By Robert Salvo

Target Toyko: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor
By James M. Scott
Hardcover, 640 pp., $35.00
(W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 2015)

There are a few scenes in American history that seem to be, to a greater or lesser degree, remembered in perpetuity. Washington crossing the Delaware; George Pickett’s doomed assault on Cemetery Ridge; the charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. Noticeably, many of these moments are times of pushing forward, headlong into struggle, in the face of a (theoretically superior) foe. Patton declared in his famous speech to the Third Army: “Americans love to fight … Americans play to win all the time.” Perhaps this is why the improbable headlong attack seems a leitmotif of our military history.

And if any action can be described as an improbable headlong attack in the face of a theoretically superior foe, it was Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Japan during the Second World War. This daring act of reprisal for the December 7, 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor has now been captured in luminous detail by author James C. Scott, who previously penned The War Below and The Attack on the Liberty. His meticulous research pairs well with his superior ability to craft a narrative: Together he has crafted a history that presents the full story of the raid to the popular level reader.

He takes us to Roosevelt’s study in the moments after the news of Pearl Harbor hits Washington. With dialogue and pacing that reads like a novel, we see how confusion and panic foment into a decisive will to strike back. With tidbits from unpublished manuscripts, we follow the creation of the plan by the Navy and get the story of how they worked hand-in-hand with the Army Air Force. Scott illustrates both the national and institutional unity that followed Pearl Harbor masterfully.

Individuals are crafted in full; reading about Doolittle, the diminutive Alaskan with an MIT education and a national reputation as a stunt pilot, makes you wish Scott would pen a standalone biography of the man, too. The dedication — and the prudent reluctance — of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto is as richly presented.

Scott also presents facets of the raid long forgotten and here is where the book shows its greatest value. Many of us know that Washington’s crossing of the Delaware looked nothing like it is portrayed in Leutze’s famous painting, or that the Rough Riders were on Kettle Hill and not San Juan. But, perhaps because the Doolittle raid remains, tenuously, in living memory, these unrecalled aspects of the action remain unexamined.

Not so in Target Toyko. We learn the necessity of concealing attack plans from our ostensible allies in China; the clear and explicit predictions of inhumane Japanese reprisals against both captured airmen and the Chinese who assisted them; the direct instructions that, as a target, the emperor’s palace was “not worth a plane factory, a shipyard, an oil refinery.” We are chilled at accounts of raiders buzzing towns and schools and seeing smiling Japanese citizens, for whom being attacked at home was inconceivable, rushing outside to wave at them.

Then he takes us through the assault’s aftermath. While most of the raiders survived, the aircraft did not. Across China and even in the Soviet Union, the pilot’s path back to freedom was a perilous one. Secretary of War Stimson became so convinced of Japanese retaliation that efforts to defend the American mainland — and their associated anxieties — ratcheted upward. Across China, the Japanese pursuit of the pilots — and vengeance — is presented in horrific detail. Biological weapons deployed against civilians; Catholic churches systemically burned and priests decapitated; immolations, beatings and sadistic torture were the order of the day.

Scott takes these stories to their conclusion too, covering the postwar trials of Japanese soldiers involved. This pervasive level of detail, this journalist’s impulse to follow every lead, gives us with a fantastic story fantastically told. As contemporary audiences voraciously consume stories in print and film like Unbroken, Lone Survivor and American Sniper, this look past the well-remembered headlines celebrating Doolittle’s Raiders has never been more pertinent.

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