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American Kamikaze
by James J. Hall
Privately published, 1984, 345 pages

Remote-controlled drone aircraft are used increasingly in wartime situations in the 21st century. Unmanned aerial vehicles for use in battle were first developed and deployed by the U.S. military in WWII. This privately-published history describes the development and deployment of the TDR-1 (Torpedo Drone) by the men assigned to STAG (Special Task Air Group) One of the U.S. Navy's Special Air Task Force (SATFOR). In the fall of 1944 during a one-month period, 46 TDR drones were used in combat with a success rate of about 50 percent. Despite these impressive achievements for a newly-developed weapon, the TDR drone program was stopped with the last TDR flying in combat on October 26, 1944. The book cover describes its contents as being about the TDR and the men of STAG One SATFOR, but the focus throughout the book is the personal story of Jim Starr, who worked from the start to the end on the team assigned to the TDR's control system.

The author, James J. Hall, turns out to be the main character Jim Starr, although the book itself never directly states this with the entire narrative written in the third person. Hall spent several years researching material about the TDR program and its men. This included examination of squadron and TDR records, which he learned in 1979 had been declassified from Top Secret, and annual reunions of STAG One veterans starting in 1981. Although Hall covers the story of the TDR program and STAG One men, the book feels more like a memoir with many chapters devoted entirely to his individual stories.

The title of American Kamikaze never gets explained in the book. However, the STAG One web site (http://stagone.org) has an article that mentions that Tokyo Rose scornfully referred to the TDR missile in at least one broadcast as an "American Kamikaze," so this is most likely the source of the book's title. In spite of this, it seems doubtful that this could be true, since the success of the first attacks of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps was not even announced in Japanese newspapers until three days after the final TDR mission. Moreover, the TDR attacks took place against isolated Japanese emplacements in the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific, but by October 1944 the war frontlines against Japan had reached the Philippines. The term "kamikaze" cannot be considered to be technically correct for the TDR drone, since it had no pilot who died in the attack on a ship or land-based target such as an antiaircraft installation.

Hall's history features extensive dialogue, which adds life to his numerous personal stories. The book includes over 70 pages of photographs, with many of these being somewhat faded. Their captions are located in a listing in the front rather than next to each photo. The middle of the book has one long chapter that includes photocopies of official Navy documents related to STAG One's activities including a diary of activities while in the Southwest Pacific War Zone. These pages turn out to be critical to understanding the full scope of the squadron's actions, since Hall's narrative does not effectively summarize the TBF attacks and the squadron's other activities. However, these pages are almost illegible in many places due to the blurred copies of the original typewritten text.

The TBF Avenger torpedo bomber served as the control aircraft for the TDR drone. The operator in the TBF would look at a TV screen that showed the view from a camera mounted aboard the TDR. During battle the control planes remained from six to eight miles away from their targets, well out of antiaircraft range.

The chapters chronologically follow James Hall's assignments in the U.S. Navy. STAG One gets formed in August 1943, and the men assigned to the top-secret unit receive training in Clinton, Oklahoma; Traverse City, Michigan; and Monterey, California before the escort carrier Marcus Island (CVE-77) departed California in May 1944 bound for the southwest Pacific with STAG One personnel and material. Squadron members were assigned to teams with code names of ACE (radio altimeter), BLOCK (television transmitting and receiving equipment), CAST (remote and drone control system equipment), and ROGER (radar equipment). The book ends with Hall's medical discharge from the Navy, despite his protests to remain, after surgery on his duodenum. A brief Epilogue describes the research process, annual reunions starting in 1981, and what happened after the war to some of the key characters.

Between September 27 and October 26, 1944, STAG One used 46 TDR drones in combat. Only 29 reached their targets with 9 lost on the way to the target, 3 shot down by antiaircraft fire, and 5 not able to locate the target due to television failures. For 11 of the 29 that reached their targets, results were confirmed as 7 hits, 3 near misses, and 1 far miss. It was difficult to confirm results for the other 18 that reached their targets, but best estimates are that 11 crashed on the target area and 7 missed the target. [1]

A common theme throughout the book is the bitter disappointment experienced by many STAG One members, especially Jim Starr, upon hearing that the top-secret drone program, which they had worked so hard to make successful, was being disbanded. The feeling seems to have still been strong four decades later based on a few of Hall's comments such as the following about General MacArthur and the top-level U.S. strategy meeting that took place in Hawaii on July 26 and 27, 1944 (p. 220):

So, it would appear Special Task Air Group One, Special Air Task Force's fate was sealed days before it made its demonstration of effectiveness at Guadalcanal. Fate sealed by one Army General whose vanity knew no bounds and who was determined not to let a less charismatic, though strong and capable, leader of a rival service stand in his way; who manipulated a tired, gravely ill, possibly senile President, into a politically preferable position of decision making - MacArthur was being considered as a Republican candidate for President in the upcoming election in which the President was running for an unprecedented fourth term. These were the conditions that altered Jim's and all the others' lives for all time.

It sounds like he needed a scapegoat to blame for the TDR program's cancellation. Despite Hall's bitterness, he offers little objective evidence to show that the Navy would not have come to the same decision later in the war, since the Allies were handily winning the war by July 1944 with piloted aircraft and conventional bombing.

As a Navy wartime memoir, American Kamikaze turns out to be quite interesting with many insights into what life was like for someone in the U.S. Navy. The author's personality really comes through in the book's many detailed episodes. As a history of the TDR program, the book could have been improved with more details regarding the squadron's overall activities and the TDR's technical operations. These shortcomings may have been overcome if Hall had better access to previously classified information when he wrote the book and if he had provided a summary of the contents of the blurred official report copies included in the book.


1. The source of information in this paragraph is a memo entitled "Operations of STAG ONE Detachment in Northern Solomons Area" dated 30 October 1944 from the Commander Aircraft, Northern Solomons to the Commander, South Pacific Force (pp. 205-8 in book).