‘Target Tokyo’

TARGET TOKYO: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor. By James M. Scott. Norton. 622 pages. $30.

In the months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, despite a nationalist fervor for revenge, the U.S. was underprepared to attack Japan, a nation that had never in its history been attacked.

American morale was sinking. Grasping for a momentum shift, the U.S. turned to legendary racer and stunt pilot Jimmy Doolittle to find a way to bomb mainland Japan.

James M. Scott’s thorough, gripping and balanced retelling is a true epic, with moments of thrill, mundanity, horror and redemption. The raid has been the subject of a number of films — it even got the Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer treatment in “Pearl Harbor” — but a trailer for Scott’s book would include such range of images as to make any other seem very narrow in scope: Doolittle raiders barnstorm from Florida to California, buzzing over livestock and under bridges. B-25s take off from an aircraft carrier in seas so rough they time their launches with the uptilt of the deck. A Navy seaman loses an arm to a propeller.

The raid itself takes place in an almost eerie quiet; one crew flies over a baseball game outside Tokyo. Forced to land in Vladivostok, a crew is stuffed into a train car with enough baloney, vodka and caviar for a 21-day trip across Siberia. (Later they find themselves in box seats at the ballet, outfitted in Soviet uniforms, and eventually smuggled into Iran.)

In Scott’s telling, the Doolittle Raid reads like an “Ocean’s Eleven” heist: a combination of meticulous planning and fly-by-night improvisation. The U.S. fleet was too depleted after Pearl Harbor to risk bringing aircraft carriers close to Japan. Navy fighter planes had too short a range and couldn’t carry enough ordnance. Army Air Corps B-25 bombers, which had never taken off from an aircraft carrier, had to be retrofitted, fuel squeezed into every available inch.

It was a one-way mission; the bombers couldn’t land back on the carrier. And when the Navy flotilla escorting the carrier Hornet was engaged by Japanese ships, the raiders had to take off hundreds of miles earlier than planned, making already-sketchy China landing plans even more of a long shot.

Doolittle had drilled his raiders relentlessly, studying silhouettes of bombing targets. They were forbidden to bomb the Imperial Palace and were only to hit military and industrial facilities. Aerial bombing of cities was still a new tactic and, somewhat like the use of drones today, controversial. A school was accidentally bombed. A preschooler was killed. Scott even lists the child’s name.

The actual military damage was minimal compared to the vast firepower America would bring only a few years later, but the heroics of Doolittle’s men raised American morale, and indirectly prompted an ill-fated attack by the Japanese on Midway Island. In Japan, the raid was unnerving, to say the least. With the civilian casualties, the Japanese viewed it somewhat like Americans would later view 9/11. The vicious and inhumane reaction by the Japanese would later lead to war crimes charges.

Readers of “Unbroken” will recognize the similar treatment of American POWs. Having read both books recently, I admit to suffering a bit of torture overload. The accounts of detained, starving Americans suffering through dysentery and beatings start to blend together. But “Unbroken,” as accurate and thoroughly researched as it was, is a legend, and the story of one man.

The Doolittle Raid has already received the legend treatment. It was designed to be a legend. Scott, a Mount Pleasant resident, has taken the legend and expanded it into an epic. His thorough knowledge of World War II history puts the raid in the context of global war.

Through the gripping narrative of one incident, Scott connects the causes of the war, the home front, the White House strategists, the aeronautical engineers, the below-deck card games and the lives of everyone from Winston Churchill to Yoshiro Nakamura, the Tokyo child killed by shrapnel.

“Target Tokyo” is no rah-rah revenge tale. Rather, it’s a complex story of a strange and complex time, when a few powerful men went mad, and for six years, the whole world joined them.

Reviewer Jonathan Sanchez is a writer and owner of Blue Bicycle Books.