One hardly has to be a skeptic, a naysayer, or a congenital mope to find the near-universal acceptance of Tom Brokaw’s two-decade-old appellation—“the Greatest Generation”—more than a little irksome. After all, Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and their ilk were pretty damn great. Weren’t they? And what about the generation of men and women who helped keep the Union together during the bleakest days of the Civil War? Or the Abolitionists who risked life, limb and livelihood in their righteous effort to obliterate slavery?
But the central reason “the Greatest Generation” is such an annoying conceit is because of what it implies. Namely, that the rest of us—all those who came before or after World War II—kind of suck.
And then along comes a book like James M. Scott’s powerful, meticulously researched history, Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor, and the reader comes away shaking his head and admitting that, all right, all right, maybe they really were the baddest generation, after all.
First, some background on Doolittle’s Raid—an utterly audacious, inexplicably little-known (today, at least) exploit from the earliest days of the Second World War. In the weeks and months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American public, its politicians and its military leaders largely shared in the national reaction: Namely, everyone was enraged at how appallingly, nakedly unprepared American forces were in Hawaii; everyone was stunned by the realization that the United States was now engaged in a war on two vast—and vastly different—fronts; and, finally and most sharply, everyone wanted revenge.
Scott does a wonderful job in the first part of the book detailing the intense, charged secrecy in Washington and elsewhere around the planned American response to the attack, as well as the bleakly predictable jockeying for control—political, military, psychological—that broke out among so many in President Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle. But equally as jaw-dropping as the speed and the ingenuity involved in the planning of the first-ever American attack on Japan—launched a mere four months after Pearl Harbor—is the way Scott manages, from the very start of the book, to make the inevitable so dramatic.
No one with even a passing knowledge of American history is unaware of what happened on Dec. 7, 1941. But relying on reams of previously unpublished records and archival material, Scott portrays the run-up to the Pearl Harbor attack through the eyes and memories of combatants on both sides. Employing what might have been, in lesser hands, a cheesy back-and-forth technique, plotting scenes in a sleepy Oahu and among the Japanese sailors and pilots bearing down on Pearl Harbor—with first-person recollections and diary entries from many of the principal Japanese attackers—Scott transforms one of the most familiar, heavily documented events in American history into a deeply suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat narrative.
We know what’s going to happen. We’re well-acquainted with the destruction that rained down on Oahu on that infamous Sunday morning. But the way Scott tells it, it’s unfolding as if for the first time. That is no mean feat.
But the book really belongs to one of the most remarkable aviators America has ever produced—the seemingly indestructible, five-foot-four dynamo, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle—and the motley band of pilots, navigators and crew members he led on what became known as the Doolittle Raid. Technically implausible, militarily brash, politically nervy, the raid on Tokyo by 16 modified B-25 bombers—launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier 800 miles from Japan, in huge seas and gale-force winds—was a major psychological blow against an enemy that thought itself, and its homeland, quite literally unassailable.
As deft as Scott’s delineation of the planning and the execution of the raid clearly is, though, it’s the depth and the rigor of his reporting and research into the raid’s grisly aftermath that raises Target Tokyo above the vast majority of solid WWII histories. As it turns out, because the B-25s left the Hornet hundreds of miles further out from Japan than originally planned, not one crew made it to the original, designated rendezvous in Chiang Kai-shek’s China intact. In fact, with the exception of one plane that landed in Russia, all of the planes involved in the April 1942 raid on Tokyo crash-landed hundreds of miles from their stated destination in China, were ditched in the sea or were lost after their crews bailed out. Scott’s skillful, scrupulous (but never, ever dull) reckoning of the fate of each and every crew member takes us deep inside the rigors, the terrors and the sheer, bullheaded will to live that defined so many of the crews’ journeys out of occupied China and, eventually, back home.
In the end, one comes away from the book—and especially the depiction of the horrors endured by a number of American POWs, systematically starved, tortured, brutalized and, in some cases, executed by their Japanese captors—with an appreciation of the Raiders’ courage and sacrifice that borders on awe. The fact that Scott also takes pains to chronicle the horrors that Japanese troops inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Chinese men, women, and children (mass rape and slaughter, much of it positively bestial) in retribution for the raid—and in retribution for so much selfless aid given to the Raiders by countless poverty-stricken Chinese—adds yet more texture and complexity to an already rich, nuanced tale.
Like Lauren Hillebrand’s Unbroken, David Howarth’s We Die Alone and other riveting war classics of heroism, grit and—yes—depravity, Target Tokyo brings to life an indelible era, and shines a fresh light on ordinary men and women who refused to buckle under in extraordinarily perilous times. The Greatest Generation? That’s up for debate. But all these years later, it remains unlikely there has ever been a generation, or ever will be one again, as demonstrably, uncomplainingly tough.
Note: Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, the last survivor among eight crewmen who were captured by the Japanese after the raid, and a major figure in Scott’s book, died on March 30, 2015. He was 95 years old.