James Bradley,
Flyboys: A True Story of Courage
(Time Warner, 2003)

World War II is a fascinating time in world history. Wars show humanity at its worst. Whatever our beliefs, whatever our convictions, whenever we kill/maim/rape/plunder and otherwise destroy other lives, are we any better than any other violent animal on this planet -- or worse, because we claim moral superiority, yet we fail to live up to the ideals we profess to possess? When we look at war, it is often easy to take a detached view due to the fact that details are presented as numbers: bombs dropped, X number of people died. We need to make a connection to those who experienced the horror to more fully comprehend this evil part of human nature.

James Bradley attempts to do just that by focusing on a handful of pilots and crewmen who were shot down over the island of Chichi Jima in the Pacific theater in the early 1940s. James titled his book after these Navy and Marine airmen by calling it Flyboys: A True Story of Courage. These flyboys had been sent to destroy Japanese communications towers on the island. For most of those shot down, the details of their ultimate deaths were suppressed not only from the world, but also their families. One of these pilots who survived was rescued by an American submarine before the Japanese could capture him. You might have heard of President George Bush. One cannot help but wonder what else some of these people might have accomplished if their lives had not been cut short by the war.

Before James goes in to a description of the personal lives of those young Americans doomed to meet their fate on this tiny island, he goes back to an 1850s visit to the Islands of Japan by U.S. Naval Commodore Perry, which forced the Japanese to open up their country and begin to deal with, instead of ignore, the West. James discusses the Japanese way of the warrior and how this culture took on Russia and won just over 100 years ago. As the warrior class gave way to peasants rising in the military ranks in the decades that followed, it seems that smart military strategy gave way to recklessness and savagery as seen in how Japan treated those they conquered. To be fair, James also discusses how Americans killed tens of thousands of civilians bombing Tokyo and later dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book has Japanese civilian viewpoints of those attacks. All cultures are ugly in war.

The main focus of the book is on eight U.S. military flyboys and some of their Japanese counterparts. James introduces them by way of their backgrounds and what led them to the island of Chichi Jima. The individual bombing runs are detailed as each of these men gets shot down. Once in Japanese hands, some are tortured and killed more quickly. One ends up working in the very communication towers the U.S. was trying to destroy. While there, he befriends one of the Japanese soldiers. Several of the POWs end up on the dinner plates of some of the Japanese officers. Unlike Hannibal Lecter, these characters are real.

If you have seen (or even just heard about) the movie Flags of our Fathers, then you are familiar with the work of James Bradley. Flags focuses on the fighting on Chichi Jima's sister island, Iwo Jima. (James' father is actually one of the six soldiers immortalized with the famous flag-raising scene during that battle.)

Flyboys is an engaging book or, for the purposes of this review, audiobook. James took the time to read an abbreviated version that lasts about six hours. He is an OK narrator. I have a little trouble with his accent, but not enough to detract from the book. If there is anything to complain about, it is the fact that he cut portions from the written book to fit the narrative version on five CDs. He should have just read the book as is. Even so, I still liked Flyboys more than Flags, so if you have already read the latter or seen the movie and enjoyed it, I see no reason why you would feel any different about Flyboys.

review by
Wil Owen

15 September 2007

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