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While researching this book, I came across plenty of wild newspaper headlines, such was the lore built up by the press, at the time of launch, around this remarkable group of young men whose outright courage and stubborn determination has remained under-recorded in military history. A prominent UK Paper proclaimed “I cheated death as Japanese kamikaze pilot hit our ship…British pilot Keith Quilter has recalled the attack by world’s first suicide bomber!” For a change, there was good reason to make gravy of this. That’s no surprise, in the light of recent tales of Bletchley Park, et al. It just goes to prove that so much of WWII is yet to come out.
In May 1945 the War in Europe was finally closing down. But in the Pacific the Japanese were unleashing a new weapon – kamikaze. As two Zeros hurtle towards aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, 23-year-old Pilot Keith Quilter sees the warning flag from the control tower. Strapped into his cockpit, awaiting take off, he had but seconds to get below deck, or be killed by one of the world’s first suicide bombers. Recalling the incident to Iredale, now 93, Quilter remembers “I have never moved so fast in my life. I switched my engine off, undid my straps, leapt out and got down three decks by the time it hit… an almighty crash and the ship lurched to one side. When I climbed back on deck it was a complete shambles. Most of the aircraft near where it hit were on fire. The rest were battered beyond repair and had to be pushed over the side.” This is but one brief tale that Quilter provides in the book. The Kamikaze Hunters reads like the History Channel and Boy’s Own, with more exciting explosions and near misses than a Commando comic.
Much has been written about the cult of the kamikaze pilots in their suicide planes, the infamous Zeros, and a terrifying new foe who were unlike anything seen before. By the end of the war, over 2,500 Japanese pilots had committed suicide, killing over 5,000 Allied sailors along the way. Quilter notes that “the anti-aircraft guns could probably kill the pilot and knock lumps off the wings, but once they were set on that course, they were still going to hit you. Nothing you did could stop them.”
Drawing on meticulous research and personal access to surviving pilots, like Quilter, Iredale recreates this group of young men, in some kind of literary 3D model, to get inside who they really were. He’s never too heavy handed in the narrative, which I really appreciate. But the fact remains that the Allies’ only real defense against were these kamikaze hunters – squadrons of fighter pilots stationed above the fleet to shoot them down. Almost as crazy as their prey, writes Iredale, they were a secret force, trained in jungle warfare, in case of ‘shoot-downs’ and utterly ruthless. We know all this thanks to Quilter and his colleagues, like his cabin mate Wally who left behind a leather-bound diary, which was kept it on his bookshelf for 67 years before he was final able to return it to Wally’s great niece.This is one offshoot that Iredale chooses to include in his holistic approach of these men. And it’s his respect for the men involved, along with a personal collection of photos and personal encounters with several more key personnel, now in their 80’s and 90’s, that provides the colour and gravitas to this epic, very readable book.
Reviewed by Tim Gruar
The Kamikaze Hunters: Fighting for the Pacific, 1945
by Will Iredale
Published by Macmillan