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Cover of paperback edition

 
Days of Steel Rain: The Epic Story of a WWII Vengeance Ship in the Year of the Kamikaze
by Brent E. Jones
Hachette Books, 2021, 384 pages

A true masterpiece! This thoroughly-researched history of the light cruiser Astoria (CL-90), nicknamed the "Mighty Ninety," provides a gripping account of the ship's entire history including 79 straight days at sea from March 14, 1945, through most of the Battle of Okinawa. The ship fired upon and received credit for the most enemy planes of any of the 123 ships in Okinawa Fast Carrier Task Force (41 planes taken under fire, 27 brought down, and 13 solo credits).

Astoria's history gets told primarily based on firsthand accounts from the captain, several officers, and selected crewmembers. The sources used to put together the ship's history include six unpublished personal narratives such as diaries, interviews by the author between 2007 and 2015 of nine former crewmembers, and interviews of Astoria's captain by two persons from 1969-1971 and 1981-1984. The use of these many firsthand sources gives the narrative liveliness and richness.

Japanese kamikaze aircraft never hit the light cruiser Astoria, but the crew witnessed many hits and near misses on other ships. Astoria had the assignment to protect the aircraft carrier USS Essex (CV-9) and shot down several Japanese kamikaze and conventional aircraft that had this carrier as their target. The captain describes two kamikaze aircraft shot down by the ship's gunners before they could reach Astoria (p. 279):

From his perch on the open bridge, Captain Dyer would later recall, "two planes that got very close to the ship, headed right for us very obviously Kamikaze-bent. We destroyed one of them when it was about 1,000 yards from the ship where it exploded and disappeared. The other one came boring in, burning all over, but still coming on. It got in about 300 yards from the ship. It got inside the range where your five-inch shell explodes. Everything in the ship, of course, was shooting at it … It splattered the ship with all kinds of machine gun bullets until the very last minute. They were shooting at us, they had good aim, they couldn't have much else."

Astoria carried two Kingfisher seaplanes used in rescue of American airmen who went down in the sea. Among American ships equipped with floatplanes, Astoria's rescue pilots retrieved the most airmen during the Pacific War, and these thrilling stories highlight the dangers they faced when they attempted daring landings under enemy fire to save downed airmen.

The book's extensive bibliography and 20 pages of notes reflect the comprehensive research performed by the author. There are two separate 16-page inserts of photographs, many which have not been published elsewhere. Several detailed maps also help to follow details of the ship's movements and the rescues carried out by the ship's seaplane pilots.

The author does not shrink from topics that do not necessarily reflect positively on the ship and her officers and crew. These issues include discipline problems such as intentionally missing the ship's departure, engineering breakdowns, discrimination, and conflicts between certain crewmembers. The story of crewmember Rousseau Lemon is one of the most captivating, as the ship's captain keeps pursuing strict discipline for his transgressions, which included going intentionally AWOL and missing the ship's departure from the mainland to head toward the war zone. Astoria crewmembers shunned him for a long time when he was forced by the captain to return to the ship several months later, but his changed attitude and work finally led to his being accepted again among crewmen as one of their own.

Not only did kamikaze aircraft cause damage directly by hits on American ships, these planes and Japanese conventional aircraft also led to friendly fire incidents where American ship guns hit other ships as they tried to down Japanese planes when they neared their targets. On March 20, 1945, as several ships' gunners tried to protect against an attacking Japanese plane, the carrier USS Enterprise got hit by a shell from another ship in Astoria's group that killed seven men and wounded 30. Interestingly, the identify of the responsible ship does not get specified in the book or other Internet sources. On the same day, Astoria also got hit by friendly fire that resulted in superficial wounds to a handful of crewmembers.


USS Enterprise after hit by friendly fire on March 20, 1945.
 The ship, astern of Astoria, as the task group has turned
to let the wind pull smoke away from the carrier's decks
 and superstructure. Astoria 40mm gunners watch in the
foreground. (US Navy photo taken by
 Herman Schnipper, Astoria photographer)

The author Brent Jones has written prior magazine articles, but Days of Steel Rain is his first book. After writing reviews on this web site for over 60 histories of ships that encountered Japanese suicide attacks, I think Days of Steel Rain is the best overall. This comes as quite a surprise with a WWII ship's history that was published 76 years after the end of the Pacific War. His motivation began with trying to learn more about the wartime experience of his great-uncle who had been a crewman on Astoria during World War II. Jones writes in a way that makes the crewmen come alive.


Cover of hardback edition