Scott’s Black Snow a WWII must-read
By Robert Salvo
By James M. Scott
Hardbound pp. 432
(W.W. Norton Publisher, New York, 2022)
Award-winning author James M. Scott takes his readers back to a familiar place with Black Snow, his latest narrative history of World War II in the Pacific. Many joined him on his last adventure to the spot with Target Tokyo, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist and a masterful retelling of the story of Jimmy Doolittle and his famed raid on the capital of Imperial Japan.
Like the Army Air Force itself, Scott has returned to the skies above Japan some years later, he with a relentlessly page-turning account of the 1944-1945 bombing campaign that did so much to break the back of the Japanese war machine. A steady, linear chronological retelling expands and contracts masterfully on its subjects, zooming in-and-out as necessary on events from Billy Mitchell’s fateful court martial, through Hirohito’s chrysanthemum-embellished Mercedes limousine puttering around the ash heaps of central Tokyo, right up to Curtis LeMay jotting notes to his wife from his quarters in Guam, awake late into that post-atomic August night when the Emperor finally announced Japan’s surrender.
As with Scott’s prior work, first-hand sources and original voices make up the bulk of the text. Key facts, unique insights and unforgettable quips are all adroitly harmonized into the final product. It makes for a fascinating, God’s-eye view of events, most especially the Operation Meetinghouse raid of March 1945 that incinerated the heart of Tokyo.
His telephoto zoom starts in wide angle. Scott retains his flair for illustrating peoples’ personalities through their own words, from the birth of the Superfortress, to the tragedy of Brig. Gen. Haywood Hansell, who refused to give up on a doctrine of daytime precision attacks on military and industrial assets, through the famed Curtis LeMay, Hansell’s dear friend yet his mirror-opposite in both operations and strategy.
The zoom lens closes in on wartime Japan, with citizens scraping by on weeds and potato vines, while simultaneously being prepared to defend the Home Islands with bamboo sticks and fanatical, death-defying determination, a will to recreate in Japan the blood-soaked streets of Manila that Scott so ably and terrifyingly captured in his 2018 book Rampage.
The author deftly remains out of moralizing traps on one side of the other, instead assessing situations through the words of those who were there. Citizens on the home front were, in his words, “confused and ignorant of the peril facing Japan.” And little wonder, as they fed a steady diet of propaganda about their own invincibility, largely shielded from American attack since the Doolittle Raid, but facing the daily hardships of shortages and severe rationing. While Hirohito dithered in his desire for “one more victory” to improve Japan’s negotiating position, the exasperation and weariness of his subjects comes through in their own words.
Few writers so thoroughly illustrate the brutal hell of war with Scott’s skill, and Black Snow is no exception. Having pored through archives and oral history collections on both sides of the Pacific, the author summons the inconceivable destruction and agony of the air raids and places them deftly on the page. A six-figure death toll is never a mere number, but the reality of the hasty evacuations, cries of the dying, the things — and the people — left behind. Above it all, he gives us those silvery B-29s, the pinnacle of the era’s technological and manufacturing capabilities, as great primeval dragons, their polished aluminum wings reflecting the dull scarlet of the flames below.
Black Snow moves quickly, and my only disappointment with the text is for the times I wish the author would give some small fact or incident a chapter of its own. That speaks to his success in packing the book full of informative and engrossing bits to ponder. The pacing and balance are top-notch, and the depth of research, coupled with the dedication to telling the story in the voices of those who lived it is astounding.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention two excellent sidelights of the book. First is Scott’s frequent inclusion of the thoughts and words of John Ciardi, a B-29 gunner involved in the events of the book who later went on to become a poet of national importance; Ciardi’s fine words bring both beauty and horror in stark turn. Second, let me praise the inclusion of one particular map highlighting the Japanese cities struck with firebombs; this illustration not only uses pie charts of the proportion of the city destroyed as the “dots” to indicate place, but lists an American city of comparable size. The average reader will know nothing of, say, Sasebo or Kagoshima, Japan, but could readily imagine what it might be like to see Nashville or Richmond half-reduced to ashes. It’s a powerful accompaniment to a powerful text.
This book is certain to be treasured by anyone with an interest in history and is a must-read for those keen on World War II in the Pacific. Look for it on bookshelves this month.