa’s plane struck the USS Bunker Hill.

He paints gruesome images of incinerated bodies that are not for the queasy. And, though he has never served in the military, Kennedy’s knowledge of maritime warfare proves expansive.

He describes the ship from bow to stern in copious detail that can be laborious for the casual reader.

Devoting an entire chapter to the structure of the ship, Kennedy highlights an uncanny parallel between the massive vessel and the World Trade Center.

The USS Bunker Hill was the size of a 73-story skyscraper tipped on its side. If Rockefeller Center in New York City was laid out lengthwise on the deck of the ship, Kennedy writes, it would fall 22 feet short of her bow.

The vessel displaced 41,500 tons of water and could carry more than 3,000 men and 100 planes.

It was driven by four propellers, powered by 150,000 horsepower diesel-steam turbines and run out of four boiler rooms.

Kennedy writes artfully but tends to be repetitive.

He dwells inexplicably on Ogawa’s “Caucasian” features and reminds the reader perhaps one too many times that the kamikazes were sacrificing their lives.

Nonetheless, the book provides a unique window into the psyche of the suicide bomber and, Kennedy believes, presents a reason to be optimistic about the War on Terror.

“I think that the solution is in this story,” said Kennedy, who in three separate visits to Japan logged countless hours with nearly 100 would-be kamikaze pilots and their families. “They now love America. They are our biggest fans.”

Kennedy, who is the ninth of Robert F. Kennedy’s 11 children, is also the author of “Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy.”

Visit dangershour.com for more pictures and original footage of the USS Bunker Hill burning in the aftermath of the 1945 attack.