Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told his commanders that they must show the enemy the “real meaning of war” by bombing Japan.
That set in motion one of the most audacious attacks of World War II. Less than five months after the “day of infamy,” a fleet of 16 U.S warships steamed 5,200 miles across the Pacific. Sixteen B25 Mitchell bombers, launched from the deck of the USS Hornet, flew unchallenged some 800 miles, arriving over Japan at midday and bombing Tokyo and other key industrial cities.
In “Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and The Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor,” Charlotte native James M. Scott brings his flair for storytelling and zest for research to describe in vivid detail an event that boosted U.S. morale during the darkest days of World War II.
These days the word “hero” is bestowed indiscriminately, but no other better suits Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle and his 79 fellow airmen. They volunteered for what was considered a suicidal mission, knowing there might not be enough fuel to carry them deep into China, beyond the grasp of enemy troops.
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With the exception of one plane, which landed in Russia, the bombers reached China before their fuel ran out. The crews either bailed out or ditched along the coast. With the help of Chinese farmers and militia, most of Doolittle’s team survived. Eight were captured and sent to Japan’s notoriously inhumane prisons. Three were executed, and one starved to death.
Relying on debriefing interviews, the raiders’ personal accounts and other extensive resources, Scott has written a tale as gripping as a popular thriller. At one point, he describes how the fugitive airmen hid in a cave, near enough to the enemy to hear them beating a Chinese priest who refused to betray them.
The surviving Doolittle raiders would become celebrities. Their Chinese protectors weren’t so fortunate. An estimated 250,000 Chinese would be executed; women and girls raped; entire villages and cities reduced to rubble; water supplies poisoned. Biological warfare teams spread cholera, typhoid and other horrific diseases among the unsuspecting population.
Perhaps no one could have anticipated the extent of Japan’s wrath, but Scott writes that U.S. leaders anticipated the Chinese would pay a high price for the raid on Tokyo and that they deliberately kept Generalissmo Chiang Kai-shek in the dark about the impending raid.
The need for secrecy, while understandable, hampered rescue efforts and undermined the White House’s credibility.
Prior to the task force’s departure, only seven people were fully briefed on the Doolittle mission, Scott writes. Also, radios had been removed from the bombers in order to reduce weight and because of the need to maintain silence. Unfortunately, once the B-25s lifted off the Hornet, it would be weeks before anyone knew the full story.
Many of those details are revealed for the first time in Scott’s book, the first to make such use of Japanese records. At the time, Japan downplayed the attack, falsely claiming that nine planes had been shot down. The White House bungled the public relations campaign by withholding facts, including that several of the raiders had been captured.
Doolittle, who would be promoted to brigadier general and awarded the Medal of Honor, never forgot his fellow raiders. For many years until his death at 96, he presided over an annual reunion. In November 2013, the author attended the final such gathering in Dayton, Ohio. He was present when three surviving raiders, each in his 90s, toasted their comrades with an 1896 bottle of cognac donated by Doolittle.
It was a fitting end to a great story.
Terry Plumb, a retired journalist, lives in Rock Hill, S.C.
Meet the author
James M. Scott will sign copies of “Target Tokyo” at 2 p.m. Sunday at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, Charlotte.
He is scheduled to appear at 7 p.m. May 7 at Quail Road Books & Music, 3522 Wade Avenue, Raleigh.
Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor
James M. Scott
W.W. Norton and Co., 672 pages