During World War II, eight American airmen were shot down over Chichi Jima and taken prisoner by Japanese troops. The reality of what happened to the eight prisoners has remained a secret for almost 60 years. After the war, the American and Japanese governments conspired to cover up the shocking truth. Not even the families of the airmen were informed what had happened to their sons. It has remained a mystery—until now. Read an excerpt of James Bradley’s “Flyboys” to learn about a tale of courage and daring, of war and of death, of men and of hope that will make you proud, and break your heart.
All these years I had this nagging feeling these guys wanted their story told.
— Bill Doran
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.
Indeed, scarcely a day passed without someone suggesting a topic for my next book. So I was curious as I touched his Iowa number on my New York telephone keypad.
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. I asked if I could catch the first plane out the next day.
“Sure. I’ll pick you up at the airport,” Bill offered. “Stay at my place. It’s just me and Stripe, my hunting dog, here. I have three empty bedrooms. You can sleep in one.”
Riding from the Des Moines airport in Bill’s truck, I learned that Stripe was the best hunting dog in the world and that his seventy-sixyear- old owner was a retired lawyer. Bill and Stripe spent their days hunting and fishing. Soon Bill and I were seated at his Formica-topped kitchen table. Between us was a pile of paper, a bowl of popcorn, and two gin and tonics.
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.
“Sign this,” the Marine ordered matter-of-factly. Everybody was required to.
Bill read the single-spaced navy document. The legal and binding language informed young Bill that he was never to reveal what he would hear in that steaming Quonset hut / courtroom.
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 eleven months to following where they led. Then one day, a boxed transcript arrived in the mail from Washington. Bill told Stripe they weren’t going hunting that day.
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.
A stack of papers my brother found in my dad’s office closet after his death in 1994 had launched me on a quest to find my father’s past. Now, on Bill’s table, I was looking at the stack of papers that would become the first step in another journey.
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.
History buffs know that 22,000 Japanese soldiers defended Iwo Jima. Few realize that neighboring Chichi Jima was defended by even more — Japanese troops numbering 25,000. Whereas Iwo had flat areas suitable for assault from the sea, Chichi had a hilly inland and a craggy coast. One Marine who later examined the defenses of both islands told me, “Iwo was hell. Chichi would have been impossible.” Land troops — Marines — would neutralize Iwo’s threat. But it was up to the Flyboys to take out Chichi.
The U.S. tried to blow up Chichi Jima’s communications stations for quite some time. Beginning in June of 1944, eight months before the Iwo Jima invasion, American aircraft carriers surrounded Chichi Jima. These floating airports catapulted steel-encased Flyboys off their decks into the air. The mission of these young airmen was to fly into the teeth of Chichi Jima’s lethal antiaircraft guns, somehow dodge the hot metal aimed at them, and release their loads of bombs onto the reinforced concrete communications cubes atop the island’s twin peaks.
The WWII Flyboys were the first to engage in combat aviation in large numbers. In bomber jackets, posing with thumbs up, they epitomized masculine glamour. They were cool, and they knew it, and any earthbound fool had to know it too. Their planes were named after girlfriends and pinups, whose curvy forms or pretty faces sometimes adorned their sides. And inside the cockpit, the Flyboys were lone knights in an age of mass warfare.
In the North Pacific in 1945, the Flyboys flew the original “missions impossible.” Climbing into 1940s-era tin cans with bombs strapped below their feet, they hurtled off carrier decks into howling winds or took off from island airfields. Sandwiched between blue expanses of sky and sea, Flyboys would wing toward distant targets, dive into flak shot from huge guns, and drop their lethal payloads. With their hearts in their throats, adrenaline pumping through their veins, the Flyboys then had to dead-reckon their way back to a tiny speck of landing deck or to a distant airfield their often-damaged planes never made it to.
The Flyboys were part of an air war that dwarfed the land war below. In 1945, the endgame in the northern Pacific was the incineration of Japan. This required two layers of bombers in the sky — huge B-29s lumbering high above with their cargo of napalm to burn cities, and smaller, lower-flying carrier-based planes to neutralize threats to the B-29s. My father on Iwo Jima shared the same mission with the Chichi Jima Flyboys: to make the skies safe for the B-29s.
