The USS Bunker Hill CV-17, an Essex class carrier.
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dangers Hour

Danger’s Hour by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, the ninth child of Robert Kennedy, is the story of the ship, and the kamikaze pilot who attacked her on May 11, 1945.

Kennedy discusses, briefly, the suicide missions of the kamikaze’s and their relation to the suicide bombers of 9/11 and the Mid-East. He doesn’t, up to the current point, about halfway through the book, set up any kind of real relationship between the early suiciders and later ones.

There seem to me to be several kinds of suicide performed on the battlefield.

The person who sacrifices himself to save his buddies, or his loved ones. The citations for the CMoH will have frequent mentions of something like a soldier who absorbed the blast from a grenade to save the lives of his platoon, or his friends. There’s a fictional account of an action like this in Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle. The person who kills himself while attacking military targets as a defense. The best fictional example of this is So Proudly We Hail in which Veronica Lake conceals a hand grenade on her, and explodes it while supposedly surrendering to a Japanese patrol. There’s another fictional instance in Flying Tigers. If I recall correctly, in both of these the act came about from desperation. The person who deliberately kills himself as a tactical move while attacking a military target. This is where the kamikaze bomber comes in. The person who deliberately kills himself as a tactical move while attacking a civilian target. This is your Palestinian terrorist who blows up an Israeli pizza parlor, or your Saudi who flies a plane into a skyscraper.

Kennedy does not go into the ramifications of the morality or ethics of suicide in any of these situations. He does go into considerable detail about the background to the war, and the character of the two kamikaze pilots who struck the Bunker Hill.

He records that the body of Kiyoshi Ogawa, a Japanese pilot who struck the carrier, did not receive proper burial by the Americans who were his victims. According to various treaties he was supposed to be buried with military honors. Apparently his body was disposed of in an improper manner.

Kennedy cites Eisenhower’s belief that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary, and asserts that Japan was so weakened that any resistance to an allied invasion would have been minimal due to Japan’s lack of weapons, and supplies. Eisenhower, who served in Europe, may have been more objective than men who had served long, hard campaigns in the Pacific, or he may have been ignorant of the capabilities of the Japanese to resist; I’ll leave that to the reader to decide, but he is not the best overall witness to call when asserting that the bombing was unnecessary. The determined fighting at Okinawa led, reasonably, to the belief that an invasion of the home islands would be costly for both the Allies and the Japanese.

Kennedy also records that the Bunker Hill was sold for scrap to Japan in 1989. It was sold for scrap in 1973 according to the Naval Historical Center.

I’m not a sailor, and I’ve never been on a large ship, though I did grow up watching Navy Log and some of Victory at Sea on the tube when I was growing up. To my mind though there’s a more or less animistic quality to the great ships, and they have souls that inherit and feel some of the suffering that the men aboard her endure, and to sell off a ship, or to sink her for a reef, or use her for target practice seems somehow dishonorable.