Both work in tandem to tell the previously untold saga of nine American Navy and Marine pilots who were shot down over the remote Pacific island of Chichi Jima in 1944. One of the men escaped and was rescued, a 20-year-old by the name of George Bush, who would one day become President of the country he was serving. The other eight were tried and condemned as war criminals by the Japanese and eventually executed.
Bush himself has said that he never knew the complete story of what took place on Chichi Jima, and he was not alone. The events were conspiratorially hidden by both the American and Japanese governments for nearly 60 years until Bradley, the highly-regarded author of “Flags of Our Fathers“ (2000), went on a fact-finding mission to uncover them. The result is a compelling, emotionally-charged read that puts a very human face on the atrocities of war and challenges bureaucracies such as those that would shroud an important piece of history like this in secrecy.
In the first chapter, “Declassified,“ Bradley sets the stage for how the book came to be written:
“The e-mail was from Iris Chang, author of the groundbreaking bestseller ‘The Rape of Nanking.‘ Iris and I had developed a professional relationship after the publication of my first book, ‘Flags of Our Fathers.‘ In her e-mail, Iris suggested I contact a man named Bill Doran in Iowa. She said Bill had some “interesting“ information.
This was in early February 2001. I was hearing many “interesting“ war stories at that point. ‘Flags of Our Fathers‘ had been published recently. The book was about the six Iwo Jima flagraisers. One of them was my father... Bill quickly focused our call on a tall stack of papers on his kitchen table. Within twenty minutes I knew I had to look Bill in the eye and see that stack... The papers were the transcript of a secret war crimes trial held on Guam in 1946. Fifty-five years earlier, Bill, a recent U.S. Naval Academy graduate, had been ordered to attend the trial as an observer. Bill was instructed to report to the “courtroom,“ a huge Quonset hut. At the entrance, a Marine guard eyed the twenty-one-year-old. After finding Bill‘s name on the approved list, he shoved a piece of paper across a table... Bill signed the secrecy oath and he signed another copy late that afternoon when he left the trial. He would repeat this process every morning and every afternoon for the trial‘s duration. And when it was over, Bill returned home to Iowa. He kept silent but could not forget what he had heard.
Then, in 1997, Bill noticed a tiny newspaper item announcing that vast stashes of government documents from 1946 had been declassified. “When I realized the trial was declassified,“ Bill said, “I thought, Maybe I can do something for these guys now.“
As a lawyer, Bill had spent his professional life ferreting out documents. He made some inquiries and dedicated 11 months to following where they led. Then one day, a boxed transcript arrived in the mail from Washington. The transcript contained the full proceedings of a trial establishing the fates of eight American airmen, “Flyboys“ downed in waters in the vicinity of Iwo Jima during World War II. Each was shot down during bombing runs against Chichi Jima, the next island north of Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima was coveted for its airstrips, Chichi Jima for its communications stations. Powerful short- and long-wave receivers and transmitters atop Chichi‘s Mount Yoake and Mount Asahi were the critical communications link between Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo and Japanese troops in the Pacific. The radio stations had to be destroyed, the U.S. military decided, and the Flyboys had been charged with doing so... On the same day my father and his buddies raised that flag on Iwo Jima, Flyboys were held prisoner just 150 miles away on Chichi Jima. But while everyone knows the famous Iwo Jima photo, no one knew the story of these eight Chichi Jima Flyboys.
Nobody knew for a reason: For over two generations, the truth about their demise was kept secret. The U.S. government decided the facts were so horrible that the families were never told. Over the decades, relatives of the airmen wrote letters and even traveled to Washington, D.C., in search of the truth. Well-meaning bureaucrats turned them away with vague cover stories.
“All those years I had this nagging feeling these guys wanted their story told,“ Bill said.
Eight mothers had gone to their graves not knowing the fates of their lost sons. Sitting at Bill‘s table, I suddenly realized that now I knew what the Flyboys‘ mothers had never learned.“
Structurally, “Flyboys“ has much in common with “Flags of Our Fathers,“ particularly in the well-crafted characterizations of the nine aviators. We come to know them individually and as a unit, and see them as young men growing up in the country they were proud to defend to their harrowing final days of torture and brutality. The graphic details of their imprisonment and execution are not for the faint of heart and never feel gratuitous, even while there are some faint undercurrents of political incorrectness and racism that primarily serve to reinforce why Americans held the attitudes they did towards the Japanese then, and for years to come.
Book-ending what took place on the small Japanese-held island is a fairly concise examination of Pacific war history, including how America and Japan became strange bedfellows after the conflict due to incidents like this one, and paved the way for attitudes that would come into play during the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts. Bradley builds a strong case of guilt for both sides, which is carefully documented and now has the perspective of time and distance to aid in his impartial telling. Still, what the reader will carry away is the horrific tale of nine brave men, and the hope and courage that somehow managed to shine brighter than the darkness they eventually couldnt escape.