Book Reviews, Literary

Review: FLYBOYS: A TRUE STORY OF COURAGE, by James Bradley

<a href="">Flyboys</a> Book Cover
Flyboys Biography & Autobiography Back Bay Books 464

This acclaimed bestseller brilliantly illuminates a hidden piece of World War II history as it tells the harrowing true story of nine American airmen shot down in the Pacific.

Reading James Bradley’s FLYBOYS is like watching Fox News Channel: both the book and the news channel have being “fair and balanced” as their goal, but reaching that goal is sometimes — if not always — a bit of a struggle.

In the case of the book, the balance is between the Allied and Japanese fronts in World War II, and the author ends up trying very hard to make the Japanese case. Sure, the Japanese wanted to conquer East Asia and take over its population. But how is this any different, Bradley asks, from imperialist Europeans in the last century colonizing Africa and India? Sure, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria and put its people to the sword and herded its
women into “comfort houses” of prostitution, this was bad. But American civilians killed defenseless Native Americans at the Sand Creek massacre and elsewhere — what’s the difference? And sure, there was the Pearl Harbor attack but the American response to that involved napalm attacks on the Japanese heartland that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

However, the balance in FLYBOYS is much more carefully poised. The real horror of the book is war itself, and the nature of war doesn’t differ much on either side of the conflict. Horrible things happen in war — that’s the way war is. Dwelling on the crimes of one side or the other just feeds the fires of conflict, years after the end of hostilities. Even the most terrible of war crimes, like what happened to eight stranded American Navy, Marine and Army Air Corps flyers on the remote Pacific island of Chichi Jima, must be understood as part of the overall wretched fabric of war.

And what happened on Chichi Jima, you might ask? Well, now it can be told. The story of what happened to a small group of American naval aviators on the Japanese-held island of Chichi Jima was a long-held secret, buried amidst the flurry of war-crimes trials. Chichi Jima was something of a sideshow in the war, one of the Bonin Islands, near the vastly more famous Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima had room for an airstrip; Chichi Jima only had room for a massive radio complex, sending intelligence data back to Tokyo. That made it a secondary target, but a target nonetheless, and American bombers were tasked to destroy it. Anti-aircraft fire from the island brought down some American planes, and their surviving crew members parachuted to the island as prisoners of war.

What happened next scarcely bears thinking about.

Bradley does tell us about it eloquently and, most importantly of all, non-judgmentally. What happened to Jimmy Dye, Glenn Frazier, Floyd Hall, Marve Mershon, Dick Woelhof, Grady York, Warren Earl Vaughan, and the anonymous B-24 crewman who shared their fates is shocking — so much so that even their families could not know the whole truth. It was certainly a violation of the Geneva Convention protecting the rights of prisoners of war. It was so awful that most of the Japanese soldiers had to be ordered to participate.

What Bradley does well is to put what happened on Chichi Jima in context. By itself, in isolation, the story of the eight Americans on Chichi Jima is the stuff of nightmares. But Bradley deftly places it against the appropriate backdrop — the conquest-drunk warlords in Tokyo, the misplaced code of bushido that led to fanatical nonsense, the American napalm attacks that burnt the heart out of metropolitan Japan, and the vain sacrifice of the emperor’s “shattered jewels.”

FLYBOYS is a tough read, but it is more than worthwhile. Bradley balances his catalog of horrors with an admiring, appreciative look at the courage of the American flyers who won the war in the Pacific. FLYBOYS is a worthy testament to their efforts and their sacrifice.