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Azusa tokubetsu kougekitai: Bakugekiki "Ginga" sanzen kiro no kouseki (Azusa special attack unit: "Ginga" bombers' 3,000-km flight path)
by Masami Jinno
Kojinsha, 2000, 308 pages

The Japanese Navy hoped to sink American carriers anchored at Ulithi Atoll by a long-range kamikaze attack from the Japanese mainland. On March 11, 1945, 24 twin-engine Ginga bombers (Allied code name of Frances), each carrying a 800-kg bomb, sortied from Kanoya Air Base at about 9 a.m. Only 11 planes at most finally may have reached the Ulithi area in the early evening after a flight of more than ten hours over water. Just one Ginga hit an American ship, the aircraft carrier Randolph (CV-15), which suffered 134 casualties. Another plane crashed into a small island at Ulithi, and the other nine planes must have crashed harmlessly into the sea near Ulithi after running out of fuel without ever finding American ships in the darkness. This book gives a detailed history of this daring long-distance attack carried out by 72 men of the Azusa [1] Special Attack Unit.

Masami Jinno, author of a book on the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku and several magazine articles on World War II history and military weapons, performed very thorough research in writing this chronological history of the Azusa Unit. In addition to a bibliography of almost 100 sources, both Japanese and English, Jinno contacted mission survivors and bereaved family members to obtain photos, letters, and other materials. The book contains about 80 historical photos, maps of the flight route and Ulithi Atoll, a two-page table with information on Azusa Unit members, and other reference material. This history encompasses not only the 72 Azusa Unit members who manned the Ginga bombers but also the 24 crewmen of the two Type 2 Flying Boats (Allied code name of Emily) that served as lead planes on the mission, the crews of the Saiun long-range reconnaissance planes (Allied code name of Myrt) that flew over Ulithi, and other air and ground personnel who provided mission support.

The sheer number of details included in this book makes it hard to follow and slow to read in places. No one character stands out among the many individuals involved in the planning and execution of the attack. Official military records, reports, and communications make up much of the book. A few of these, such as final radio messages from planes that reached the Ulithi area, provide essential details. However, the author could have skipped most of these formal documents and instead incorporated key facts into a narrative in the author's own words. Although the flight to Ulithi has natural suspense regarding its outcome, the 24 Ginga bombers do not sortie until after 200 pages of background history and mission preparation.

After a brief Preface introduces basic facts regarding Azusa Unit's mission to Ulithi, Chapter 1 gives background of the Japanese Navy's planning of the original Tan Operation to destroy, in a single blow, American aircraft carriers at anchor at Majuro. The original plan was not a suicide operation and included 36 Ginga bombers and 18 Tenzan bombers (Allied code name of Jill), but the Navy cancelled this operation after finding out the American fleet had moved to Ulithi Atoll. The last half of the chapter summarizes the history of Japan's Special Attack Corps, which carried out suicide operations during the last ten months of World War II.

Hole in Randolph's Flight Deck Damaged Carrier Randolph

Chapter 2 outlines the fairly complex roots of the Azusa Special Attack Unit members, most who came from the 262nd Air Attack Unit of the 762nd Air Group. The men in the 262nd Air Attack Unit trained on Ginga bombers first at Toyohashi Air Base with takeoffs and landings, overwater flight training, dive bombing, and night flights, and they then proceeded to Miyazaki Air Base for training in low altitude flights, dive bombing at carriers, and flight formation. This chapter also discusses the development of the Ginga bomber.

Ginga bomber sorties from
Kanoya Air Base
on March 11, 1945

 

Chapters 3 and 4 recount the planning for the No. 2 Tan Operation to attack Ulithi and the formation of the Azusa Special Attack Unit. A long-range Saiun reconnaissance plane from Truk starts reconnaissance of Ulithi Atoll on February 13, 1945. Ulithi Atoll had served as the main Pacific anchorage for American warships since the fall of 1944. The anchorage had capacity for hundreds of ships, including aircraft carriers. On February 14, 1945, Vice Admiral Ugaki arrived at Kanoya Air Base as the new head of the Fifth Air Fleet, and he soon divided the 262nd Naval Air Group into a torpedo attack unit and a bomber unit. On February 20, orders were issued to the bomber unit regarding formation of the Azusa Unit, which would sortie from Kanoya on a special (suicide) attack against American ships anchored at Ulithi. There was much detailed planning and training up to the planned date of attack, March 10.

After final instructions from Vice Admiral Ugaki, the Ginga bombers began to depart, but the operation was suddenly cancelled after several planes already had taken off because of a mix-up in receipt of a surveillance report. The No. 2 Tan Operation was postponed until the next morning since the surveillance report, once it finally had been received in full at Kanoya, indicated many ships, including carriers, at anchor at Ulithi.

Chapter 5, after an explanation of the one-day delay, presents about 50 pages of photographs, last letters, and reminiscences of bereaved family members. The photos, taken at Kanoya Air Base, include many of the individual crews of three men standing with Ginga bombers in the background. There is also a group photo of the 72 Azusa Unit members, who ranged in age from 17 to 29. Another photo shows Lieutenant Naoto Kuromaru, mission commander, giving final instructions to his men, lined up in front of him and divided into four squadrons of 18 men each, on either March 10 or 11 prior to takeoff. The last letters included in this chapter tend to be typical ones subject to military censorship, such as the following one written by Petty Officer 1st Class Masanori Anan to a friend (p. 147):

Thank you for your letter. I am so glad that you are doing well.

