Share This Article

Kaiten: Japan’s Secret Manned Suicide Submarine and the First American Ship It Sank in WWII

 By Michael Mair and Joy Waldron. 384 pp. Berkley Caliber, 2014. $27.95.

Japanese suicide tactics never threatened the Pacific War’s outcome, but they left indelible marks on the lives and psyches of sailors. The military withheld news of kamikaze successes from Americans while those attacks raged. Largely unappreciated is the terrifying variety of suicide weapons—air, sea, and undersea—the Japanese devised.

In Kaiten, Michael Mair and Joy Waldron collaborate on a crisp, persuasive narrative about one of the least known “Divine Wind” weapons: a one man suicide submarine based on a Type 93 Long Lance torpedo. This “Heaven Shaker,” the name for a manned torpedo or suicide vessel, was first used to devastating effect in November 1944 against navy oiler USS Mississinewa in Ulithi Atoll’s vast lagoon.

Stories of the war at sea focus on air craft carriers, battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. Kaiten’s narrative reminds us that before any plane launched or any gun fired, a tireless shadow feet of vital but too often unheralded ships just like Mississinewa provisioned combat vessels with fuel and stores at sea.

Lead author Michael Mair might have been tempted to put his late father John A. Mair Jr. —a survivor of the Mississinewa—at the narrative’s center. Instead, the elder Mair’s experience is a piece in a larger mosaic; each Miss crew man gets his due. Mair and Waldron delve into the Japanese perspective—a rare and authoritative balance of friend/ foe coverage. And though the scope of the duo’s research is convincing, they avoid unwarranted complexity.

Errors only occasionally mar Kaiten: The torpedo used at Pearl Harbor was the aerial Type 91, not the Type 93. “Knots” rather than “knots per hour” is the nautical speed unit. The United States bombed Hiroshima in 1945, of course, not 1944. Still, the account’s drama makes Kaiten a page-turner.

—David Sears is a New Jersey-based author and historian.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.