Customer Reviews: Flyboys: A True Story of American Courage
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on May 6, 2007
I am old enough to have lived through the war and remember it well. I never knew why Japan declared war on the U.S., even though I have taken every history class offered throughout my school career. "Flyboys" is probably the most brutal book I have ever read, almost too difficult in places. I am grateful to James Bradley for having written this book, I now understand why America dropped the Atomic Bombs and put an end to that war. "Flyboys" is a must read.
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on November 6, 2003
What an odd book. Flyboys is the story of several air raids flown against the island of Chichi Jima, north of Iwo Jima, during 1944-45, by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, and more specifically it's the story of what happened to those airmen who were shot down over the island. The author, to write this story, uses extensive interviews he conducted with participants from both sides, survivors in their late 70s and 80s. This is all well and good, and if the book stopped at that, I suspect I'd be giving it a higher rating than I am.
What cripples the book is the author's belief that he has to give you a history lesson. As a result, he starts his account of the raids on the island by describing Japan prior to Admiral Perry's arrival in 1852. He takes a sort of anecdotal approach to things, recounting various events in American and Japanese history. His reason for doing this, apparently, is to give the events of the subject of the book context.
And that brings us to the main difficulty with the book. The author has a rather skewed view of American history, one that's decidedly more critical of it than is warranted, at least in my view. Further, his recounting of fact is at times inaccurate and incomplete. There is one good thing he doesn't do: he doesn't attempt to minimize Japanese atrocities in WW2. What he does instead is insist that the Americans committed crimes just as terrible, the implication being that the Japanese were punished because they lost the war.
Let me go over these accusations in some detail, so I'm not misunderstood and we're all clear. In the chapter dealing with America's 19th century history, he recounts the Mexican-American War and the Indian Wars and then tells you that they are instances of American war crimes that the Japanese took as proper behavior for a western country, and that this meant that if the Japanese became regarded as civilized they could do these things too. The difficulty comes in the recounting of the wars themselves.
The Mexican war is dismissed in a few paragraphs, mostly recounting U.S. Grant's opinion that the war was sinful and wrong. He also said (in the same passage in his autobiography) that he thought the U.S. Civil War was punishment for the Mexican-American War, but that's left out of Bradley's summary of what Grant said.
Bradley then recounts the Indian Wars by telling you of the Sand Creek massacre. Sand Creek was probably the most egregious and senseless murder of Indians during the Indian Wars. Using it as an emblem for the whole is similar to using O.J. as an example of how all football players treat their wives. While the U.S. was harsh and unfair with American Indians in the 19th century, it wasn't universally so, and the depth of the unfairness varied depending on where they were or lived or other factors. Bradley ignores all of this.
Then Bradley really goes off the reservation, so to speak. Many people know the history (at least in outline) of the Mexican-American War and the Indian War, but the insurrection in the Philippines is by contrast very obscure. Bradley's recounting of the U.S. experience there is almost entirely from one source, one book called Benevolent Assimilation. I have a book called The Philippine War, which includes a critical bibliography. In it the author dismisses two other books on the war, then labels Benevolent Assimilation "even more factually inaccurate" than those two books. Bradley relied on this book almost completely for his account of the war. He should know that if you're going to write the history of something, you consult more than one source.
The author also has a goofy habit of referring to people in an eccentric fashion in the book. This starts with the term Flyboys, which he insists on using (capitalized) as if it were a title or rank, when he refers to American and British aviators from the War. He refers to President Roosevelt as "the Dutchman" repeatedly, calls Curtis LeMay "Curtis", and sarcastically labels Japan's military leadership "Spirit Warriors" and their emperor the "Boy Soldier" (because he was educated in part by generals). It's all very weird, and a bit juvenile.
What does all of this lead to? The author seems to have a feeling that all war leads to war crimes which all sides commit, and that the one way to prevent this is to prevent wars. There's a sense of moral equivalency running through the book that's annoying when faint and insulting when he gets more insistent about it. There's also, as a side annoyance, the pro-Marine bias that's so common in books that deal with them in contrast with the army (check out my review of Martin Russ' book Breakout if you want to learn my opinion of this in more detail). It's not stated much here, the one outrageous comment implying that the Normandy invasion was a cakewalk.
The oral history part of the book is very valuable, however, and the author, to his credit, doesn't flinch in recounting the Japanese war crimes or their aftermath. For this I commend him, and give him the two stars he gets above the one minimum one. I would recommend this book, but only very guardedly, given the inaccuracy of the backstory in the early chapters.
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VINE VOICEon July 26, 2006
A well researched and well told story of navy flyers and more than the specific stories of men the rise of naval aviation's and its new found role in war.

