In Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley chronicled the lives of the six soldiers his father among them who famously raised the flag on Iwo Jima. With his new book Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, he returns to the same war and the same region of the South Pacific to tell how a group of desperate, formidable Japanese troops defending a communications center on the island of Chichi Jima exacted a bloody toll on eight captured American fighter pilots. A ninth flyer, who was shot down but escaped, was future president George Bush.
To give these atrocities a context, Bradley sketches in America’s often high-handed dealings with Japan from 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry’s warships entered Tokyo Bay, to the outbreak of the war. He also presents an account of how the airplane rose rapidly from being a novelty to become the biggest gun in the U.S. arsenal. Along the way, he outlines the character and military importance of the far-sighted Billy Mitchell, the flamboyant Jimmy Doolittle and the ruthlessly pragmatic Curtis LeMay.
But surely the most unsettling part of his story and a thread that runs throughout is the gratuitous cruelty that war unleashes: rapes, mutilations, exquisitely imaginative forms of torture, even cannibalism. In this regard, Bradley points out, America has not been blameless.
Bradley tells BookPage that the idea for Flyboys basically fell into his lap. "I’m home just sitting around," he says, "still reading about World War II, wanting to do another book about it but not having any idea. Then in February 2001, Iris Chang [author of The Rape of Nanking] says, ‘Call Bill Doran.’" Doran, as it turns out, is a World War II veteran and retired lawyer who witnessed secret war-crime trials against Japanese officers on Guam in 1946. Testimony given at these trials told in gruesome detail how the eight downed flyers actually died. When the transcripts were declassified in 1977, Doran obtained a copy. The secret had been so well kept that not only did the flyers’ families not know what happened, neither did former President Bush.
"My dad was a funeral director, and I’ve seen a lot of deaths," Bradley says. "But these guys got their heads cut off, and they got their livers eaten. And I thought, You know what? Everyone wants to turn away from that. It’s too icky. I want to memorialize these guys, and I want to give them the funeral they never had.’ They got thrown in the pit, and most of them are just names. They don’t even have any body parts. I wanted to reconstruct these guys. They were handsome, good, American boys."
To fathom the actions of the Japanese, Bradley says, he first had to understand the warrior culture they sprang from and how they must have felt in a battle they knew they were losing.
"It occurred to me," he observes, "[that they were] isolated, doomed, knowing they were going to die. One atrocity out on an island, people would take out of context."
During his research, Bradley fortuitously encountered former flyboy George Bush, who soon involved himself in the project. "I met him at a speaking engagement," Bradley explains. "We were both down in Texas and, along with a lot of other people, I got to stand and shake his hand. I knew he was a flyboy, and I said, I’ve got the story on these guys. My dad raised the flag. I’m not full of baloney.’ I thought that was the last time I’d ever see George Bush. Two weeks later he called me. We chatted a couple of times. And then I arranged a trip for him to go back to Chichi Jima [with me] and remember his boys." Bush’s trip with Bradley will be covered in a CNN documentary to air on October 18.
Bradley says that all the survivors he spoke to still had vivid memories of the brothers or friends they had lost in the war. It became his lot to reveal to them the disturbing facts that their government had for so long concealed. "I’m talking to people from 75 years on up," he relates. "They have known for 60 years how their brother died. ‘He was lost.’ ‘He died in a crash.’ And a guy calls them up that they’ve never heard of, ‘I’m James Bradley. My dad raised the flag on Iwo Jima.’ They should have hung up right there. It sounds like a looney, right? I would tell them: I know how he died in detail. You don’t have to listen. It’s horrible. I’m just telling you I’m going to write it in a book. You can hang up right now, or I can tell you. It’s your choice." Everyone, he says, wanted to know.
Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.