Echoes from a long-ago war, animate this Navy historian

A book by a historian from the Naval History and Heritage Command recalls a bizarre episode from a long-ago war. In the great WWII battle for Okinawa, Japan res...

A book by a historian from the Naval History and Heritage Command recalls a bizarre episode from a long-ago war. In the great WWII battle for Okinawa, Japan resorted to suicide missions known as kamikaze. The book’s title says it all, “On The Verge Of Breaking Down Completely, Surviving The Kamikaze Off Okinawa, 1945. To talk about the book, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin was joined in studio by author Guy Nasuti.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin A book by an historian from the Naval History and Heritage Command recalls a bizarre episode from a long ago War in the Great Battle for Okinawa in World War II. Japan resorted to suicide missions known as Kamikaze. The book’s title says it all. “On the Verge of Breaking Down Completely”: Surviving the Kamikaze off Okinawa, 1945. Joining me now in studio is author Guy Nasuti. Mr. Nasuti, good to have you with us.

Guy Nasuti Good to be here. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin And why this book now? I mean, is there anything left about World War II and the naval battles, we don’t know yet?

Guy Nasuti Well, I began this project mostly as a tribute to the sailors that served during World War II, and especially at the Battle of Okinawa. It originally came out of I brought about eight articles for the 75th anniversary of the battle, and I wanted to pay tribute to the veterans, to the sailors that died. And I also wanted present day sailors to just learn more about this incident and their history and take some inspiration from it.

Tom Temin And maybe just for the younger listeners, since this is a nation that doesn’t treasure its history quite enough sometimes. Tell us the significance of the battle of Okinawa and what exactly Kamikaze was all about.

Guy Nasuti Sure. Well, the kamikazes really resulted from Japan’s desperation towards the end of the war as the allied forces were encroaching upon the home islands of Japan. Kamikaze itself means divine wind, and the Japanese didn’t really refer to themselves as kamikaze. The divine wind was something taken from Kublai Khan, who had tried to invade the home islands of Japan back in the 16th century, and that didn’t work out too well. His fleet was pretty much wiped out on two separate occasions by some typhoons. So to the Japanese, that became a very important aspect of their own history. The Japanese actually referred to the kamikazes as they were organized into what became the special attack corps. They actually referred to themselves as tokkotai, or just tokko. And the Battle of Okinawa itself became probably the fiercest battle of the war up until that time. And there were ten separate operations that the kamikazes were involved in flying hundreds of aircraft trying to fly into U.S. ships. And really, their whole goal was to destroy as many ships as they could and get the United States to the bargaining table.

Tom Temin Right. So the idea was these planes knew when they took off that their job was to crash the plane and themselves thereby into the funnel or into some part of the ship. So they were literally suicide missions as intended that way.

Guy Nasuti Absolutely. Yes.

Tom Temin And I guess probably was the United States prepared and what was the point of view from the ships to see such an astounding way of conducting warfare?

Guy Nasuti Right. Well, the kamikazes had actually began in late October 1944 during the battle of Leyte Gulf. The first ship sunk was a U.S.S. St. Lo, which was an escort carrier at the Battle off Samar on October 25th of that year. And so the Japanese had at first really sort of it was kind of a one aircraft, two aircraft at a time kind of thing. It was at Okinawa that you really see an organization, several kamikazes at a time, attacking the fleet. And some of the smaller ships at the radar picket stations just were ring around the island of Okinawa and mostly manned by smaller ships such as destroyers and destroyer escorts.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Guy Nasuti. He’s an historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command and author of “On the Verge of Breaking Down Completely.” Explain that title for us.

Guy Nasuti So that’s a quote from a damage control officer. Lieutenant Bligh, Raymond Bligh of all names.

Tom Temin Yeah.

Guy Nasuti That’s right. Yeah. Strangely enough, he was on board the USS Longshaw, which was a destroyer. Strangely enough, the Longshaw was not sunk by a kamikaze. What happened, though, was the ship had basically beached itself on a reef, hit a reef and got stuck. So while some of the men were trying to move ammunition forward of the ship and another ship was coming to their aid, they came under fire by a Japanese gun emplacement on the shore. And the Japanese weapon was sending shells into the ship and killed several American sailors. And the ship eventually had to be scuttled and survivors picked up by some other ships. So when the after action report came out, Bligh was actually the senior surviving officer of the ship and he had been the guy on watch actually, when the ship hit the reef. So you could argue maybe he was trying to cover himself. But what happened was he in an addendum to the after action report, he wrote something that basically blamed crew’s exhaustion and everything that they had dealt with up to that time, with the kamikazes constantly being on alert, constantly being on guard, being at general quarters for hours at a time. And he wrote, basically, the entire crew’s on the verge of breaking down completely.

Tom Temin Wow. And what were your sources for this book? Did you have some original logs and diaries and that kind of thing?

Guy Nasuti Yeah, mostly I used the after action reports, war diaries. I used a lot of veteran history. Interviews from the Library of Congress, has a great project called the Veterans History Project. And I would go online. This was all done during the pandemic. So I was working from home. I didn’t have access to the archives, either National Archives or our archives at NHHC. So a lot of this was done just via my laptop at home. So I was looking at the veteran interviews, looking for great quotes, and a lot of those are just great. You know, those old guys really can tell a great story.

Tom Temin So are there any survivors of that battle available?

Guy Nasuti Oh, absolutely, yes. Still not too many, unfortunately, but they’re out there.

Tom Temin All right. And in the larger sense, speaking as an historian of naval history and so on, war doctrine. Are there any lessons learned for contemporary sailors from the incident of the kamikaze in such a desperate battle where the losses were probably in that day, more than, you know, all the losses ever in the past 20 years or something?

Guy Nasuti Sure, there were actually more American sailors killed on board ships off Okinawa than there were Army soldiers or Marines killed on land at the time, some 5000 sailors killed and about the same number wounded.

Tom Temin It’s hard to imagine.

Guy Nasuti Yeah, it was really a lot for them to overcome. They had to adapt tactics quickly and often because the Japanese were constantly changing up their tactics. They started attacking at night instead of just in the morning. They were flying in from low levels and just over the ocean surface. You know, they would attack, sort of coordinate and attack at different directions and some would fly in and then come up over the ship and come straight down. A lot of the kamikazes carried bombs. So they were really trying to just maximize what damage they could create. So the Navy really had to be up to snuff on damage control, training, firefighting efforts, their medical triaging and sending the horribly wounded and burned off ship as quickly as possible. And I think those are all lessons that our Navy today could take to heart. And just keep in mind as they go about their own training for the future.

Tom Temin Yeah. Particularly relevant as we have two carriers now that are in potential harm’s way in the Middle East. So you have to be prepared then to triage and to adapt.

Guy Nasuti You’re always in harm’s way when you’re out on deployment. Living on a Navy ship is dangerous just constantly. So you have to be aware. You have to be on your toes. You just keep doing your training and you’ll be okay.

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