Japanese military experts would later agree that the napalm dropped by these B-29s had more to do with Japan’s surrender than the atomic bombs. Certainly, napalm killed more Japanese civilians than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Most of the Chichi Jima Flyboys fought and died during the worst killing month in the history of all warfare — a thirty-day period in February and March of 1945 when the dying in WWII reached its climax. If you look at a graph charting casualties over the four years of the Pacific war, you will see the line jump dramatically beginning with the battle of Iwo Jima and the Flyboys’ assaults against mainland Japan. And few realize the U.S. killed more Japanese civilians than Japanese soldiers and sailors. This was war at its most disturbing intensity.
It was a time of obscene casualties, a time when grandparents burned to death in cities aflame, and kamikaze sons swooped out of the sky to immolate themselves against American ships. It was the time of the worst battle in the history of the United States Marine Corps, the most decorated month in U.S. history, a valorous and brutish time of all-out slaughter.
By February of 1945, logical, technocratic American military experts had concluded that Japan was beaten. Yet the empire would not surrender. Americans judged the Japanese to be “fanatic” in their willingness to fight with no hope of victory. But Japan was not fighting a logical war. Japan, an island nation, existed in its own moral universe, enclosed in a separate ethical biosphere. Japanese leaders believed that “Japanese spirit” was the key to beating back the barbarians at their door. They fought because they believed they could not lose.
And while America cheered its flyers as its best and brightest, the Japanese had a very different view of those who wreaked havoc from the skies. To them, airmen who dropped napalm on defenseless civilians living in paper houses were the nonhuman devils.
This is a story of war, so it is a story of death. But it is not a story of defeat. I have tracked down the eight Flyboys’ brothers and sisters, girlfriends, and aviator buddies who drilled and drank with them. Their relatives and friends gave me photos, letters, and medals. I have scoured yearbooks, logbooks, and little black books to find out who they were and what they mean to us today. I read and reread six thousand pages of trial documents and conducted hundreds of interviews in the U.S. and Japan.
The families and friends of the Flyboys could only tell me so much. Their hometown buddies and relatives had stories of their youth and enlistment. Their military comrades had remembrances from training camp up until they disappeared. But none of them —not even the next of kin or the bunkmates who served in the Pacific with them — knew exactly what happened to these eight on Chichi Jima. It was all a dark hole, an unfathomable secret.
In Japan, some knew, but they had kept their silence. I met Japanese soldiers who knew the Flyboys as prisoners. I heard stories about how they were treated, about their interrogations, about how some of the Flyboys had lived among their captors for weeks. I met soldiers who swapped jokes with them, who slept in the same rooms.
And I ventured to Chichi Jima. Chichi Jima is part of an island chain due south of Tokyo the Japanese call the Ogasawara Islands. On English maps the chain is called the Bonin Islands. The name Bonin is a French cartographer’s corruption of the old Japanese word munin, which means “no man.” These islands were uninhabited for most of Japan’s existence. They literally contained “no peoples” or “no mans.” So Bonin translates loosely into English as No Mans Land.
I hacked through forest growth in No Mans Land to uncover the last days of the Flyboys. I stood on cliffs with Japanese veterans who pointed to where they saw the Flyboys parachute into the Pacific. I strode where Flyboys had walked. I heard from eyewitnesses who told me much. Others revealed a great deal by refusing to tell me anything.
Eventually, I understood the facts about what happened to Dick, Marve, Glenn, Grady, Jimmy, Floyd, Warren Earl, and the Unknown Airman. I comprehended the “what” of their fates.
But to determine the “why” of their story, I had to embark upon another journey. A trip back in time, back 149 years, to another century. Back to when the first American military men walked in No Mans Land.
Excerpted from “Flyboys: A True Story of Courage” by James Bradley. Copyright © 2003 by James Bradley. Published by Little Brown & Company, a division of Time-Warner books. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.