Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: Flyboys by James Bradley

By James Bradley

(Blogger Note: This review was originally published in The LAMLight, the physician newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine, Lynchburg, Virginia.)

     Flyboys is the true story of nine World War II dive-bomber pilots and the attacks on the island of Chichi Jima.  This island is north of Iwo Jima and was strategically critical because of two communications towers there which the Japanese used to deliver orders to the Imperial Navy in the Pacific.  Coincidental with the ground attack on Iwo Jima, the Navy attacked Chichi Jima with dive bombers.  Nine flyers were shot down during the attacks.  Eight were captured and executed and the ninth, George H. W. Bush was rescued by an American submarine and survived to become President.  The author uses recently declassified documents as well as interviews with many surviving family members and fellow combatants, including Japanese, to tell the story of these flyers.

     This book is a cold reminder that wars are fought by the best, bravest and brightest of our youngest citizens.  The portraits of these boys are poignant and the reader is left with a great sense of loss when each of these brave pilots is killed.  The concept of “what could have been” is underscored by the great contributions and successes of the elder George Bush.  One can’t help but wonder what heights the other eight could have achieved as well.

     The author also does an exceptional job of explaining the Japanese mindset leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  He goes through the history of Japan following the visit to the previously self-contained island nation by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853.  The Japanese quickly moved from an isolationist policy to an imperialist policy which culminated nearly a century later with the Pearl Harbor attack.

     Mr. Bradley spends several chapters explaining the then radical new theory of war espoused by army colonel Billy Mitchell.  Colonel Mitchell had been in charge of America’s air support in France in WWI and witnessed the horror of trench warfare.  He had the vision to understand what he called the “Third Dimension” of warfare: air power.   In the years leading up to World War II he called for more aircraft and new strategies to utilize them.  He was loudly denounced by traditional militarists but found one believer in Franklin Roosevelt.  This set the stage for the bombing raids over Europe and eventually on the Japanese homeland during World War II.

     Mr. Bradley concludes the book with an account of the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities at the conclusion of the war.  This strategy was ordered by General Curtis LeMay and accounted for more civilian casualties than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The author uses first hand accounts from Japanese survivors to tell the horrible story of the napalm bombings of these Japanese cities.  Looking back from an era of reporting from the front lines and media immersion with combat troops, it is hard to imagine that the ghastly results of this technique were kept from the American public.

      James Bradley is the son of one of the Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, an event immortalized on film and with the statue in Arlington, Virginia.  He has written that story in Flags of Our FathersFlyboys is a fascinating book from both a historical and human perspective.  Mr. Bradley captures the wholly tragic individual stories of combatants from both sides within the broader historical perspective of world politics.  This book is not just for military history buffs.  This book makes the point over and over again what a horrible waste of life and potential war is.  In this era of terrorist violence this is a lesson that we obviously have not learned and need to be reminded of.

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