James M. Scott’s ‘Target Tokyo’ tells Doolittle Raid story with new twists

Philadelphia Inquirer

Target Tokyo

Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor

By James M. Scott

W.W. Norton. 672 pp. $35


Reviewed by Bob Carden


Few World War II stories are better known than that of Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s daring bombing raid against Japan in April 1942, just a few months after Pearl Harbor.

A string of demoralizing losses to the Japanese at Wake Island, in the Philippines, and in Singapore had made Japan look increasingly invulnerable and the American people desperate for a victory, or at least a hero. Enter Doolittle. The 5-foot-4-inch former stunt pilot and boxer helped plan and execute the raid that lifted the hearts of America and pierced the aura of Japanese invincibility.

But do we really need another book about this well-worn tale? Yup, and James Scott’s Target Tokyo is it.

Scott’s tight prose and meticulous research provide a gripping and at times heartbreaking account of the raid. Scott also has uncovered new information, tapped from Japanese and American sources, about how the raid itself often went off target, strafing a Japanese elementary school and killing many civilians, as well as the brutal retaliation the Japanese directed at the Chinese who harbored Doolittle’s men.

The raid was close to a suicide mission. Sixteen B-25 medium bombers with 79 airmen took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet. But because the Hornet could not accommodate the B-25 landings, after the bombings the pilots had to land at night in unfamiliar terrain – mainland China, much of it occupied by the Japanese.

No one was sure whether they even had the fuel to get to China. Fifteen of the 16 planes crash-landed or had to be ditched, with the airmen bailing out. It is a miracle that only three died in those crash landings. Eight more were captured by the Japanese. Of those, three were tried and executed as war criminals. One crew, low on fuel, had to fly to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union, where they were held for 13 months. The remaining raiders made it through China with the help of missionaries and courageous Chinese.

The Japanese public was outraged. Eighty-seven civilians were killed in the raid, including a number of schoolchildren. The military was humiliated. Someone had to pay. The cruelty of the Japanese army in China has been vividly told. The retribution exacted there, however, is on an even a more horrifying scale.

“They shot any man, woman, child, or cow, anything that moved,” said one missionary, adding that “they raped any woman from ages 10 to 65.” This part of the Japanese army, he said, “were totally barbaric.”

Some accounts are difficult to read. Sadism knew no bounds. Torture was common. Some were forced to eat their own feces before being shot in the head. A Chinese man who had helped Doolittle was soaked in gasoline and his wife was forced to set him afire. More than 250,000 Chinese were killed in retaliation.

It is accepted that the raid did little actual damage. On the ground, yes – but strategically, it forced Japan into its biggest mistake of the war.

The raid pushed the Japanese military to extend its defensive perimeter to the island of Midway to prevent carriers from getting close enough to bomb the homeland. Many in the Japanese army opposed the move because it stretched Japan’s defenses too thin and left them vulnerable. They were right. The ensuing Battle of Midway, a decisive loss, turned the tide of war in America’s favor.

Scott, author of The War Below and The Attack on the Liberty, recounts some touching moments that will move many readers to tears. Raider Ted Lawson had to have his leg amputated in China’s back country as anesthesia wore off. In the States later, he feared facing his wife in his condition. Their joyous reunion was orchestrated by Doolittle.

But nothing compares to the final letters the Japanese allowed doomed airman Billy Farrow, one of the three U.S. raiders executed, to write to his family. They are filled with hope, faith, and the joy of living, imploring his family not to despair, but rather to “live a rich full life.” Something the Japanese denied Farrow.