- - Wednesday, April 8, 2015


By James M. Scott

W.W. Norton, $35, 648 pages

Unless you are now 80 or more years old, you could hardly be expected to have memories of those dark days after the attacks by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and the British, French and Dutch colonies in the Western Pacific. The Allies were impotent. The Empire of Japan could not be stopped. President Roosevelt and his senior military leaders were desperate for a counterstrike against the Japanese home islands but we had no airfields within range, or even close. Yet in less than four months after the devastating attack at Pearl Harbor, 16 B-25s were over Tokyo and other major cities.

James Scott in this definitive account of the planning, training and execution of this raid, led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Corps, also reveals details of the interplay of the strong characters in the Navy and Air Corps who carried out this daring carrier task force raid across the North Pacific.

For 20 years Mr. Scott was an investigative reporter with the Charleston, South Carolina. Post and Courier, and he has uncovered never-before published collections such as the missionary files located at DePaul University that describe the horrific Japanese retaliations against the Chinese in the wake of the raid. There are also 167 pages of endnotes. It is a book that will fascinate readers interested in that long-ago war in the Pacific and also serve as a textbook for high school and college history courses, and most particularly, for Naval Academy midshipmen.

The story opens with a prologue: “Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo stared at the dark sea that spread out before him from the bridge of the aircraft carrier Akagi as it steamed north of Hawaii in the predawn hours of December 7, 1941.” Mr. Scott then describes this most powerful carrier task force the world had ever seen. Thirty-one ships including six first-line carriers. Nevertheless, the Japanese admiral was anxious about the mission’s chances for success. But he wasn’t the only anxious one, as Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, the Pacific Fleet commander, earlier that week had been told by his senior intelligence officer who had been trying to keep track of Japanese naval units as they had changed call signs on Nov. 1. In that shuffle Japan’s main carriers had vanished. The prologue ends with the sentence, “War had come.”

The author informs the reader that “President Franklin Roosevelt was enjoying a late lunch in his White House study Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941.” He then describes the study, a parlor off his second-floor bedroom, a cluttered room “filled with model ships, Currier and Ives lithographs, a portrait of John Paul Jones rescued from a second hand shop.” With skill and a delicate touch the author also includes bios as each of the participants appear in this epic story. The principal, Doolittle, has an entire chapter.

Through December 1941 the war news was a series of defeats: Guam fell, much of American’s air power in the Philippines was wiped out, Hirohito’s forces sank the British battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse. The Japanese onslaught appeared unstoppable. Christmas and New Year’s passed without any reprieve from the bad news that dominated the Pacific. Mr. Scott writes, “The President was insistent that we find ways and means of carrying home to Japan proper, a bombing raid.” The level of frustration for Adm. Ernest King, a naval aviator, commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, and Lt. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps that lacked the bases and aircraft to reach Japan, was monumental. However, that frustration was about to end for Adm. King on Saturday, Jan. 10, 1942. After a long conference, he returned to his quarters aboard the Vixen, a 333-foot yacht moored at the Washington Navy Yard.

Waiting aboard King’s flagship was his operations officer, Captain Francis Low, a submariner, who had just returned from Norfolk from checking on the progress of the newest carrier, Hornet (CV-8). Together they crafted the retaliation Roosevelt had demanded. As Mr. Scott writes, Low made a convincing suggestion: “‘If the Army had a bomber that could take-off in that short distance we could put them on a carrier, transport them across the Pacific within range of the mainland of Japan.’ King replied, ‘Discuss it with Duncan (Capt. Donald Duncan, King’s air operations officer) and tell him to report to me.’”

King, who liked what he heard and sent Duncan and Low to see Gen. Arnold, the Air Corps chief, who enthusiastically embraced the concept but wanted to run it by his staff troubleshooter, Lt. Col. Doolittle, who took only one day to say that it was feasible and the plane that can do it is the B-25 (the same plane Duncan had selected). Arnold picked up the phone to King. The plan was a go.

The narrative then moves to the aircraft modification and pilot training under the leadership of Doolittle and the Navy preparations directed by Duncan. The USS Hornet completed her shakedown, transited the Panama Canal and arrived at Alameda as planned on April 1, 1942. Doolittle’s 16 bombers landed at the Naval Air Station that same day, taxied to the pier where Hornet was moored and were immediately hoisted aboard. The next morning Hornet and her escorts were underway, Target Tokyo.

James Scott in the remaining 342 pages gives a gripping account of the rising tension as the Hornet task force, now joined by the carrier Enterprise and her escorts, with Adm. William Halsey in command, faced high winds, squalls and rough seas in the North Pacific.

Mr. Scott follows each bomber as they launched from a pitching deck to landfall and on to their targets. He then accounts for each bomber crew as they flew toward Free China and crash-landed or bailed out, including one crew that landed in Russia. Sadly, two of the crews landing in China were captured by Japanese troops and Mr. Scott covers their grim ordeals, including the execution of three of them.

“Target Tokyo” is the story of an extraordinary joint military operation, which had profound effect on the outcome of the Pacific War even though the bomb damage was minimal.

Thomas W. Schaaf Sr. is a retired naval aviator living in Fairfax, Va.

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