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.
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.
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!