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Flyboys

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Reading James Bradley’s Flyboys was an amazing voyage through the days of war in the Pacific.  Over the past 65 years many books have been written about WWII, Hitler, Germany and the Jewish annihilation.  We have often been reminded of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima; the vast and horrific smoke plume above the horizon of the Land of the Rising Sun is a sight not easily forgotten. However when it comes to the conflict between America and Japan after the devastation of Pearl Harbor, modern generations are thoroughly uninformed.

Prior to WWII war was fought primarily on the ground.  Not even the conflict in Europe utilized air combat to the extent that it was used between Japan and America.  Flyboys were a new breed of soldier; fresh-faced, naïve, suave and debonair in their aviator uniforms.  These boys had no idea what kind of world they would eventually parachute from their planes into.  Media at the time tended toward a focus on the war crimes of Germany, leaving the average citizen oblivious to Japan’s dealings with China, Guinea, and the American POW.

I was surprised to learn that our previous president, George H.W. Bush, was one of nine Flyboy’s shot down over the deadliest island in the South Pacific.  He was also the only one rescued.  Equally enlightening was the fact that more lives were taken when the Japanese soldiers killed Chinese people in retaliation for America’s surprise bombing on Tokyo then all of those lost when America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki (250,000).

The “Spirit Warriors” fighting for Japan during WWII were educated from early childhood to despise Americans and referred to them as “the Others” (any Lost fans out there recognize the term?)  While Japanese Samurai were “shrewd strategists and tacticians” that fought to win war, Spirit Warriors conversely believed that service to country meant sacrificing their lives.  By removing this fear of death, Spirit Warriors became eager, fearless, and ultimately suicidal.   They mistakenly believed war was won by this lone sacrificial action.

The US Army built a “Little Tokyo” in southwest Salt Lake City using authentic Japanese wood, authentic furniture, tatami mats flown in from Hawaii, and clothing hung in the closets.  This makeshift city was developed so that the military could conduct tests to discover which bomb, when dropped from a B29, would cause the most damage.  The premise of these experiments was to prove that if the bomb could destroy houses it was “capable of doing an equal job on industrial buildings too.”  No one questioned “why, if industrial targets were the priority for destruction, meticulously constructed homes were the first targets of the tests.”

The result of these experiments produced Naplam as the bomb of choice.  A sticky substance that stuck to anything, Napalm slowly burned whatever it touched.  No amount of water would extinguish it, patting the exposed area simply spread it’s burning capacity.  American B29’s skimmed the surface of Tokyo on death-defying missions —without ammunition—and dropped cheesecloth packed Napalm pipes on civilian neighborhoods.  Napalm killed more victims than the atomic bombs and, according to Japanese military experts, was the reason for Japan’s eventual surrender.

Amazing as those details are, however, they could not prepare me for the shocking descriptive depiction of how Japan treated POW’s.  The account of the eight Flyboy’s demise, long sealed after a top-secret military tribunal, are now described in horrific detail in the story that waited 58 years to be told.  Spirit Warriors on the island of Chichi Jima tortured, executed and cannibalized defenseless American POW’s.  At times the soldiers simply went about blindly obeying the orders of their superiors; often, though, they accepted the responsibility willingly.

My husband read this book before I did.  Actually he snatched it up as soon as I walked in the door from the Library.  When I asked him how he liked my book he would simply shake his head and say, “war is tough.”  Many of the reviews I read on Amazon focused on the author’s attempt to balance how vicious Americans could be (ie the way we treated the American Indian, the tactics of war in the Pacific that targeted millions of civilians) with the atrocities committed on Chichi Jima.  Most thought one culture was far worse than the other.

At the same time I read Flyboys I was reading the Old Testament Prophets.  I often remarked it was confusing which book I was reading!  Not because Isaiah was flying around in a B29…. Just look at what the Prophet Micah proclaimed in warning to Isreal….

“Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel!
 Is it not for you to know justice? You who hate the good and love the evil, 
 who tear the skin from off my people and their flesh from off their bones, who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces and chop them up like meat in a pot, like flesh in a cauldron.” Micah 3:1-3

Apparently some things have not yet changed; neither have people.

I’m sure we’d like to self-righteously believe our culture is incapable of the atrocities described by James Bradley; that we have matured far beyond such grisly behavior.  Unfortunately what Micah reveals proves quite the contrary.  No matter what the date, location, or environment all human beings are still and will always be grossly capable of sin.

Although the content is quite graphic and oft times will churn the stomach, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.  Our previous generations sacrificial actions are an important lesson for our present narcissistic society.  More importantly, similar to the Prophet Micah’s call to return to the Living God, this WWII depiction serves as a reminder of that very same need in every man’s (country’s) heart.

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