I am glad to tell you that I also am well working hard with my military duties. The war situation has become more and more serious. There are surely matters of great importance that are the responsibility of Japanese men like us. No, everyone has this responsibility.

Today the Japanese mainland is a battleground. We will certainly win if we carry out taiatari (body-crashing) attacks as our duty.

Please take care of yourself as you work. As a favor to me, please be friends with Masashi and the others until they return home in May.

My burning in flames from the air attack will be successful.

Chapter 6 relates the flight to Ulithi by the 24 Ginga bombers, which gathered together in the skies above Kanoya slightly after 9 a.m. The two Type 2 Flying Boats, delayed on takeoff when one did not successfully take off from the water until the third attempt, flew southward about one hour ahead of the Azusa Unit, but an American PB4Y-2 Privateer patrol bomber shot down one of these lead planes slightly after 11:30. However, the American plane did not realize that the Type 2 Flying Boat was a lead plane for the Ginga bombers, which continued on safely. Only 15 of the 24 bombers reached Yap Island, about 100 miles southwest of Ulithi, at 6:30 p.m. The other 9 had either made earlier forced landings or returned to Kanoya with engine problems.

Only two Ginga bombers hit targets at Ulithi Atoll. At 7:07 p.m. Japan time (8:07 p.m. Ulithi time), one plane struck the aircraft carrier Randolph about 100 feet forward from the stern. Casualties included 25 men dead, 3 missing, and 106 wounded [2]. Another plane crashed into Ulithi's Sorlen Island, where the pilot may have mistaken it for an aircraft carrier in the darkness. This crash caused 2 deaths, 2 seriously wounded, and 4 lightly wounded. Out of the 13 remaining Ginga bombers that passed Yap on the way to Ulithi, 4 returned to Yap to make forced landings, and 9 must have crashed into the sea without ever finding the American ships anchored at Ulithi Atoll. Japanese Army soldiers at the garrison on Yap mistakenly shot two and seriously wounded one of the crew of one plane that made a forced landing on Yap. Japanese Saiun reconnaissance planes from Truk flew over Ulithi the next day on March 12, but they observed no missing carriers and concluded that the mission had not succeeded.

Jinno identifies the Ginga bomber that hit Randolph as the one with the crew of Lieutenant Koetsu Fukuda (pilot), Chief Flight Petty Officer Takeshi Igai (navigator), and Chief Flight Petty Officer Kenji Ota (radioman). Fukuda was commander of Azusa Unit's 2nd Squadron (Chutai) made up of 12 aircraft. At 8:01 and 8:04 p.m. Ulithi time, Fukuda's aircraft radioed that it was diving on an aircraft carrier, and Randolph's Action Report indicates an aircraft hit the ship at 8:07 p.m. No other Ginga bomber of the Azusa Unit sent radio messages consistent with the timing of the attack on Randolph. As further evidence that Fukuda's aircraft hit Randolph, one of the three corpses recovered from the suicide crash was dressed in the uniform of a Navy Lieutenant. The Azusa Unit had only two other Lieutenants besides Fukuda, and these two could not have been the one to hit Randolph. One Lieutenant made a forced landing on Yap Island and survived the war, and the other radioed a final message before contact was lost more than 30 minutes after Randolph had been hit.

Crewmen of Ginga bomber that hit aircraft carrier Randolph (from left to right): Chief Flight Petty Officer Takeshi Igai (navigator), Lieutenant Koetsu Fukuda (pilot), and Chief Flight Petty Officer Kenji Ota (radioman)

Chapter 7 tells what happened to Azusa Unit members who did not die on March 11. The crews of seven Ginga bombers died in battle within two months. Only a few men, including the mission commander Lieutenant Naoto Kuromaru, survived the war. The author describes in the final chapter his trip to Ulithi to conduct research there for the book, and he mentions that five crewmembers' bodies found from the two planes that crashed into the Randolph and Sorlen Island were buried by Americans on Falalop Island at Ulithi.

Although the Japanese Navy made a bold attempt to destroy American carriers, the Azusa Special Attack Unit achieved very little. Vice Admiral Ugaki in his diary concluded the causes for failure were: "(1) the planes were not suited for an attack at such a long distance, (2) they reached the target an hour after sunset, so vision was impaired, and (3) the delay in takeoff of the flying boats helped explain the late arrival; also they had to detour a squall area" (Ugaki 1991, 550).

This well-researched book provides many interesting features, especially photos and reminiscences of friends and bereaved family members. However, the book's numerous details, many directly from official military documents, make it a difficult read in places.

Notes

1. The word azusa means catalpa tree. Bows made of azusa wood have been highly regarded in Japan since ancient times.

2. USS Randolph action and casualty reports indicate the following number of casualties along with names (information provided by Wayne Brown):

27 total dead
      18 killed and buried on Falalop Island on March 12, 1945
        5 mortally wounded and later died on hospital ship
        4 missing, later found dead
105 wounded survivors

Source Cited

Ugaki, Matome. 1991. Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941-1945. Translated by Masataka Chihaya. Edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.