Please be aware this book contains some horrific details of the murder and muliation of US service men by Japanese forces in the Pacific which may be well beyond the comfort level of some readers.

There was much about this book I found compelling:

The Flyboys themselves were wonderful, admirable characters which demonstrate once again the debt owed to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and those who fought along side them.

Flyboys is one of a number of books which at long last are addressing openly the horrifying facts of Japanese behavior in the Pacific theater. Unfortunately, this is coming generations too late to avoid the near universal denial of such things in Japan over the last 60 years.

The US knew far more of the details of prisoner treatment and execution than if shared with the public or with families.

However, there was one huge negative I never could quite overcome and that was the author's continual effort to compare US actions such as the use of fire bombing Tokyo to the actions of Japanese officers in the field which are not moral equals. To question whether the use of napalm was an effective war measure is fair. to use it to justify sadistic murder and canibalism strains jouranlistic, even novelistic credulity to the breaking point.

As the son of a WWII vet Bradley of all people should understand that war, any war no matter how unavoidable, is an obsenity requiring good men to place the great deal of their humanity aside so that they may restain an even greater evil. Yet somehow it escapes the author that horrific, although impersonal US bombing, no matter how you want to define the morals of war on the civilian population, does not require the same level of moral depravity that is required to kill a defenseless prisoner by hand and then remove from their still warm and quivering flesh, their internal organs so that you may dine on these morsals. One action reflects even in the worse case a perhaps flawed methodology of trying to end the war, while the other reflects deeply personal sadism and evil.

For all its virtues and flyboys has many this comparison left me dismayed.
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on November 15, 2003
I have viewed all the previous posted reviews of this book, and what I find surprising (and a little disturbing) is that no one has taken Mr. Bradley and his publisher to task for an untruth trumpeted both on the dustjacket and in Mr. Bradley's introductory text (also see the blurb above). There it is asserted that the events on Chichi Jima were a closely guarded government secret until the intrepid Mr. Bradley uncovered them. This is not just a distortion, it is a flat-out falsehood. For example, Bradley's own bibliography cites Robert Sherrod's history of Marine Corps aviation during World War II. Sherrod's book - published 45 years ago - features several pages on the appalling events on Chichi Jima, including footnotes indicating exactly where the information came from (in particular, the war crimes trial transcripts). As an archivist who works with World War II era military records every day, and a published scholar, I find the mendacious assertion that the book uncovered previously "hidden" material to be a breach of faith with the public it supposed to inform. Bradley may have done more work on the topic than those who came before him (and here he deserves credit), but he certainly did not dig up any "secrets." For shame.
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VINE VOICEon October 11, 2003
Filled with fascinating information about the Japanese WW2 mind and the accomplishments of the Flyboys, but too many attempts at moral equivalence for my taste; while describing the horror perpetrated by the Japanese, the author constantly points a finger at the US either in blame or charging hypocrisy (though his description of Japanese inhumanity eventually overwhelms).
While there may be some validity to these charges - and the author provides many examples of American butchery, all the way from the Native Americans to the Phillipines - some attempts are somewhat sickening. After describing the appalling butchery of POWs and other horrors practiced by the Japanese, and the outrage such savagery provoked here in the US, he describes some take-no-prisoners incidents perpetrated by the US, and wags his finger: "When U.S. prisoners were killed, it was 'murder ...' But when Americans murdered Others, 'they had it coming to them.'" Er ... excuse me, Bozo, but didn't you read what you just wrote?
To wit, the behavior of the Japanese. Did it not occur to the author that their rejection of the Geneva Convention, brutal treatment (rape, murder and torture) of civilians, and other scummy actions, such as this:
"The wounded wait until [US] men come up to examine them ... and blow themselves and the other fellow to pieces with a hand grenade" (p. 143)
could somehow lead American soldiers to regard their enemies as subhuman monsters? I dunno, I think it's possible. Sure, they look different ... but they also behave different, and that's the key.
How about slicing open living POWs and removing their lungs or stomachs, without anesthesia? Poking around in their brains with a knife and twisting to see what body parts jerk?
When an enemy not only murders your POWs as a matter of policy and in explicit disregard of the rules of war, but has demonstrated that they will not surrender, will blow you to bits if you show compassion or try to help them, and have no regard whatsoever for any human life, not even civilians (not even their own), what do they expect? What does the author expect? Yet he constantly attempts to suggest that either side was just as bad.
Elsewhere he reports that the Japanese justifiably regarded the American firebombers as devils. Yes, the napalming of Tokyo was horrible, but what did they expect after their sons' killing sprees - hacking hundreds of thousands of non-Japanese (Chinese, for example) to pieces, raping and killing and sometimes eating daughters of civilians, forcing children to become "comfort women", the dishonorable attack on Pearl Harbor, practicing bayoneting on live prisoners, spraying typhoid, etc. etc.? Does the glee American soldiers and the American public felt over killing such a subhuman enemy - proven so by their actions - become more understandable? Do the complaints of firebombing Japanese civilians seem to recede into the distance of their hypocrisy?
The crucial difference is that these most of the Japanese atrocities were a matter of official policy or direct orders, as opposed to the visceral hatred engendered in individual American soldiers by witnessing the inhumanity of the Japanese military.
It is well written, though, and you do get a sense of the heroism of the American military, warts and all - and the author does try to show us as many warts as he can. He is also candid about the horrors perpetrated by the Japanese, not only upon Others, but upon themselves. The analysis of how the Japanese got locked into a couple of different mindsets and how that led to their defeat is also interesting. And we learn a little more about the amazing heroism of pilots like George Bush Sr. When I was less informed (still naively reading TIME, Newsweek, and the Washington Post for "news" ... thank God I happened upon the Media Research Center), I chuckled with Oliphant's baseless ridiculing of Bush's war record. After reading this book, I cannot help but cheer him as a true hero.
I would like to have given this book four stars or more but due to the above, which may further encourage Japan's whitewashing of their brutal history. (I don't have to worry about America's history being whitewashed; too much white guilt and self-loathing around here for that.) It is definitely worth a read, in spite of the author's attempts to be sensitive. Fortunately, these are infrequent. Yes, neither side is guiltless ... but neither do both sides bear equal guilt, by any means. The Japanese are so ashamed of their history that they have to rewrite it; they understand this. And, strangely, so does the author, quoting Paul Fussell after reminding us that more people were killed with samurai swords than atomic bombs:
"The degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with lack of information about the Pacific war."
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on September 18, 2004
In more than 50 years of reading voraciously about World War 2 I don't think I have read a more disappointing book. After reading Mr. Bradley's excellent "Flag Of Our Fathers" I was expecting something a lot better from him.

