Book Review: Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley

Flyboys is the devastating story of nine American aviators (Flyboys) who were shot down over the Japanese island of Chichi Jima during World War II. Eight of the nine were captured and died under mysterious circumstances. I credit the author for finally telling their stories, but I found his agenda-driven account of history to be a distracting disservice to the men whose story he is telling.

I read Flyboys as part of the 2020 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. September’s challenge was to read a book set during WWII in order to recognize the 75th anniversary of when Japan formally surrendered (Sept. 2, 1945), bringing WWII to an end. Flyboys was a particularly fitting choice because it was about war in the Pacific theater.

I’ll start my discussion by saying that the story of the Flyboys really tore me up. I’ve been thinking about it for days and I was having a hard time finishing the book because what happened to them was anguishing and difficult to read about. I should also warn that this review will contain spoilers.

Although Flyboys was a general nickname for pilots and their crews, the Flyboys in this book had the common misfortune of being shot down over Chichi Jima, an island that hosted a key Japanese radio facility. Eight were captured by Japanese forces on the island and became POWs. In a remarkable twist of fate, the ninth Flyboy, the one who got away, was George H. W. Bush. We all know his fate, but you might not know the lifelong guilt he felt about his two crew members, who didn’t survive.

Of the eight who were captured, only the identities of seven were known. Kudos to author James Bradley for doing the legwork needed to tell their personal stories. He started researching 50+ years after their deaths but managed to find enough relatives, letters, yearbooks, military records, war crimes trial transcripts, etc, to piece together decent portraits of the seven.

They were all really young. A few were only 19 when they died and none were over 25. They all joined the military out of a sense of duty – they wanted to serve their country and avenge Pearl Harbor. They seemed to understand the risks, but I wonder if any imagined what would actually happen to them.

The Japanese executed all of them. Several were beheaded by swords, one was bludgeoned to death, and one or two were bayonetted to death. And then three or four were eaten. Yes, you read that right. Some of the depraved Japanese officers ate their livers and thigh meat – not because they were starving but because they were sick bastards.

Good Lord, I never knew that happened, and neither did the Flyboys’ families. Although there were war crimes trials, and several of the Japanese officers were executed, the records were sealed, ostensibly to save the families from the horrific details. The unsealing of those records enabled the author to tell the Flyboys’ stories.

Taking off from and landing on WWII aircraft carriers took a special kind of moxie.

Although he did his research, the information the author dug up wasn’t nearly enough to fill an entire book, so he tried to fill the space with historical context, and that’s why the book doesn’t work for me. In not at all nuanced passages, he refers to the US policy towards native Americans as “ethnic cleansing,” claims the US “stole” California from Mexico, and states that all of the Presidents on Mount Rushmore were racist even, you know, the one who freed the slaves.

After reading the first two chapters of the book, I was certain he was going to blame the US for Pearl Harbor. While he didn’t outright say it, it was heavily implied. I know America isn’t perfect, but its history isn’t as simple as this. The history is multi-faceted and I felt the author chose to show only one facet.

Additionally, he indulged in providing lurid details about the horrors of war. In a passage about the fire bombing of Tokyo, he writes, “People’s heads exploded in the heat, the liquid brains in their burst skulls bubbling an eerie fluorescence.” Eww. Save that for your next horror novel, Mr. Bradley!

The Flyboys deserved to have their stories told and heard, and for that reason I’m glad I read the book. But I really think the author did them a disservice by writing such a distracting, one-sided account of history.

If you read a WWII book this month, please tell us all about it in the comments. (I’m sure my Flyboy friend, George, will have plenty to say about Flyboys. Let it rip, George!)

Reminder – October’s challenge is to read a book that’s set at a college.

My mighty walk team braved the rain to “walk their way” in my hometown of Leavenworth, KS.

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Fundraising update – Thanks to everyone for your generous donations to my ALS walk team! I’ve raised $2750 and at least $1700 of that was from blog readers. You all are truly amazing!

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley

  1. So glad the fundraising went well, Michelle! Also, thank you for the reading challenge, which prompted me to get back to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (I had read half and somehow left it), which turned out to be a sweet book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your review of Flyboys was right on! I read it several years ago and felt exactly the same way. His viewpoint and attempts to make Americans the bad guys in a book about Japanese extreme mistreatment of prisoners was a real turn off. His research is to be commended but the cannibalism should have stayed classified in my opinion. My viewpoint is probably influenced by the fact that my dad flew a bomber off an aircraft carrier during the war. Thank goodness he made it home and was never a prisoner.
    My WW II book:
    I read Madame Foucade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson and highly recommend it. She is an historian and has written other marvelous WW II books about the war in Europe. Foucade ran the largest spy network in France for many years and was captured twice and escaped both times. There were so many characters that it was confusing at times and I would have loved some more in depth character development.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Deb! Your comments about Flyboys were very well-said and I completely agree. And cheers to your dad for being competent and courageous!

      I’ve been curious about the Madame Fourcade book, and based on your recommendation I’ve added it to my library list. Thank you!

      Like

  3. You so rarely write “negative” reviews that I always take them to heart. This doesn’t sound like a book for me – too biased and too gory. But it did prompt me to look up George H. Bush on Wikipedia – because I didn’t know he had a role in this story – and that was interesting. I always learn something from your blog!

    And congrats on the fundraising! I look for your appeal every year.

    P.S. I just finished a wonderful book called Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. It’s a historical novel about William Shakespeare, his fascinating wife, and their children, with a strong side story about the bubonic plague. Highly recommended.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Who picked this book anyway?! Oh yeah, never mind…I did. What a disappointment! Years ago, I read Bradley’s previous book, Flag of our Fathers, and really thought it was a great book. Flyboys? Don’t waste your time.
    You nailed it Michelle in that there simply wasn’t enough material for a complete novel so Bradley filled in the gaps – very poorly I might add. The book just didn’t work. It jumped around from Doolittle’s raid to Manifest Destiny to the war in Europe to a group of Flyboys who are shot down over Chichi Jima to whatever thought came up next in Bradley’s mind. And usually, Bradley would introduce his revisionist history into the mix to find the US culpable. Japan? Just victims of circumstance. What?
    I was never really sure what Bradley was trying to say with this book. Ultimately, I think it was: I did some amazing research on the Flyboys shot down over Chichi Jima and although they suffered horrible, tortuous deaths at the hands of their Japanese captors, the Japanese really aren’t that bad. Frankly, the book was so ridiculous that I likely wouldn’t have finished it if not for the Book Club! As I love to say, life is too short for bad literature.
    Just one example of Bradley’s alternate reality: On page 233 he writes “There were many thousands of Japanese soldiers on the island armed with rifles and knives. Any one of them could have wounded or killed an American. But the Flyboys were not shot or cut, just socked and kicked…” Two pages later, he describes a Flyboy being executed with bamboo spears and bayonets. Oh, and the Japanese would circle the prisoner’s heart so as not to stab them there in order to prolong the agony. Since Bradley did extensive interviews with the surviving Japanese soldiers, I can only guess that he had a psuedo Stockholm Syndrome experience while writing this book?
    Whatever his motive, this book fails on how it was haphazardly structured and the unreliability of the author due to his overtly bias writing. James Bradley has written other novels since but I have read my last of his.

    Liked by 1 person

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