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Life and Death Aboard the U.S.S. Essex
by Richard W. Streb
Dorrance Publishing, 1999, 347 pages

A Japanese kamikaze pilot in a single-engine bomber hit the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Essex on November 25, 1944. This attack, about 100 miles east of Luzon in the Philippines, killed 16 and seriously wounded 44 men. Life and Death Aboard the U.S.S. Essex contains detailed biographies of the 16 Essex crewmen who perished and provides numerous eyewitness accounts of the attack. Half of the 16 men killed were Black, and this book describes the U.S. Navy's discriminatory practices against Blacks and presents biographies of five African-American Navy heroes during World War II. The remainder of the book covers a wide variety of topics, including innovations made by Essex crewmen, the sinking of the U.S.S. Princeton, the near sinking of the U.S.S. Franklin, and criticisms of certain actions and decisions made by Navy leaders during World War II.

Richard Streb served as a radar operator aboard the Essex during the kamikaze attack, and he earned 13 battle stars during his service in the U.S. Navy from December 1942 to January 1946. Starting in 1980, he spent two decades searching for information on the 16 men and conducting over 390 interviews with personnel who served on the Essex in order to accurately depict life on the ship through these men's "memories, musings, and speculations."

The first chapter gives 35 firsthand accounts of the great destruction and confusion caused by the kamikaze attack on the carrier. One crewman gives the following account (p. 4):

I knew we had been hit! I was terrified, but I had to get my fire hose. I waited until things stopped falling onto the flight deck and then started across the deck. There lay a man's leg, crudely chopped off. Parts of men and debris were all over the flight deck. I almost fainted when I saw this huge ball of fire and small explosions where my battle station used to be. Gone was the tire repair shop and my fire hose, plus half of the 20mm guns forward. The magazine for the 20mm was going off. Bullets were whizzing everywhere. Smoke was dense and suffocating. Men were hollering for help. If you tried to put them on a stretcher, the flesh would come off the bone. The ones living soon died. Sad as it may seem, some, which were mostly just pieces, had to be washed over the side.

The fires resulting from the kamikaze attack were extinguished in 30 minutes, but 16 men died and 44 men were wounded in the attack.

The book's middle part, making up about 40 percent of the book, includes detailed biographies of these 16 men who died in the kamikaze attack. Each biography has a similar structure, with information about family history, childhood stories, personality, hometown details, motivations for entering Navy, crewmen recollections, and reactions to notification of death. These 16 chapters, each about 8 to 10 pages, reflect the author's extremely thorough research of the men's lives. He visited and interviewed many family members and acquaintances to obtain recollections and materials for the biographies, but he could not find any relative, friend, or neighbor for three of the men despite extensive and prolonged searches. The biographies collectively portray young men full of potential even though their families often lived in poverty. Although these chapters offer many interesting snippets from the past, their extreme detail makes reading through them a real challenge.

Chapter 38 provides information regarding the 17th man who died, the pilot of the kamikaze plane. However, the chapter provides few details to support the conclusion that Yoshinori Yamaguchi was the pilot who crashed into the Essex. Streb describes contacting a Japanese history professor and even visiting Tōkyō to examine unspecified documents related to the identity of the pilot. The book states that the kamikaze plane was a Judy, the Allied code name for a Yokosuka Suisei carrier bomber. However, this plane model had a crew of two, although later in the war it was flown by just a pilot since kamikaze attacks did not require a radio operator/gunner (Francillon 1979, 459). In contradiction to information provided in the book, an authoritative Japanese source regarding kamikaze attacks (Tokkōtai Senbotsusha 1990, 137) indicates that Yoshinori Yamaguchi flew one of two carrier bombers [1] each with two-man crews who carried out kamikaze attacks on November 25, 1944. Also, these two planes belonged to the Katori Unit, not the Yoshino Unit as stated by Streb (p. 337). The author acknowledges, "trying to identify a specific person in a certain plane on a single day in an aerial battle in the vast Pacific was a researcher's nightmare" (p. 336). One Essex crewmember (p. 23) indicates that there was a rear gunner in the kamikaze plane, but Streb says there was no gunner aboard without indicating how he reached this conclusion. The contradictory information in the Japanese source and the lack of details regarding how Streb determined the identity of the pilot lead to questions about the accuracy of the book's conclusions regarding the number of the crew (one or two?) and the name of the pilot's unit (Katori or Yoshino?).

Streb covers a wide variety of topics in addition to the kamikaze attack. One chapter questions the fleet movements ordered by Admiral Halsey in the face of a typhoon, which resulted in the loss of three destroyers. In another chapter, Essex crewmen who witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of the carrier Franklin believe that the captain's decision to not abandon ship caused many of the 832 deaths after a Japanese plane dropped two bombs. In three chapters, Streb describes various innovations and improvements made by the Essex crew, including the dispatcher who began directing planes to take off at an angle rather than straight down the deck.

Although some chapters go slowly, such as the detailed biographies of the 16 men who died, this collection of opinions and firsthand accounts from Essex crewmen contains many fascinating tidbits. The book lacks an overall history of the Essex during World War II, but the personal experiences and recollections of the crewmen provide a unique source of information about life and death aboard this famous American aircraft carrier.

Kamikaze heads toward Essex


1. The Japanese source (Tokkōtai Senbotsusha 1990, 137) indicates that Yoshinori Yamaguchi flew one of two Type 99 carrier bombers (Allied code name of Val) that carried out kamikaze attacks on November 25, 1944. This plane, which looked somewhat similar to the Judy, also had two-man crews. Other sources, both Japanese and American, agree with Streb that the kamikaze plane that hit the Essex was a Judy rather than a Type 99.

Sources Cited

Francillon, René J. 1979. Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

Tokkōtai Senbotsusha Irei Heiwa Kinen Kyōkai (Tokkōtai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association). 1990. Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (Special Attack Corps). Tokyo: Tokkōtai Senbotsusha Irei Heiwa Kinen Kyōkai.