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Posted on Mar 20, 2021 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Eagle and the Sun Duel at Okinawa in “Rain of Steel: Mitscher’s Task Force 58, Ugaki’s Thunder Gods, and the Kamikaze War Off Okinawa”. Book Review.

The Eagle and the Sun Duel at Okinawa in “Rain of Steel: Mitscher’s Task Force 58, Ugaki’s Thunder Gods, and the Kamikaze War Off Okinawa”. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

Rain of Steel: Mitscher’s Task Force 58, Ugaki’s Thunder Gods, and the Kamikaze War Off Okinawa. 2020.  Author: Stephen L. Moore. Naval Institute Press. 426 pages. ISBN: 978-1-68-247526-3

By early 1945 the war in the Pacific was going poorly for the Japanese. Poorly may be an understatement. The Japanese realized they had lost the strategic initiative to the Americans. MacArthur had returned to the Philippines in 1944. The disastrous battle of Leyte Gulf had shown the need for a shift in tactics and gave rise to a new form of aerial warfare – the kamikaze. While the US Marines had raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, the tactics of the kamikaze attack evolved, resulting in the loss of the escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea.  Iwo Jima was a victory, but the war was not over. The United States military prepared for the next step towards Japan – the island of Okinawa.

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The campaign to capture Okinawa would be a true combined arms affair, involving the US Marine Corps and US Army fighting for the island itself, supported by the ships and planes of the US Navy. Opposing them was a Japanese defender conditioned to believe that death was “Lighter than a feather” compared against their duty to protect the Empire. While the Imperial Japanese Army dug in deep for a battle they did not expect to survive, the Japanese naval and aerial forces prepared for a desperate campaign that would ask the same sacrifice from their sailors and pilots.

Stephen L. Moore explores the Okinawa campaign in his recent book Rain of Steel: Mitscher’s Task Force 58, Ugaki’s Thunder Gods, and the Kamikaze War Off Okinawa. In the book, Moore tackles a complex operation and walks the readers through the strategic planning on both sides, the opening operations of each combatant and then brutal battles of the campaign.

Admiral Marc Mitscher (Photo: US Navy)

Moore uses different lens to present the conflict at different scales. At a strategic level, the book examines the campaign from the perspective of US Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher and his counterpart – Japanese Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki. Each man commanded large groups of combat aircraft. Mitscher was the commander of the US Navy’s carrier strike force, Task Force 58. Admiral Ugaki, was the recently appointed commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Fifth Air Fleet based in southern Japan.

Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki

Rain of Steel captures the grand sweep of the campaign waged by these two leaders. The campaign commenced with Task Force 58’s initial screening operations against Ugaki’s airfields in Japan and the Japanese resulting counterattacks. Moore’s narrative leads the reader through the initial landing on Okinawa and the ensuring land campaign that would last almost three months. During those three months the US Navy enduring repeated air attacks by wave after wave of kamikaze attacks. The targets of these attacks ranged from aircraft carriers and cruisers to the numerous individual destroyers assigned to detached duty as radar pickets around Okinawa.

 Shifting focus to an operational level, Moore switches to a narrative based on the activities of the pilots and sailors that fought in these battles. It’s at this level that the book shines by illuminating the experiences of the individual sailors, soldiers, marines and airmen. 

While the focus is on combat, the narrative provides insights into the participants perception of events as well as what daily life was like. Much of this was possible due to the extensive interviews Moore held with survivors of the battles, mostly US Navy pilots. Those interviews provided the grist of the details Moore harvests to provide the descriptions of air and land combat as well as harrowing accounts of surviving the impact of a kamikaze attack aboard ship.  

Substantial effort has been placed into the depiction of air combat. At times, the reader may feel a bit overwhelmed with the repeated descriptions of air combat as the individual actions begin to blur together. That sense of repetition works at conveying the sense of the extended scope and the intensity of the combat experienced by the participants.

