Defense Media Network

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.

Mission to Tokyo cover

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

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.


Win a free copy!

In an exclusive offer for readers, we’re giving away 20 free hardbound editions of Mission to Tokyo: The American Airmen Who Took the War to the Heart of Japan. Each one has been signed by the author. The giveaway starts on Sept. 19, 2012, and ends at midnight on Oct. 3, 2012. Winners will be contacted by email on Friday Oct. 5, 2012.

To be one of those 20 lucky readers, just scroll down to the raffle widget below, and select one or all of the simple entry options available to you. There are even options that allow for additional entries to be made on a daily basis. The more options you select, the greater your chances of winning a copy of Robert F. Dorr’s latest book.


a Rafflecopter giveaway


Walter J. Boyne is a retired United States Air Force officer, combat veteran, aviation historian,...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-48928">
    Tolfe Lee Albert

    Seems like the B17 pilots and crews got all the praise and glory in the European Theather and the pilots and crews of the B-29 and 36’s didn’t get much. As a former Strategic Air Command pilot in B-52’s I for one salute these brave men.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-48997">

    Absolutely fantastic read! Your heart will rise and fall as the aircraft did. These men are what the word ‘hero’ was created for. Mr Dorr writes in an easy to follow, simple manner that doesn’t get lost in mundane nonsense nor does he try to impress the reader with an overwhelming supply of technical information the average reader wouldn’t understand. Once I opened this book I found it extremely difficult to put down, so difficult in fact, I nearly got in trouble at work for reading instead of laboring. Do not think about getting this book, just GET it!

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-50420">

    I just discovered this web site. I’ll be back, many times. There is a wealth of history available here, and the history of bombing runs on Japan is particular “undermentioned” in other media.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-54616">

    “Mission to Tokyo” is a page turner!!! Mr. Dorr writes in such a way that I can visualize what is happening; the people come alive and I feel I am a part of the action. Not only is “Mission to Tokyo” entertaining; it is accurate too. I know from providing Mr. Dorr with information about the experiences of my father, William J “Reb” Carter, a B-29 gunner who is featured in “Mission to Tokyo”, Mr. Dorr is a stickler for accuracy. Hats off to Mr. Dorr for his contribution to keeping alive the memory of the greatest generation.