As many others have mentioned here, I was expecting the book to be a thoughtful examination of Naval aviation in general and the suffering of some captured fliers in particular. Unfortunately Mr. Bradley couldn't resist inserting his own view of history i.e. that Western Imperialism drove the poor Japanese to behave so badly. He devotes the first 75 pages to drawing a moral equivalency between the U. S. and Japan.

The book seems to have been written either for or by someone with only a superficial knowledge of the war and, in my opinion, denigrates the suffering and bravery of the Americans who fought it. Bradley's irritating insistance on referring to air crewmen of all types as "flyboys" is puzzling because that term was often used derisively by non-flying personnel jealous of those they perceived to be a "priviledged class". And, in my many years of reading, I have never before seen the B-25 medium bomber called a "Billy". Silly!

As the World War 2 generation fades away from us, we can expect to see more such revisionist history come forth with politically-correct versions of the war. I don't recommend this one.
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on October 30, 2006
The publisher deserves some criticism for misrepresenting this book on the cover, dust jacket copy and all that stuff. I thought I was picking up an Ambrose-like narrative kind of story of the WWII fighter pilots. Instead, the book starts with a "big picture" historical view of what the author clearly views as two imperial powers colliding, with little understanding of each other. In other words, US - Japan relations went from Perry's opening of Japan (a destructive act, in the author's view, that was necessary because Chichi Ima, the centerpiece of the story, was needed for US merchant shipping purposes) to total, savage, unconditional war by 1941. (Of course, Japan had been at war already in China and elsewhere in the region; and the US and Britain had been playing behind-the-scenes roles that mattered a great deal in those years.)

"WWII" is thought of as one big thing when it was also, and perhaps more so several linked disputes and hostilities. So, the author provides an interesting and important view, helping readers see the historical line of sight in terms of Japan and the US. The sort of moral equivalency (some other reviewers here called it "liberal guilt") that grows out of this analysis is disturbing -- and unexpected, because nothing about the book's packaging hints at this tone. I felt like I was reading something of a piece with, well, most US history books written these days that are not forgiving or "patriotic" about any of the brutality that's occurred since Europeans hit the shores.