Rain of Steel is well illustrated with images as well as maps. The maps provide a good sense of the space in which the campaign occurred and are key in putting events into a geographical context. The maps are key in conveying the nature of the US Navy’s carrier raids on the Japanese home islands, the Japanese aerial counter attacks against Task Force 58 and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, as well as the last sortie of the Japanese battleship Yamato.

Rain of Steel shines a spotlight on the sortie of the battleship Yamato. The chapter devoted to the Yamato provides excellent details into the entire battle and encompasses the entire cycle of locating the target, dispatching a strike force and the actual resolution of the airstrikes. While it can be easy to abstract the airstrikes into the number of planes, bombs and torpedoes, Moore’s narrative reminds us that the battle was fought by the crews of each individual plane and ship. The battle against the Yamato exemplifies just how dominate US maritime power in general, but naval aviation in particular had become. Even when 25% of the US airstrike failed to locate the Yamato, the remaining strike force still had the ability to sink more than half the enemy ships, including the Yamato.

Moore does a good job balancing the narrative in showing the operational duel between Mitscher and Ugaki while seasoning the narrative with the detail of the tactical fights by the aircrew, sailors and soldiers. Moore conveys the sense of the conflict that is both an intensely personal experience as well as a cooperative effort.  You get a sense of each senior leader attempting to master Col. John Boyd’s concept of the “OODA Loop” as they observe enemy dispositions, formulate their own plans and launch attacks designed to disrupt their opponent’s own operational tempo. In this context, Moore does a solid job conveying how Admiral Mitscher and the US Navy succeeded at a strategic level across the campaign.

At the same time, the narrative demonstrates what happens when your OODA loop is not turning inside the enemy’s own decision cycle. Moore demonstrates how Admiral Ugaki was able to effectively use his conventional aviation elements in conjunction with the kamikaze to disrupt American plans by damaging multiple carriers – even forcing Admiral Mitscher to transfer his flag twice during the campaign. 

USS Franklin following kamikaze attack (US Navy Photo)

Rain of Steel shows how the employment of kamikazes during the Okinawa campaign as a primary method of attack was an effective tool. While no carriers were actually sunk, attacks on several ships caused damage severe enough to count as ‘mission kills’. The smaller ships took proportionally heavier losses with destroyers on picket duty such as the USS Barry and USS Cassin Young garnering the most attention from Japanese pilots. At the same time, the story captures the heroism shown by the crews of ships such as the USS Franklin, the USS Laffey and the USS Cassin Young in the face of these intense attacks.

USS Laffey damaged by Japanese attacks. Radar picket duty was critical to US air defense, but was hazardous. Many destroyers were damaged and several sunk. (US Navy Photo)

Moore conveys that the kamikaze was not a forlorn hope per se, but rather when viewed from a Japanese point of view, the logical outcome of the unfavorable correlation of forces coupled to Japan’s tradition of a Bushido warrior mindset. Japanese soldiers and pilots were imbued with a sense of sacrifice summed up in the phrase “Duty is heavier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather”. From a modern perspective, we may not be able to easily ‘grok’ this mindset, but Moore provides the insights that convey how this perspective prepared Japanese warriors to accept their fate.

USS Missouri about to be struck by a kamikaze off Okinawa (US Navy photo)

Contrasting with the warrior code that made the kamikaze possible, Moore spends some effort illustrating the fate of aviators with the misfortune to be shot down and captured by the Japanese. The mistreatment they suffered was a powerful incentive not to be captured. Pilots of damaged planes struggled to stay with their planes as long as possible to put distance between them and Japanese controlled territory.

While the narrative is focused on the actions of the participants, it also does an excellent job of conveying technical facts and information. These range from adjusting the depth setting on an aerial torpedo to the fusion of man and machine in the “Okha” – a rocket powered, manned suicide bomb. Moore also demonstrates how radar had become an integral tool used by both sides. Radar was critical for ship and shore-based air raid detection, but also played a critical role when mounted upon aircraft for guiding and directing surface search strike missions and air search interceptions.

