And yes, it’s a history book.
Published in 2003, it was many years before “Flyboys: A True Story of Courage” by James Bradley entered my world. Before you presume otherwise, it has nothing to do with the movie, under the same title, about the special squadron of American pilots who flew with the French during World War I.
This book is specifically the story of the five American flyboys who were shot down over the island of Chichi-Jima during World War II, captured, executed and then partly cannibalized by the defending Japanese. One of the men was from Sedalia, Mo. Until recent times, their families never knew what really happened to them. The United States government covered it up for decades.
However, that story doesn’t really come into play until later in the book. That’s because the much larger backdrop is of the major role airplanes played in winning the war against Japan. And even that isn’t all the book is about, when you get down to it.
You see, “Flyboys” was written by James Bradley, the son of one of the Iwo Jima flag raisers, John Bradley. His first book was “Flags of our Fathers” which I have also read and which Clint Eastwood made a movie about some years ago.
Long before he discovered the man his father truly was and what he truly did, beyond the hype, James Bradley had lived in Japan and grown to love the people there. He never knew why his dad would never visit him there until years later when he learned the details of what the Japanese did to his father’s friend, captured on Iwo Jima.
John Bradley did not hate the Japanese. But his memory was haunted by ghosts. Meanwhile, his author-son, James Bradley, is an American but is well acquainted with the Japanese side of the story.
Perhaps because of who his father was, Bradley can get veterans of both sides to talk and open up to him. By their own words, they tell him things they had not even told their families up that point. Maybe it’s a type of therapy to get this stuff off their chest before they pass into the next life.
You read a lot of strange, off the wall things in “Flyboys.” In one chapter, you think “those rotten Japanese.” In the next, you’re checked with some first hand, real-world accounts of America’s total war policy. I’m not arguing the case for or against total war, here. Leave that up to the armchair generals and bubble-world academics. But at times while reading, I thought, “well, shoot. I guess I never knew that.” Or maybe I never cared to.
In “Flyboys” you get a small but extremely powerful glimpse into the human side of the Pacific war and also of the home front — both American and Japanese.
And, as I said, that’s all just backdrop for the detailed incident of the atrocity committed against five young American flyboys. What happened to them was tragic. It was disgusting. It makes you angry.
But because Bradley does such a great job providing background information, explaining the characters and motivations behind all aspects of the story, I never felt blind rage or hatred. I didn’t automatically make generalizations. I felt, well, bad. That’s all.
I felt bad for those boys and bad for their mothers and girlfriends and sisters and fathers and brothers and good pals who always knew there was more to the story but never got any closure — or most of them didn’t anyway. The truth wasn’t really revealed until the victims had been gone for more than five decades.
And in “Flyboys” there are lots of victims.
Please forgive my little departure into the book review world. But with an albeit dwindling number of World War II veterans left in Newton County, their story is also part of the American story.
And the same can be said for this book.
By Wes Franklin
(Wes Franklin can be reached at (417) 658-8443.)