Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Flyboys by James Bradley

"Nations tend to see the other side's war atrocities as systemic and indicative of their culture--and their own atrocities as justified or the acts of stressed combatants."

After thoroughly enjoying James Bradley's book Flags of Our Fathers, a compelling history of the World War II battle for Iwo Jima, I was looking forward to reading his follow up book Flyboys, which tells the little-known story of Chichi Jima, a tiny island in the Pacific that literally--and figuratively--sits in Iwo Jima's shadow.

Bradley's book tries to be quite a number of things, but at its core it's a history of a series of atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers on American airmen captured during bombing runs over the island. The atrocities were astonishing in their depravity, involving summary executions, decapitations and cannibalism.

I'll state one minor weakness of the book up front: About a hundred or so pages covers historical background of the Pacific War that readers can find in any of dozens of other books. It will be review material for anyone who knows their WWII history, but it's worth wading through it in order to get to the new ground that this book breaks--the stories of the airmen who were caught, tortured and killed on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

Sadly, what took place on this island was kept secret by the US military for decades. It's disturbing that the Navy knew all along what happened to these eight pilots, yet it chose to withhold this information from their families even to this day. Thanks to Bradley, who obtained access to these airmen's service records through a secret source inside the military, these soldiers' stories can now be told.

And since Stephen Ambrose's reputation has turned rotten under the heat of numerous plagiarism allegations, it's my view that James Bradley is staking out ground as one of the best current military history storytellers out there right now. Recommended.

Reading List for Flags of Our Fathers:
A note to new readers of this blog: I create reading lists from the books I read so if I choose to go deeper into the subject matter, I have a ready-made list of titles to choose from. I share these book lists with my readers in case they wish to do the same.

1) The Second World War by John Keegan (This is the first book I'd recommend to readers interested in an exceptional and comprehensive history of World War II)
2) Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix
3) Looking Forward by George Bush with Victor Gould (long before he became President, George Bush senior was a Navy pilot who was shot down near Chichi Jima)
4) Tojo and the Coming of the War by Robert Butow
5) Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower (this is an exceptional book that I'm now reading)
6) American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur by William Manchester
Japan: A Modern History by James McClain
7) The Right Stuff by Tom Wolf (an entertaining and at times hilarious history of the early days of test-pilots and astronauts in the USA)

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