Rain of Steel: Mitscher’s Task Force 58, Ugaki’s Thunder Gods, and the Kamikaze War off Okinawa

  • Published

Rain of Steel: Mitscher’s Task Force 58, Ugaki’s Thunder Gods, and the Kamikaze War off Okinawa by Stephen L. Moore. Naval Institute Press, 2020, 426 pp. 

As the “Greatest Generation” makes its departure, contemporary readers tend to forget that the final days of the long fight in the Pacific were tense. It is easy to slip into the mindset that Hitler was done, American industry was pushing out war machines faster than the war could destroy them, B-29s dropped two atomic bombs, and the Japanese surrendered on the USS Missouri. Stephen L. Moore’s book tightens the aperture on those days, though, depicting them as more complicated, perilous, and white-knuckle exciting. 

The narrative begins with Adm Marc Andrew Mitscher, “The Bald Eagle,” a commander who brought his naval aviators across the Pacific to this focal moment; also, a man on the decline growing more frail and increasingly dependent upon his chief of staff, Commodore Arleigh Burke, as his carriers hugged closer to the Japanese home islands. By 1945, Japan still had 4,100 aircraft to throw against the invasion force, but, as in Nazi Germany, trained pilots were scarce; Moore cites statistics that, in the same period, newly minted Japanese pilots were averaging about 300 hours flight time.

Mitscher’s aircrews were more experienced, and the airframes—for example, Corsairs, Avengers, and Hellcats—were arguably more reliable. The book goes into considerable detail as to why they would need to be. Aside from enemy aircraft, the theater demanded naval aviators cope with adverse weather and navigational hazards—both of which complicated the effort to locate a recovery carrier with a nearly-dry fuel tank, and almost every chapter holds an account of pilots ditching aircraft in the ocean. The Navy put significant assets into the search and rescue effort, though, keeping submarines on station and launching flying boats to look for downed crews. There are also numerous accounts of wingmen circling overhead to watch over life rafts and dye markers in this fine history. Lieutenant George Herbert Walker Bush’s bailout and rescue at sea is therefore pertinent to the overarching story, and Moore includes it.  

Rain of Steel, though, employs other means to remind the reader that the missions TF 58 launched were part of a massive joint effort (and combined; the Royal Navy also sent its TF 57 carriers and Corsairs into this fight). Marine squadrons were patrolling not only from carriers, but recently secured island airfields; meanwhile, Army Air Corps P-47s orbited over the battlespace as their earthbound comrades were landing on Okinawa, where close air support was only one of the intricate functions for which flag officers were responsible. As the book’s title declares, another charge was defending the fleet from the last and most desperate threats the Japanese could fling at their assailants.

Mitscher deployed radar picket ships between his carriers and Okinawa, trying to put consistent combat air patrols over them; he knew these destroyers would absorb a significant share of the Kamikaze attacks. TF 58 also often struck the bases from which these suicide missions were launched. These threats did, however, penetrate the fighter screens and radar coverage, and Moore includes the painful accounts of damaged ships moving slowly out toward safe harbors with wounded sailors on the decks and “the blue umbrella” of friendly fighters protecting them. His accounts of surface warfare officers and chaplains who earned the Medal of Honor or Navy Cross tending to the mortally wounded on stricken ships serve as grim reminders of how deadly and awful these suicide attacks could be.

Moore has obviously done the hard work in museums, archives, and interviews. He uses his research to insert further detail into some of the campaign’s greatest war stories—the hard slog up to Shuri Castle, the Bunker Hill, the Yamato, Hacksaw Ridge, and Ernie Pyle’s death are all narrated here with admirable objectivity. His statistics go beyond enemy aircraft destroyed to diligently-culled numbers that provide a better understanding of the costs incurred in each engagement. For example, on 16 April 1945, the new destroyer Laffey was attacked and “gunners expended 7,090 shells and bullets in 80 minutes against twenty-two kamikazes, shooting down nine on their own and assisting with three other kills. The ship had been smashed by six airplanes. . .” (p. 274). Thirty-two sailors were killed in this engagement; 71 wounded lay on the decks as the ship limped back to Kerama Retto anchorage. It is these combat snapshots that Moore successfully and consistently conveys, each inspiring a pause in the contemporary reader, and these photos testify to not only his research but skill as a storyteller. The maps and photos in Rain of Steel all complement these accounts well.

As he does with Mitscher and Burke, though, the author also tells the stories of the aircrews he describes in the narrative, from the ready rooms, to deck crews pulling them out of flaming airplanes after ugly carrier landings, to finishing up the war sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. The reader also accompanies Admiral Matome Ugaki into a Judy bomber for his final and fatal flight against the American fleet after hearing of his country’s unconditional surrender. Ugaki and his crew didn’t penetrate the antiaircraft screen around the fleet, but the damage was already done by that morning of 15 August: “Vice Admiral Ugaki’s 10 Kikusui special operations had sortied no fewer than 1,465 of the 1,900 suicide planes sent against the Allied Forces between April and June 1945, sinking 26 Allied ships and damaging 164 more, some never to return to service” (p. 360). His was, therefore, a significant campaign, and it contributes to the argument that without the two atomic bombs, the subsequent Allied landings on Japan’s shores would have killed many more people on both sides of it.

Scott E. McIntosh

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."