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Hell from the Heavens: The Epic Story of the USS Laffey and World War II's Greatest Kamikaze Attack
by John F. Wukovits
Da Capo Press, 2015, 296 pages

The destroyer USS Laffey (DD-724) became a famous hero ship after surviving an 80-minute attack by 22 Japanese kamikaze planes and conventional bombers on April 16, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa. F. Julian Becton, Laffey's Captain, wrote an excellent book entitled The Ship That Would Not Die (1980), which describes in vivid detail the attack where seven planes hit the destroyer, another two dropped bombs that hit the ship, and three got splashed by the ship's guns so near that they sprayed shrapnel across the decks. Due to heroic efforts by Laffey's crewmen, the ship somehow stayed afloat despite fires, flooding, several inoperable guns, and a jammed rudder, but 32 men died and 72 men were wounded in the battle [1]. This new World War II history of the destroyer Laffey incorporates remarks from the author's multiple interviews in 2013 and 2014 with 11 surviving crewmen. Becton's classic history lacks the perspective of officers and men who served for him, but this book fills the gap not only with extensive material from personal interviews but also oral histories published on the USS Laffey web site and letters to home written by crewmen.

John Wukovits has authored numerous books on a wide range of subjects and has written several other critically-acclaimed books about the Pacific War such as One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa (2008) and For Crew and Country: The Inspirational True Story of Bravery and Sacrifice Aboard the USS Samuel B. Roberts (2013). Few authors would take on the challenge of writing a history to compete with Captain Becton's firsthand account of Laffey's famed battle with swarming kamikaze planes. He frequently cites Becton's book, but he also adds feelings and viewpoints of crewmen. He performed extremely thorough research in order to write this book with notes that refer to an 18-page bibliography with numerous Action Reports, War Diaries, books, and articles from the popular press. A helpful map at the front of the book clearly shows the main locations where Laffey fought during the Pacific War. Two diagrams display the flight paths of the 22 Japanese planes that attacked Laffey. A three-page Chronology provides all of the key dates of the destroyer's World War II history. The middle section has 16 pages of photographs and other images.

The book's three parts cover Laffey's history chronologically from her commissioning in February 1944 to her return to the States in May 1945. Part 1 highlights the destroyer's first battle experiences during the Normandy invasion. Part 2 recounts the many battles that Laffey had with Japanese aircraft in the Philippines during the Ormoc Bay, Mindoro Island, and Lingayen Gulf landings. By January 6, 1945, all of the other three destroyers in Laffey's destroyer division had been hit by kamikaze planes, so Laffey's crewmen considered the ship to be lucky to not have suffered any damage off the Normandy coast and in the Philippines even though the crew had witnessed several kamikaze hits on other American ships such as the escort carrier Ommaney Bay and the cruiser Nashville. After the Philippines, Laffey also participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima and two air strikes against the Japanese main island of Honshū in February 1945. Part 3, which takes up half the book, focuses on the massive kamikaze attack against Laffey on April 16, 1945.

The damaged Laffey returned to the States as a brave ship celebrated in the media for surviving a ferocious Japanese air attack. The destroyer was hit more times by kamikaze aircraft in a single day than any other ship. On May 26-30, 1945, the public was able to board the beat-up destroyer in Seattle in order to view damage from the kamikaze attack. Several crewmen explained what happened at each location during the battle. About 65,000 persons visited the docked ship over these five days. Laffey received the Presidential Unit Citation, which includes the following words to describe the crew's bravery:

Struck by two bombs, crash-dived by suicide planes and frequently strafed, she withstood the devastating blows unflinchingly and, despite severe damage and heavy casualties, continued to fight effectively until the last plane had been driven off. The courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men enabled the Laffey to defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds.

Since 1982, Laffey has been a museum ship at Patriots Point (Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina), and she was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

Laffey steams away after her action against the kamikazes.
The aft section gun barrels look like broken matchsticks.

The Japanese creation of units to carry out aerial suicide attacks gets introduced by the author, but he gives no details related to the origins of Japanese aircraft that attacked Laffey. There is no clear answer as to why so many kamikaze planes focused on Laffey other than that Radar Picket Station No. 1, where the ship was located just north of Okinawa, was the spot closest to airfields in southern Kyūshū where Japanese kamikaze planes and conventional bombers took off toward Okinawa on the morning of April 16, 1945. The author seems to have a positive view of the Japanese kamikaze pilots based on the following paragraph (p. 104):

Unlike the prevalent belief among the Laffey crew that kamikaze pilots were unintelligent robots mutely following orders, most come from highly educated families. Duty and honor fueled their sacrifice, and they hoped their deaths would directly help their nation to avoid defeat.

Some aspects of the book make it a difficult read. The interweaving of Captain Becton's and many crewmen's comments from interviews sometimes make it tough to follow the chronological story of a single individual. The book in its entirety seems like a touching tribute to the courage of Captain Becton and Laffey's crew with almost no critical comments of their actions. The complexity of Laffey's courageous battle with attacking Japanese planes makes it challenging to follow without a reader's having some familiarity of the locations of a WWII destroyer's various guns, although the two maps that illustrate the attacking planes' flight paths provide a useful overview.

Following the battle, little but empty space exists where
guns should have rested in the ravaged fantail section


1. Becton (1980, 260) states 32 men died and 71 men were wounded.

Source Cited

Becton, F. Julian, with Joseph Morschauser III. 1980. The Ship That Would Not Die. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company.