Book Review – Mission to Tokyo: The American Airmen Who Took the War to the Heart of Japan
by Robert F. Dorr; Minneapolis, Minn.; Zenith Press, 2012; Hardcover, 336 Pages; Illustrated; $30.00
With Mission to Tokyo, Robert F. Dorr once again has created a multi-dimensional, multi-layered approach to telling a story of tremendous importance. He lures you into the story step by step, using a minute-by-minute description of the famous March 9/10, 1945 raid as the vehicle for his technique. In many ways this technique is like a modern automated automobile factory where individual parts are assembled at different positions, then magically arrive at just the right moment for installation. In the book, the parts arriving for assembly are massive amounts of fascinating detail on the people, the aircraft and the war. Coming together, they move forward, minute by minute, to the climax, the firestorm destroying Tokyo.
The author has mastered the challenge of telling compelling human stories about scores of individuals, from the greatest combat airman in history, Curtis LeMay, to the mechanics who labored hard to keep their cantankerous Boeing B-29 aircraft ready for takeoff. The mechanics, of course, were doing their jobs. LeMay was betting his career by gambling that a night, low-level raid by his B-29s might at last bring results that high altitude bombing had failed to yield.
Dorr uses a pointillist method to bring his individuals to life as caring human beings, with short, discrete descriptions that appear on each person over a number of pages. As a result, we learn of their background, their personal characteristics, and most important, how they are perceived by their friends and associates. (This latter technique is invaluable in the description of individuals, and sadly, whole crews, who are lost in combat.) The result is that you come to know, page by page, the people who are flying the mission minute by minute.
As he establishes the personnel, often using first person quotes about them, he establishes their milieu – the islands where they live, their quarters, their jobs aboard or around the B-29. In doing so he gives life to the otherwise inanimate objects upon which their success depended, from the auxiliary power unit used in engine start up to the under-designed and overstressed Wright R-3350 engines that caused so many accidents. When he talks about a gunner, a navigator, a pilot, a bombardier, Dorr weaves in the challenges of their tasks in a way that the B-29, so advanced and formidable for the time, becomes easier to understand.
The author introduces another set of dimensions as he explains the historical background of the war, the development of the aircraft, and the nature of the enemy. The latter is handled masterfully, as Dorr contrasts two elements of the Japanese people. The first element was the remarkably naïve nature of the arrogant national leaders, who whimsically believed that the United States would negotiate with them after experiencing initial naval defeats and the loss of Pacific territories. The second element was the almost innocent nature of the impoverished Japanese people, who were brought into the war in a daze of nationalistic propaganda, and who had no idea of disaster facing them. He portrays how totally inept the Japanese leadership was at the local level, which lacked adequate air raid shelters, had only limited fire fighting equipment, and virtually no training in its use.
Mission to Tokyo inevitably has a Wagnerian cast to it as the details of the mission unfold. Each takeoff is a bout with death, for any failure – a blown tire, run-away propeller, engine loss of power – could result in an explosive crash off the end of the runway. En route, alone, not in the huge, comforting box formations of Europe, each crew was faced with a series of hazards. First they were flying at low altitudes (5,000 to 8,000 feet) in intermittently bad weather and high winds. A navigation error could throw them into a mountain – and did so for several crews. They had no idea of how effective the Japanese air defenses would be, but found out that the powerful searchlights could pin them like butterflies against the sky for the 500 Japanese anti-aircraft gun emplacements. There were also Japanese night-fighters, of questionable quality but unquestionable bravery. Mid-air collisions were always possible. And as the night unfolded, as the red cross with which the pathfinders had marked Tokyo’s center was changing into a roaring mass of flames destroying the city, they also thought of the people below and how they must be suffering.
Dorr tells that story too, sympathetically and with understanding, but with the recognition that LeMay’s decision to abandon high altitude bombing for low-level attacks was the correct military solution.
There were several ways to attempt a review of this superb book. It might have been perfectly adequate to say simply “It is even better than his Mission to Berlin,” and let it go at that. Another approach might have been to insist from personal experience that this book had to be the result of years of concentrated effort by a team of scholars devoted to nothing else. It was not, of course. Mission to Tokyo is yet another incredible solo example of Bob’s prolific scholarship and dedication to the art of writing aviation history. While this was being written, Bob continued his normal regime of writing columns and articles, researching for other books, and, not least, being the most successful writer/marketeer in the aviation history business. We know how he does it: solid knowledge exploited with unending hours of research and writing. We can only hope he keeps on doing it.
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