“The Flyboy who got away became president of the United States. What might have been for Warren Earl, Dick, Marve, Glenn, Floyd, Jimmy, the unidentified airman, and all the others who had lost their lives?…And what might have been for those millions of doomed Japanese boys, abused and abandoned by their leaders? War is the tragedy of what might have been.”
― James D. Bradley, Flyboys: A True Story of Courage
From time to time – at least once a year – I’ll pick up a book that recounts the true story of courageous soldiers who sacrificed everything to purchase our freedom. It’s so important to remember those who lost their lives, to honor their heroic actions, and to walk away inspired and determined not to squander the precious gift of freedom handed down to us by these brave soldiers.
This year I’ve been reading Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, a National Bestseller that James Bradley published in 2003. I’ve been impressed by the book itself and the objective glimpse it offers of the Pacific Campaign in World War II, and I’ve been awestruck by the courage of these young flyboys.
Here’s my review:
Flying High – The Good Stuff
Good historians are able to retell history from an objective point of view, refusing to take sides. Flyboys does a tremendous job of this. As you read, you’ll be shocked and appalled at the horrific way the Japanese military treated prisoners of war and even their own men. But at the same time, you’ll feel equally sickened by some of the atrocities committed on our side. War is an ugly thing, and nobody has ever won a war by playing nice. I commend Bradley for simply presenting the facts as he discovered them, and letting readers come to their own conclusions.
This book also explains the history of war aviation and the invention of the United States Air Force. World War II was the first time that airborne fighting – the “third dimension” of modern warfare – became a key factor, and many scoffed at the idea that rickety old airplanes could ever be useful in battle. Reading about the way this all developed is truly fascinating.
Finally, this book includes countless quotes from personal journals and letters addressed to home, as well as quotes taken directly from interviews the author held with war survivors and their relatives. Flyboys does an incredible job of helping you get to know the boys who flew those war planes, and of telling their stories.
Mayday, Mayday – The Bad Stuff
No book is perfect, and this one contained a few flaws. First, it got off to a rather slow start. Like a heavy plane struggling to find enough lift to go airborne, the first half of the book is bogged down with so much history and background material that you’ll find yourself wondering when the thing is ever going to take off. By the time you get to the second half of the book, however, you’ll be flying high and shaking your head in awe and wonder at the stories you find there.
Another factor I found disturbing was the graphic explanations of war violence. Every war book contains a little of these gory details, but this particular book contains entire chapters that do nothing but describe ruthless torture and senseless beheadings. The author certainly makes his point about the brutality of this war and the necessity of the flyboys and their mission, but several of the accounts seem repetitive and I walked away thinking that a little less could have accomplished more… beating thousands of dead horses (or in this case, soldiers) just didn’t feel necessary.
Remember… and Be Changed
Especially on Memorial Day, we pause and remember those who sacrificed much so that we could live in freedom today. Books such as Flyboys will always line my shelf, because they help me to do just that.
The most poignant moment in the book for me was the account of George H.W. Bush, a 20-year-old flyboy whose plane was shot down near the Japanese island of Chi Chi Jima. As his plane was diving, he waited for his two occupants to get out before ejecting himself. Once in the water, he would have been captured by Japanese boats if a couple of American planes hadn’t seen his predicament and shot the boats out of the water. It was a harrowing escape, and as we all know, that 20-year old boy went on to become President of the United States.
During an interview with the author, George H.W. Bush stood up unexpectedly and gazed for a long moment out the window. They had just been talking about the two men who bailed out of Bush’s plane just before he jumped – neither of whom survived. “I think about those guys all the time,” Bush murmured.
Bush went on to become president. What could have become of all the young men and women who gave their lives to protect our freedom? We will never know…
And we must never forget their sacrifice.