Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor
By James M. Scott
648 pages, $35
By Edward Cuddihy
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Franklin Roosevelt was hungry for a victory. Any kind of a victory.
It was early 1942 and the bitter taste of his Navy’s Pearl Harbor debacle still was fresh on the commander-in-chief’s lips. The combined military forces of the Empire of Japan were systematically seizing control of the entire Western Pacific and appeared invincible.
Guam was in Japanese hands. Wake Island had fallen. The imperial forces of Japan were about to take Manila, eventually forcing Gen. Douglas MacArthur out of the Philippines. The rich oil fields of the Dutch East Indies would soon be under full Japanese control.
A somber Roosevelt challenged – and then ordered – his senior military counselors to devise a plan that would take the war to the Japanese home islands. To Tokyo.
This is the setting for James M. Scott’s brilliant tale of adventure and bravery, the story of the bombing of Tokyo which is said brought the reality of war to millions of Japanese civilians for the first time, and which put pressure on the Japanese military that would have far-reaching effects.
Scott, a young naval historian and former investigative newspaper reporter, captures the urgency of the White House based on revelations from 70-year-old documents. U.S. military leaders were reluctant to offer the president more than a vague outline for what many saw as a suicidal mission. It would fall to Gen. Hap Arnold and flying ace Jimmy Doolittle to map out a plan, pull together the fliers, redesign the aircraft and convince the Navy their controversial raid was achievable.
Lt. Col. Doolittle of the Army Air Corps had made a name for himself in civilian life. He was a noted stunt pilot and barnstorming racer, a former amateur boxer, the son of a gold prospector, and an MIT graduate.
It never was the Army’s intention that Doolittle would take part in the actual raid. But there never was any doubt in Doolittle’s mind that he would pilot the lead U.S. bomber over the Japanese capital.
Author Scott describes the utter secrecy of the mission in his account of the detailed but harried preparation for the raid. Pilots were learning to take off from specially marked short airstrips with bombers laden with sandbags. Mechanics were altering the aircraft to burn higher octane fuel and rubber bladders were being added to carry even more fuel.
Only a handful of men, a few in Washington and a few at the training site, knew the goal of the mission. The 79 crewmen who would join Doolittle were told only that they had volunteered for a dangerous top-secret mission outside the United States and that chances were high many would not return. They could only guess the rest.
Scott then switches the scene to Tokyo using Japanese records and military documents captured after the war. They show most Japanese officials thought – and had convinced the Japanese public – that the homeland was safe because of the expanse of ocean and the Imperial Navy’s invincibility in the Western Pacific.
Of the high command in Tokyo, it is said only Admiral Yamamoto, who had studied at Harvard and carefully observed the U.S. industrial complex in Detroit, foresaw the eventual disastrous outcome of the Japanese warlords’ actions. Yamamoto, it is said, had led the attack on Pearl Harbor with serious misgivings.
Scott then takes us through the final training, the loading of B-25 bombers on the Aircraft Carrier the USS Hornet and the redeployment of what remained of the American Pacific Fleet.
It was only after the men were at sea that they were told they would be the first to pilot loaded bombers from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier, and that their target was Tokyo. The planes could not land on a carrier even if the Navy dared wait around for their return. Instead, they would continue west to China, to inland airstrips they never had seen.
The reader can feel the rolling of the flight deck and the spray of the sea when Scott turns to the men’s own recollections of speeding down the flight deck, past the tower, and lifting hesitantly into the low gray overcast toward their targets.
It was only three and a half months after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese owned the Western Pacific. The U.S. fleet was spotted and the bombers were forced to leave the carrier 800 miles from Japan instead of the 500 to 600 miles Doolittle had anticipated.
The men knew they could reach their targets but that they probably would run out of fuel before reaching the Chinese airfields, even if they could find them. The excitement of the raiders is captured in the airmen’s extensive reports which provide minute-by-minute descriptions of the raid. The men talk of flying over a baseball game, of Japanese citizens waving to them, even of boys on a beach throwing rocks at the low-flying aircraft.
This story is too good to be fiction. Scott captures the exuberance, and then the letdown, and finally the fright as the men check and recheck their dwindling fuel. Although this is a splendid story of bare courage, made doubly so by Scott’s storytelling skills, it is in fact based almost entirely on primary sources and backed up by more than a hundred pages of endnotes. Scott dug through records in libraries on four continents. Some of them, like the China missionary file housed at DePaul University, are said to be used here for the first time.
All 16 planes dropped their bombs on Japanese soil, although some detonated with little consequence. But none of the planes reached their planned landing sites. Fifteen crashed near the coast of China and one landed in Russia which was officially off limits to Americans at that point because of Russia’s neutrality.
Somehow, most of the crewmen managed to survive without capture, but four died in crash landings. Of those captured by the Japanese after the crashes, all were tortured, three were executed and the others, while spared death, were held in solitary confinement until war’s end. One airman died in captivity. At times, their stories are difficult to read.
The raid stirred controversy, yet it accomplished what Roosevelt had sought. It boosted morale at home and injected fear into the Japanese mindset. In addition, Scott’s research into Japanese documents convinced him the Doolittle raid had the unintended consequence of rushing an over-reaching Japan into the Battle of Midway, which tipped the Pacific scales in favor of the Allies.
This story is not new, but the telling is fresh and packs a wallop that puts it up with the best of World War II combat stories.
Unless you were alive in 1942, unless you can remember your father or uncle walk through the door in his uniform, or your mother coming home tired from a war plant, you might not get the same jolt out of Scott’s book. But even if you don’t, you’re bound to share in the pride of accomplishment captured in these pages.
The spring of 1942 was a different day in a different age, in a much different world, a world it would do us well to recall. The men and women of this age have been hailed as a special breed of Americans. That’s why we look up to those few who still are with us and honor them while we still can.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.