This past Wednesday, the two surviving Doolittle raiders received the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of their 78 other Army Air Force fliers who boarded 16 B-25 bombers on the deck of the USS Hornet in perhaps the most audacious military operation in American history.
Jimmy Doolittle’s attack on Tokyo 73 years ago embodied American ingenuity and derring-do and was the opening salvo in a series of events that turned the tide of the Pacific theater during World War II.
The event was of such consequence — and legend — that the raid and what followed should never be forgotten. And that goes even in an era when history sadly often takes a backseat to so many cultural diversions, which, compared to the courage and bravery of Doolittle’s volunteers, seem embarrassingly silly to even mention.
But that’s exactly why another book revisiting the famed operation merits a place on bookshelves or in the Apple store or some such.
Author James M. Scott has done justice to Doolittle — the famed stunt and race pilot who returned to the Army when war was declared — and the raiders by using declassified records from the U.S. and Japan to craft a superb historical account, Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor.
Much of Scott’s 480-page tome (plus notes and sources) is reserved for the actual mission — a daring attack designed to bring the war to mainland Japan and a much-needed boost to American morale, which had suffered under months of defeats — and its aftermath, which included the deaths of seven men, including three in a crash and four in Japanese captivity.
The raiders were forced to take off almost 400 miles earlier than planned out of fear of detection in the Pacific. As a result, 15 of the 16 planes, already modified to carry more fuel, were lost to crash landings or bailouts in China. The 16th disobeyed orders and flew to the Soviet Union, setting off diplomatic intrigue.
Scott, however, relies only slightly on the many publications that preceded his enterprise. Much of his research is original, including untapped collections of Catholic missionary files at DePaul University. In those papers are gruesome depictions of the terrible cost of the raid.
It is no wonder why American administrations over the past 70 years have been so loyal to Taiwan, the refuge of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops, the same Chinese nationalists who helped the downed American raiders find safety and whose identity was easy to see from the tokens the grateful Americans left behind as thanks.
The Japanese, embarrassed by the raid, took out their vengeance on the Chinese, killing 250,000 in a rampage of wrath.
The Japanese invaders left nothing in their wake, burning homes and turning villages to rubble, killing everyone in their path, shooting “any man, woman, child, hog, cow or just about anything that moved.”
They destroyed roads, bridges and airfields, the same fields where Doolittle’s men were supposed to land.
“They raped any woman from the ages of 10-65,” according to the notes of one missionary. “None of the humans shot were buried either, but were left to lay on the ground to rot, along with the cows and hogs. The men of the Roman Legion could not have been more barbaric.”
Unleashed, too, were bacteriological agents, including plague, anthrax, cholera and typhoid.
Scott also takes the reader through another of the tragedies of the war: Japanese POW camps, where 1 in 4 died. Eight of the raiders were captured. Three were executed after guilty verdicts on trumped-up charges related to the raid. One died later of abuse and illness related to his imprisonment.
Scott’s tale is further humanized with the inclusion of farewell notes the three executed airmen wrote to family and friends. The notes are difficult to read and no less heroic than the fliers’ deeds over Tokyo on April 18, 1942.
To his mother, condemned Billy Farrow wrote: “I know, Mom, that this is going to hit you hard because I was the biggest thing in your life. I say I am sorry not to have treated you with more love and devotion, for not giving you all that I could, and will you please forgive me? It is usually too late that we realize these things. You are, I realize now, the best mother in the world, that your every action was bent toward making me happy, that you are, and always will be a real angel. So let me implore you to keep your chin up, like you wrote in your last letter that I always did — be brave and strong, for my sake. I love you, Mom, from the depths of a full heart.”
This heartrending minefield ends with even greater emotional disappointment with perhaps Scott’s ugliest unveilings.
The Japanese general who signed the death warrants for Farrow, Dean Hallmark and Harold Spatz escaped punishment after the war when the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur declined to arrest him because of his value to demilitarizing Japan.
All the same, Doolittle’s heroes struck a blow that changed the dimensions of the war, shocking the Japanese and forcing its leadership into battle more quickly than it wanted at Midway, the first in a number of decisive Allied victories on the way to ultimate triumph.
Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor
by James M. Scott
W.W. Norton & Co., $35