Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle And The Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor, by James M. Scott; Norton (480 pages, $35)
Americans of a certain age will remember that the United States boldly responded to the Pearl Harbor disaster with an equally surprising bombing of Tokyo, a mission led by Jimmy Doolittle, a genuine American hero.
But you can’t remember what you have never known, and with this important book James M. Scott fills in the gaps, masterfully describing not just the raid itself but, importantly, the rest of the story.
The 16 B-25 bombers that attacked Tokyo could not carry enough fuel to return to the Hornet, the aircraft carrier from which they’d taken off, so they’d have to land in China, a challenge that proved to be exceedingly difficult and to have unpleasant consequences.
Every airman involved in the raid was given the opportunity to decline the dangerous one-way mission, but none of them did and that is impressive testimony to their courage.
And many of them would pay a terrible price for their bravery. That part of the story is largely forgotten today, and Scott’s account adds a valuable chapter to our nation’s history.
“Target Tokyo” is a story of incredible courage, yet it’s also a description of tragedy and brutality.
Today, the Japanese are an important American ally, and relations between Tokyo and Washington have never been better. But in World War II, it was a different story altogether.
This was most evident in China, where several of the American flight crews had sought safety and been helped by sympathetic Chinese. By then, the Japanese had already shown their capacity for sheer evil in what is now commonly referred to as “the Rape of Nanking” in the late 1930s.
Their behavior in China in response to the Doolittle raid was essentially a continuation of the same kind of brutality. Women were repeatedly raped and then killed; some Chinese were used as targets for Japanese bayonet practice; babies were tossed over bridges to drown in the rivers.
In the early days of World War II, the Japanese were arrogantly confident of victory. They were scoring victories everywhere they went and smugly believed that their own country would be safe from attack.
So how did the Americans pull off this stunner? As Scott’s research shows, the plan was carefully cultivated at the highest political and military levels and was launched at the insistence of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was determined to respond forcefully to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The bombing of Tokyo, led by Dootlittle, although perhaps achieving little in terms of immediate damage to the Japanese capital, was such a huge surprise that it ended Japan’s momentum.
“The Tokyo raid had not only buoyed the morale of a wounded nation,” Scott observed, “but postwar records and interviews with senior Japanese leaders would reveal the raid’s effect on the plans to capture Midway, an unintended consequence that would yield the mission’s greatest success.”
Japan had planned to secure its domination of the Pacific by capturing Midway, but in the June 1942 battle that carries that name, the Americans sank four Japanese aircraft carriers “shifted the balance of powers … setting the stage for America’s offensive drive across the Pacific,” Scott noted.
To most historians, the American victory at Midway was the turning point of the war.
This book will fascinate those of us old enough to remember Doolittle’s achievement, but younger readers will also find it a fascinating account of an important, if seldom understood, chapter in American history.