The scope of the Doolittle Raid might have been relatively modest, but it did much to alter the course of the war in the Pacific after the shock of Pearl Harbor.
James Scott’s new book, “Target Tokyo,” which was released last week, delves deeply into this historic wartime episode, revealing much about the people involved, the impact on Japan, the devastation in China and the huge morale boost experienced by U.S. fighters. The Post and Courier asked Scott about his latest effort.
Q: At 672 pages, “Target Tokyo” is your biggest book to date. But its length is a consequence of the story’s compelling nature. How did you organize the project and what approach did you take in tackling this topic? Was your routine or your research effort different in any way from how you managed previous projects?
A: You know your book is large when Pat Conroy, no stranger to writing a thick tome himself, tells you it’s a hefty book, which he did when I saw him last fall as he was reading an advance copy of it.
That said, I never intended for the book to be lengthy. In fact, “Target Tokyo” was contracted to be about 100,000 words, which would have resulted in a typical 300-page book. All that changed once I started writing it and the story spiraled out.
The Doolittle Raid, on the one hand, is a small story of a single bombing mission that lasted merely a few hours. But the context surrounding it is much larger. The raid was designed to avenge the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which was the catalyst that launched America into World War II. As a result, I felt it was important to explore the impact of Pearl Harbor. The book, in fact, opens on Dec. 7, 1941, and traces what that day was like inside the White House as the news unfolded.
Also, while it is the story of one mission, the individual aircrews ended up having incredibly diverse experiences and I wanted to include as many as possible. Some of the raiders flew on to China, as originally planned, and, low on fuel and in foul weather, safely bailed out of the bombers. Others crash-landed along the coast. One aircrew even diverted to Russia and was interned. The Japanese captured eight of the raiders, three of whom were later executed while another starved to death in prison. The remaining four suffered 40 months in Japan’s notorious POW camps.
After learning what each of these aircrews went through, I felt like it would have been a disservice to them not to include as many of the details of those experiences as possible. Fortunately, my ever-patient editor agreed and saved a lot of the text from ending up on the cutting-room floor.
Q: Tell me about Jimmy Doolittle, the central character of the book. What was he like?
A: Jimmy Doolittle is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating individuals of the 20th century. He was the son of an Alaskan gold prospector, who despite his short stature — he stood just 5 feet 4 inches tall — boxed professionally as a young man. He joined the Army during World War I, though he never saw combat, (he) did fall in love with flying.
Over the course of my research, I obtained Doolittle’s 1,100-page military personnel file, which included his performance evaluations. It was clear in reading those that his superiors sensed very early on in his career that he was destined for greatness.
Doolittle was the first pilot to ever fly cross-country in less than one day. Not only was he an incredible stunt and racing pilot, he also was brilliant. He earned both master’s and doctorate degrees from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He helped develop the artificial horizon, which is a standard instrument on airplanes today, and was the first pilot to ever fly blind using only instruments, a feat he accomplished in a hooded cockpit.
After the Doolittle Raid, he rose to the rank of three-star general and commanded the Eighth Air Force. Of course, Doolittle is mostly known for the legendary Tokyo raid that bears his name, and for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, but in reality, he contributed so much more to the advancement of aviation and our nation.
Q: Every mission has its unintended consequences. This one not only altered the course of World War II but caused all kinds of problems with the Chinese. Encapsulate the major takeaways from this history.
A: It is amazing that a strike, which consisted of only 16 bombers and 80 airmen, triggered such major repercussions. The Doolittle Raid prompted Japan to try to extend its defensive perimeter and seize Midway from the United States in June 1942. That ill-fated battle ended in a crushing defeat for Japan, which lost four aircraft carriers, and shifted the balance of power in the Pacific in favor of the United States.
But it was the Chinese who paid the largest price. In an effort to prevent America from using Chinese airfields in the future as well as to punish the locals for helping Doolittle and his men, Japan launched a retaliatory campaign in the summer of 1942. It was a slaughter that claimed the lives of an estimated 250,000 men, women and children.
Troops cut the ears and noses off of villagers, set others on fire and drowned entire families in wells. The Japanese not only used incendiary squads to systematically torch entire towns, but also unleashed bacteriological warfare in the form of plague, anthrax, cholera and typhoid. The brutal campaign prompted comparisons to the Rape of Nanking.
Q: Your research for this book was extensive. What important information did you uncover that was previously not known or well understood?
A: I would really like to stress that there is a lot of new material in this book. This is not just a retelling of an iconic war story.
This is the first book, in fact, to make use of Japanese sources, so we now know the true results of the raid — the precise number of people injured and killed, which sadly includes some civilians and even children, as well as the damage inflicted and structures destroyed. We even have never-before-published photographs of the damage pulled from Japanese archives.
In addition, this is the first book to really chronicle the horror of Japan’s retaliation against the Chinese, a part of the story that for too long has been glossed over. The United States had no troops on the ground in that part of China at the time to witness what happened, which partly explains why this element of the story has gone untold.
Over the course of my research, I discovered long-forgotten missionary records — letters, photos and even property insurance reports — in the archives of DePaul University. These missionaries were literally on the front lines of this horror and their first-hand accounts allow us to finally flesh out in great detail what happened in the wake of the raid.
Q: Got another project in the works? What up your sleeve?
A: I am working on a book now on the February 1945 Battle of Manila, which was the bloodiest urban fight of the Pacific War. The 29-day fight claimed 100,000 civilian lives (and included) some of the worst atrocities of the war, and led to the complete destruction of one of the greatest cities in Asia, known at the time as the Pearl of the Orient. It is a truly horrific story.