Only search Kamikaze Images

Hellcats: A Novel of War in the Pacific
by Barrett Tillman
Brassey's, 1996, 338 pages

Exciting and realistic air combat scenes fill the pages of this novel by Barrett Tillman, noted naval aviation historian. Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter planes achieved impressive combat results during the last three years of the Pacific War, and the Hellcats destroyed over five thousand Japanese planes, including many on kamikaze missions. Phil Rogers, commander of an air group of F6F Hellcats, and Hiroyoshi Sakaida, veteran Japanese pilot who gets assigned to a kamikaze unit, fly several successful combat missions in this novel. Although the book excels in its depiction of aerial battles, readers find out little about the characters' backgrounds, motivations, and innermost thoughts.

Tillman has written over 30 books, including many about World War II naval aviation such as his nonfiction books Hellcat: The F6F in World War II (1979) and Hellcat Aces of World War 2 (1996). The lifelike battle scenes in the novel Hellcats, the second volume of a planned trilogy, demonstrate his extensive knowledge of naval air battles during the Pacific War. He has written five other works of fiction, including Dauntless (1992), the first book of the trilogy about the wartime exploits of pilots Phil Rogers and Hiroyoshi Sakaida. Tillman plans to complete the trilogy with Sabrejet, a novel that will follow the two main characters into the Korean War.

Hellcats covers from February 1944 to September 1945, but the two main characters of Rogers and Sakaida do not meet in battle until March 1945 in the last half of the book. The short chapters, each from one page to four pages, jump back and forth from the American to Japanese side. Many minor characters quickly come and go, and the battle scenes focus more on action rather than characterization. Since the stories of the two main characters intersect in very few places, many times readers will feel this book consists of two separate stories taking place in the same time period but in completely different places. Although almost all of Sakaida's fellow pilots from the beginning of the war die in battle, he somehow survives air battles in the skies above Truk Atoll, Marianas, Leyte Gulf, Okinawa, mainland Japan, and China.

The book's multitude of geographic names, acronyms, and military aviation terms can make reading difficult at times, but three detailed maps, glossary of acronyms, and description of U.S. and Japanese aircraft at the front of the book provide great assistance. Although non-experts in World War II military aviation and the Pacific War may struggle in some places, this depth of detail and frequent use of technical terms makes the narrative very realistic. However, in addition to the specialized vocabulary, the novel has numerous minor characters without distinguishing traits, so the combination of technical language and number of characters can make the plot challenging to follow.

Although Sakaida gets assigned to a kamikaze unit in December 1944, this book does not provide many details to better understand the motivation of the real kamikaze pilots. Typical of many experienced and successful Japanese fighter pilots, Sakaida expressed little enthusiasm for suicide attacks, but he gets a chance to survive by being assigned to the fighter escort section that protected the kamikaze planes. His unit commander, whose scarred face reflected a dozen operations to repair the damage from burns suffered when his plane was shot down in Guadalcanal in 1942, volunteered for the special attack corps with the motive of personal revenge.

Sakaida gets an offer in March 1945 to join a fighter unit, but he decides to stay with the kamikaze unit until his unit commander gets an opportunity to crash into a ship. When his commander gets shot down near a ship off Okinawa, Sakaida shoots down a Grumman and engages in wild aerial aerobatics over Rogers' fictional aircraft carrier Reprisal. After a brief stay in a military hospital for psychiatric evaluation, Sakaida joins a fighter group at Kanoya Air Base in order to protect Japanese airspace by intercepting American planes. Although stationed at the main kamikaze base of Kanoya from April to June during the period of the most intensive kamikaze attacks, the book makes no mention of the kamikaze units that sortie from Kanoya. A kamikaze plane hits Rogers' aircraft carrier on April 16, causing 15 deaths and 60 wounded, and the ship returns to the U.S. for repairs. When Sakaida gets transferred to China, his final thought about kamikaze operations was his unit commander's "Zero torn apart and spinning wildly to fruitless destruction."

Hellcats is a great book for aficionados of World War II air combat, but other readers without much background on the subject will find this novel a difficult read.