Captured Japanese ‘Okha’ or Cherry Blossom rocket powered, manned bomb is inspected by US troops. (US Marine Corps photo)

Woven into the narrative are the efforts the US Navy put into air search and rescue. The float planes carried by cruisers and battleships were crucial in recovering downed pilots. As their primary roles of maritime reconnaissance and gunnery observation were displaced by carrier planes, the float plane pilots stepped up and assumed the hazardous role of plucking downed aviators from the sea, often under enemy fire.

The Vought OS2U Kingfisher was the workhorse of battleship and cruiser observation planes. (US Navy photo)
US observation planes played a key role in providing search and rescue services during the Okinawa campaign. Representative of their efforts is this crew that landed in Truk lagoon during the earlier raid on Truk. They recovered so many downed aviators they could not take off, but taxied off shore to rendezvous with a waiting submarine. (US Navy photo)

When no plane was nearby, the US Navy could vector in a ‘lifeguard’ submarine when operating off hostile shores. Together, these actions conveyed to American pilots the efforts that would be made to recover them. That knowledge provided an tangible boost to the morale and confidence of United States aviators every time they crossed the bow of their ship and took to the skies.

USS Silversides (SS-236) was assigned the lifeguard role during the Okinawa campaign

The book is weighted towards the experience of US sailors and aircrew. This is not surprising given the terminal nature of the kamikaze. Even so, Moore compensates and does a solid job leveraging archival material covering the Japanese including letters and interviews with surviving relatives to paint a multi-dimensional image of the Japanese participants. Early on, this can be a bit gruesome as the fate of captured American pilots is shown ‘warts and all’. It’s an effective tool in conveying the philosophical gulf between how the Japanese and Americans approached fighting a war. It also conveys the sense of frustration the Japanese experienced against the inexorable might of the United States as the Americans drew closer to the Japanese home islands. The descriptions illuminate how the war in the Pacific became so dehumanizing, without descending into the caricature of propaganda.

The writings of Sun Tzu remind us of the importance of knowing your enemy and yourself as fundamental to battlefield success. It’s an important reminder that an opponent may not just have different strategic goals than you, but have an almost alien way of perceiving how to pursue those goals from your own mind set. The willingness of the kamikaze pilot to sacrifice their own lives was a decision that the US Navy initially found difficult to grasp. That difficulty resulted in the substantial loss of life.

While the narrative is focused on the naval aspects of the campaign, Moore does not lose sight that the objective of the campaign was the capture of the island of Okinawa.  The progress of the land battle is tracked through the perspective of a handful of Marine and Army participants on the island of Okinawa.

With a focus on Task Force 58, the narrative understandably glosses over some of the peripheral activities within the larger Okinawa campaign. The invasion and subsequent battle for the nearby island of Ie Shima is barely mentioned, though the combat there was as fierce as any other aspect of the Okinawa campaign. Ie Shima was the island where the famed journalist Ernie Pyle lost his life.

Rain of Steel is a solid book. The reader gains an appreciation of the importance of the Okinawa campaign on multiple levels. The extensive interviews make this a useful work in understanding the experiences of the individual participants. At the same time, Moore has crafted an accessible narrative. That narrative takes the individual battles and actions from 1945 that can seem to be distinct, sperate events and weaves them into a fabric that places the battle of Okinawa within a strategic framework.

Rain of Steel is an indispensable reference for understanding the Okinawa campaign. Moore’s book leaves the reader with a good understanding of how the scope of the campaign extended well beyond the waters surrounded Okinawa. Reading the book, the reader gains an understanding of how both the tenacious Japanese defense as well as the cost in lives and material, shaped US planning for the invasion of the Japanese home islands. And it was the understanding of the price of the Okinawa campaign and the grim perceptions of what the cost of an invasion of the home islands that influenced the decision to employ the atomic bombs against Japan. If you want to understand the last year of the war in the Pacific, Rain of Steel is an excellent book with which to start your exploration.

1 Comment

  1. very interesting

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