Hell from the Heavens: The Epic Story of the USS Laffey and World War II’s Greatest Kamikaze Attack by John Wukovits

Kamikaze – that word spread fear in the hearts of American sailors in the Pacific during World War II. Kamikazes were the last-ditch effort by the Japanese to defeat the numerically superior  Americans. John Wukovits writes about one such attack on the destroyer USS Laffey in Hell from the Heavens.

Here is a brief synopsis of the book from the publisher:

Hell from the Heavens CoverOn April 16, 1945, the crewmen of the USS Laffey were battle hardened and prepared. They had engaged in combat off the Normandy coast in June 1944. They had been involved in three prior assaults of enemy positions in the Pacific—at Leyte and Lingayen in the Philippines and at Iwo Jima. They had seen kamikazes purposely crash into other destroyers and cruisers in their unit and had seen firsthand the bloody results of those crazed tactics. But nothing could have prepared the crew for this moment—an eighty-minute ordeal in which the single small ship was targeted by no fewer than twenty-two Japanese suicide aircraft.

By the time the unprecedented attack on the Laffey was finished, thirty-two sailors lay dead, more than seventy were wounded, and the ship was grievously damaged. Although she lay shrouded in smoke and fire for hours, the Laffey somehow survived, and the gutted American warship limped from Okinawa’s shore for home, where the ship and crew would be feted as heroes.

Simply put, this is an excellent history of a famous ship from World War II. Wukovits uses many primary sources, including personal interviews and crew members’ memoirs, to tell the riveting story of the USS Laffey (232 pages with 16 pages of black and white photographs). He writes the story in a very compelling manner.

Wukovits writes about the ship from its creation at the Bath Iron Works to its baptism by fire in the Normandy invasion to various battles in the Pacific. The crew is led by the very capable Commander F. Julian Becton. Becton’s leadership in training the crew and leading them in combat saved many lives not only on the kamikaze day, but also in the prior campaigns.

Obviously, the critical part of the book involves the kamikaze attack on the ship off of Okinawa. Wukovits’ writing brings the attack and the responses of the crew to life. It was hard to put the book down because it was so riveting.

A great companion to the narrative are the two diagrams that Wukovits included that marked the various attacks on the ship. Based on a drawing done by Becton, the diagrams show from what direction the planes came from and the result – whether they were shot down or hit the ship. Another helpful aid are some illustrations of the five-inch, 40 mm, and 20 mm guns, along with where their respective crews were stationed.

Wukovits perfectly captures the courage of the crew to fight on despite the sheer terror of not knowing whether a plane would suddenly crash into the ship.  Wukovits describes one scene where a gun crew fires at a plane until the plane collides into the gun and all are killed. I cannot imagine the thoughts of those men as they looked straight at death and continued to fight.

The book is a captivating story and wonderful memorial to the men of the USS Laffey.

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