Flyboys — A True Story Of Courage, by James Bradley

(Little, Brown & Co.; 2003, 398 pp., $25.95 — ISBN 0316105848)

Chichi Jima hardly stirs memories today, and even to a lot of those of the Greatest Generation, it is of little significance. But it has played a part in American history since Admiral Matthew Perry purchased a portion of the island in 1853. It had a spring-fed water supply, trees and a natural harbor. It was also a good whaling station and could be used as a stopping point for ships crossing the Pacific, even though it was only about twice the size of New York’s Central Park.

Bradley, who also wrote “Flags of Our Fathers,” picked Chichi Jima to anchor a story about the air war in the Pacific. The significance to the Pacific War was that the island had two mountains just over 1,000 feet high that made it a good relay station for the Japanese, as well as a place from which to monitor American radio traffic and military movement. The small size and mountainous terrain made it unsuitable for airfields.

The air war had some fundamental clashes in cultures that influenced how it was fought with a number of the advantages going to the Americans in the field of things mechanical.

There are other books on the bigger battles, like Midway, so the author only mentions them in passing. The focus is on Chichi Jima and that focus is exacting. George H.W. Bush was picked up after his plane was shot down while bombing Chichi Jima. A fellow soldier of Nobuaki Iwatake was amazed as he looked from a position on the island and saw the American submarine Finback rescue Bush. The submarine was available to rescue pilots. The author took pains to get these former combatants together for an interview.

Bradley also looked at the guilt of pilot Bob King who was flying an aircraft identical to that of George Bush. Another plane was destroyed by anti-aircraft fire near King’s plane and the wreckage of that plane tore off the outer wing and aileron and caused massive structural damage to the fuselage. King struggled to control the whipping wreckage as his crewmembers bailed out. They did not survive, but King was able to right the aircraft and fly it back to the carrier where he successfully ditched the aircraft, which was too badly damaged for a landing attempt.

Bradley also reconstructed the last days of some of the American prisoners on the island through interviews and research of long-suppressed documents. The descriptions are not for the squeamish, but do give a deeper understanding of the emotions involved in WWII.

People who have not been to war may find the transition from a high school kid working at a soda fountain to a downed aviator facing execution to be incomprehensible. The same would be true of a high school student educated in Hawaii who was drafted into the Japanese army because he elected to attend a Japanese university. During the war they were enemies. Under different circumstances they might have been friends.

Those looking for a detailed and complete picture of the air war will be disappointed in “Flyboys.” It is more a look about the people involved at Chichi Jima than in the broader spectrum of the air war. The book is good, but it requires that the reader have considerable prior knowledge of WWII in the Pacific to understand where his details fit. The excellent photos are well selected for the material in the text. The notes and index also support the author’s extensive research.