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Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York and London, 2003, $25.95.

CHICHI JIMA, A SMALL volcanic island near Iwo Jima, is unknown to the American public and little noted in history. Yet events took place on that tiny speck of rock during World War II that illustrate and symbolize the madness, barbarity and tragedy of war. Using that incident as the unifying theme of his work, James Bradley has given us an absorbing book that reveals and explains the special savagery of the Pacific War.

Flyboys: A True Story of Courage describes in vivid and unforgettable terms the fate of a handful of U.S. Navy and Marine aviators shot down and taken prisoner on Chichi Jima, an important wireless station for the Japanese navy. The story of these aviators embodies the conflict between Japan and the United States and is part of a wide-ranging chronicle of barbarities of which, Bradley says, both sides were guilty.

Often we ask where the aggressive militarism of the Japanese came from. History’s pat answer has been that it was due to the nature of their civilization and their ancient warrior culture.

Bradley contends that the fascistic militarism of 20th-centuryJapan was not an authentic expression of that country’s martial traditions. Instead, he explains, officers having little or nothing in common with the samurai tradition twisted that warrior code into a perverted culture of death and cruelty.

Before it was “ opened” in 1853 by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Japan was a well-ordered feudal culture, following generations of rule under the Tokugawa shoguns. There was little freedom, but the standard of living of the average Japanese in their clean cities was much higher than that of their European counterparts, despite disparities in technology Japan was at peace, in the center of its own universe.

Perry’s mission changed all that. The arrival of the “ black ships” in Tokyo Bay— steam-powered men-of-war with modern cannons — was as profound a shock to the culture of Japan as the landing of alien saucers armed with ray guns in Washington, D.C., would be today. It was a humiliating experience for the xenophobic Japanese to be ordered about by “ barbarian westerners.” As a result, the leaders of the nation resolved that this was an affront that was never to be repeated. The shogunate collapsed, and Japan set forth on the road toward its destiny in the mid-20th century.

By the turn of the century, through a tremendous effort of national will, Japan had transformed itself into a major military and economic power. It was capable not only of protecting itself against colonial encroachments but also of launching its own imperial adventures on mainland Asia. The culmination of this golden age was the Japanese victory in the war with Russia (1904-1905), a triumph of western style organization and technology that ensured Japan’s status as a world power.

Bradley demonstrates that the Japanese military culture of that time was very different from what it would be when Japan invaded China and during the war with the Western Allies. The military was still influenced by ancient samurai tradition when it had vanquished the Russians, and civilians were still in control of the government (and knew when it was opportune to negotiate peace).

With the advent of a new generation of officers after the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese military and its role in society changed drastically. Bradley describes how, during the reign of the weak Emperor Taisho, officers unconnected with the samurai tradition filled the vacuum of power in Japan. They took over the military, assumed custodianship of the imperial family and, not long after, of the entire country.

These newer officers believed it was Yamato damashii — Japanese spirit— that had won the war with Russia more than modern rifles and battleships. Japan had to be filled with the Yamato spirit; its children had to grow up to become “ Spirit Warriors.”

The new leaders militarized Japanese society. Schoolchildren were indoctrinated in the belief that Japan’s greatness was tied to its military. From the young Crown Prince Hirohito (first commissioned as an officer at age 11) to the most obscure first-grade schoolboy, children were exposed to a relentless deluge of military propaganda. Bradley shows that the way the military defined itself, and the virtues of a spirit warrior, were unconnected with the samurai past but very much in keeping with the savagery that would characterize Japan’s military operations in World War II.

We are all familiar with the key points of Japanese military philosophy as the spirit warriors knew it: that surrender or capture was an unthinkable dishonor; that conquered peoples and captured soldiers were without honor and liable to whatever cruelties their captors chose to inflict. Bradley makes it clear that this was a new and untraditional way of thinking for Japanese warriors— a departure from the true way of the samurai. This break with tradition contributed to Japan’s infamous atrocities among conquered peoples and against prisoners of war.

Bradley also makes pertinent digressions to cover the barbarity of western nations. He includes the United States, which he indicts for the genocide of the Indians and the cruelties of the first years of colonialism in the Philippines. Bradley’s argument is that Japanese expansionism was in imitation of American and British imperialism in Asia. After all, the Japanese reasoned, if the westerners behaved as they did, why couldn’t Japan?

The nation’s leaders (the military or those politicians beholden to the military) saw western outrage at Japanese expansionism in Manchuria and China as the deepest form of hypocrisy and racism (is colonialism for whites only?), and went on to do as they liked. Japanese soldiers, severely brutalized during training and indeed in everyday military life, practiced the most unspeakable atrocities on Chinese civilians — outrages so monstrous that they are still remembered to this day with rancor by the survivors and their descendants.

This is the background against which the tragedy of what happened to the U.S. aviators on Chichi Jima is told in Flyboys. In early 1945 the United States was knocking at Japan’s front door. Carrier planes repeatedly attacked the outpost in the Bonin Islands, which was heavily defended by anti-aircraft batteries. It was during these raids that the nine American “ flyboys” were shot down and taken alive by the Japanese on the island.

The airmen found themselves in a Japanese stronghold stranger than many others. The soldiers and sailors were isolated on Chichi Jima, living with both the boredom and the sudden fear that marked garrison life in such outposts. They were spirit warriors almost without a war, but in constant fear that they would be the next to see an invasion. They were dug in and resigned to death.

A bizarre miniature culture of cruelty and death evolved on that island. It was of a piece with the dehumanized spirit warrior philosophy and a ghastly step beyond. The commanders of the army and navy garrisons were gripped in a kind of sadistic insanity. That these officers performed savage abominations on the bodies of the young Americans they had captured is inexcusable, but given the mind-set and indoctrination of these Japanese as described by the author these atrocities are, perhaps, explainable.

Civilization and savagery are the twin themes of Flyboys. The Japanese had gone to great lengths in the 90 years after Commodore Perry to prove they were “ civilized,” as the West defined the word. During the Pacific War both sides leveled charges of uncivilized behavior and savagery against each other.

The Americans had plenty of reason to make such accusations, but, Bradley points out, the Japanese were not entirely unjustified themselves. Certainly the Americans set aside the nice scruples they had expressed before the war about the savagery of bombing civilian populations. The single largest killing of human beings in one day up to that time was a result of an American firebomb raid on Tokyo in March 1945.

Over the course of several months, bomber commander Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay’s Boeing B-29s had firebombed the centers of almost all the Japanese cities out of existence, snuffing out the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Set against this is the little abomination of Chichi Jima and the giant abomination of Japanese genocide in China, where civilians in the hundreds of thousands were bombed, infected by biological weapons, tortured, raped, bayoneted and simply hacked to pieces.

Perhaps the question the author raises in Flyboys is, “ Was either side the ‘civilized’ side in the Pacific War?” More disturbing, however, the book also raises the question in the mind of the reader, “ Is this what it means to be ‘civilized’?”

One hopes the answer is no. Perhaps the meaning of civilization rests instead in the character of the brave men whose fine young lives were snuffed out on that forgotten island in the western Pacific, and in the character of the few Japanese who befriended them while they were held captive. That meaning surely lies with the veterans— American and Japanese— who, as their lives draw toward a close, look back at the tragedy of the war not with rancor, but with sadness, forgiveness and hope for the future.

Brian John Murphy

Originally published in the August 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.