However, having set up the book this way, the author has given himself the breadth to write eloquently about the horrors experienced by both sides of the conflict. The book may spin off into too many directions -- for example, trying to determine whether the atomic bombs were even worth it since the destructive power of the napalm bombing of Tokyo and other cities may have been worse. There are other writers and other books that are more thorough and thoughtful about this topic, although the images the author creates of the taciturn, cigar smoking Curtis LeMay letting loose the incendiary raids is unforgettable -- and does cause an American to have to look in the mirror.

The personal accounts are really the heart of the book and are important on many levels. This has to be one of the first books to put together historical sources to tell a narrative like this. And that narrative is gruesome, so be prepared.

Finally, Bradley may be right that Hirohito should've been prosecuted as a war criminal, not set up as a titular, spiritual head the way MacArthur did it. How would history have been different? I'm definitely interested in reading more about this from other authors.
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on January 9, 2006
I purchased the book with great expectations, having enjoyed the author's previous work, Flags of Our Fathers, albeit with a few reservations such as his continuing insistence of calling military men "boys", which we take as pejorative. Nonetheless, I expected similar quality of background research and details.

This book mainly centers on World War II action in and around the island of Chichi Jima, near Iwo Jima and what happened to a number of pilots who were shot down there and taken prisoner by the Japanese. What I found in reading the book was a jumbled hodgepodge of some of the same good historical background as in Flags, jumbled with some rather skewed and outrageous personal opinion of the sort I would have expected to read from former WWII Japanese officers. Worse, he makes one of a historian's most egregious errors, that of judging events and people out of the context of the time in which they lived. In doing that, he tried to use inaccurate and incomplete historic accounts of a few events in past US history to somehow justify the repeated barbaric actions of the Japanese toward their prisoners of war during WWII.

If one wants to get a more accurate view of the Japanese actions and motivations one should read "The Rape of Nanking" by Iris Chang, or more broad and accurate coverage from "Prisoners of the Japanese : Pows of World War II in the Pacific" by Gavin Daws.

This author, instead seems to try and go out of his way to include what I would have to feel are insincere and untrue personal accounts from some of the former Japanese, all of whom seem to be trying to ameliorate their willing complicity in Japan's institutionalized policy of horrific war crimes in much the same manner as did former Nazi's when tried for war crimes. As a result, this book comes off looking like a laughable revisionist attempt by Japanese veterans groups to use a Westerner to promote their ridiculous denials and to white-wash the worst of Japanese atrocities; which, by-and-large, are some of the worst crimes committed in all of human history. It makes the author appear to be nothing more than a cloying apologist for some of history's most appalling unpunished crimes.
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on October 20, 2003
James Bradley's irritating writing style is the least of the many problems with this effort. Essentially he's taken an engrossing subject suitable for a lengthy magazine article and turned it into a pretentious, self-indulgent tome. Even the title trivializes the severity of the subject.
Anybody remotely familiar with aviation realizes that Bradley is unsuited for the topic. He places jets in the US Navy in 1944, talks about "runways" on aircraft carriers, and even manages to morph the B-25 Mitchell into the "Billy" bomber. When his approach is not ignorant it's just plain silly.
Readers have to wonder: if he talked to so many aviators in researching the book, and got so much of it wrong, what's lacking in the core areas of Japanese atrocities?
He deserves credit for persistence in tracking the story, but in an ultra PC effort to appear objective, he insults every "flyboy" who helped rid the world of the Japanese empire.
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on October 28, 2003
Aaaaaggghh! I am about 1/3rd of the way through the book now and I came to read these reviews to see if everyone else was getting the same feeling I was while reading "Flyboys." I wish I'd read them before I bought this book because most of the stuff in these reviews is right on. I thought I was buying a good story about the "Flyboys" who launched a raid against Chichi Jima. The dust jacket deceptively makes it sound as if that is what you're buying. Instead, I've suffered through 141 pages so far, consisting almost totally of James Bradley's reinterpretation of history in an attempt to suggest that American brutality was just as bad as Japanese brutality. The tone is almost unbearable. Even his own examples don't make his case well at all, but one senses a constant attempt to get his misguided point across. I can hardly take it anymore and I may have to ditch this book. Based on the dust jacket, I feel like I've gotten a total bait-and-switch with this book. I guess he wants to make the "America was just as brutal as Japan" case at all costs and knew he wouldn't sell many books if he was honest about that being the topic. Next time, stick to the story at hand, James, like Hampton Sides did in Ghost Soldiers. Now that was a good read with an interesting story and I didn't have to suffer along the way.
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