Kaiten: Japan's Secret Manned Suicide Submarine and the First American First Ship It Sank
Contributor: David Stubblebine
Review Date: 7 Jan 2016
Kaiten: Japan's Secret Manned Suicide Submarine and the First American First Ship It Sank is one story with two very different beginnings that come together in the western Pacific at dawn on November 20, 1944. One story is the story of the United States Navy fleet oiler USS Mississinewa and her crew of young American men off to war. The other is the equally detailed story of one of Japan's most secret and most desperate weapons of World War II, the kaiten. The kaiten was a man traveling to certain death within a compact, cramped modified torpedo in order to deliver a substantial explosive charge against the hull of an enemy ship. The fact that the Japanese were actually able to develop and deploy this weapon is sort of an "against all odds" story in itself and it is a story that has as much to do with philosophy and emotions as it does with technology and logistics.
The author, Michael Mair, was drawn to this story because his father was a crewmember aboard the USS Mississinewa who survived the sinking. After his earlier Oil, Fire, and Fate: The Sinking of the USS Mississinewa AO-59 in WWII by Japan's Secret Weapon that covered essentially the same events, Mr. Mair researched the entire story again as he prepared to write Kaiten. His research involved speaking and corresponding with hundreds of front-line veterans, both American and Japanese, and examining as many of the supporting records that he could get his hands on, both American and Japanese. His contacts with Japanese veterans included some surviving members of the kaiten program who had never shared their story with an American before. The author's extensive research gave him such a thorough command of the subject matter that he was able relate the story with ease.
While memoirs often make poor history, interviews with so many veterans turned this book into something broader. The American veteran stories were all about a single day of the war when their ship was sunk. These got a little long in reading essentially the same story over and over but it was very successful in conveying the personal terror and traumatic stress involved when a sailor has his ship shot out from under him. The interviews with the Japanese veterans revealed something else entirely and constituted new and original research into the development, deployment, and the thinking behind an entirely new type of weapon; one that had been shrouded in secrecy for years.
The end of the book contained five appendices that included a Mississinewa crew list, transcripts of several key reports of the Mississinewa sinking, the 2001 story of finding the sunken wreck, the US Navy's removal of almost two million gallons of oil from the sunken oiler in 2003, and the author's description of his own dive on the Mississinewa wreck site in 2013. I found these were a nice set of afterthoughts that did well to finish off the story.
Kaiten was refreshing as a different sort of World War II book. The two stories of Kaiten appealed to me as the son of US Navy Pacific War veteran and as someone with a special interest in Japanese Midget Submarine Warfare but I would recommend Kaiten to any World War II history buff who wants something a little off the beaten track from most books about the conflict.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945