Review

Flyboys: A True Story of Courage

by James Bradley



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.

Flyboys: A True Story of Courage
by James Bradley

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2004
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316159433
  • ISBN-13: 9780316159432