Review: 'Target Tokyo' recounts amazing Doolittle bomb raid

James M. Scott's new book offers a vivid account of the retaliatory 1942 raid against Japan led by Jimmy Doolittle.

Between December 7 and 14, 1941, Imperial Japanese forces unleashed massive attacks upon Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaya, Wake Island, Guam and Midway. At the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, eight battleships, three cruisers and several destroyers were demolished or damaged. One hundred and eighty-eight planes were also wiped out. Soldiers, sailors, marines and civilians suffered 3,581 casualties, of which 2,403 died.

Toweringly angered and humiliated at the Pearl Harbor attack — at the U.S. Navy and Army being caught so woefully unprepared — President Franklin Roosevelt decided that a shocked America needed to quickly rebound by lashing back at Japan.

James M. Scott, author of The War Below (2013) and The Attack on the Liberty (2009), tells the story of America's initial retaliation in Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor. Deploying an "army of archivists and researchers" at the National Archives, the Naval War College, the Library of Congress and the Japanese Admiralty, and using records, diaries, personal letters and oral histories, Scott relates the legendary tale of the April 18, 1942, Doolittle bomber raid on Japan that bolstered American morale in the dark early days of World War II.

In very detailed fashion, Scott describes how Gen. Henry H. Arnold, who was in charge of the U.S. Army air forces, chose 45-year-old Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (1896-1993) to lead the raid. Scott informs us that Doolittle, in his colorful life, had been a boxing champ and a racing and stunt pilot who had performed every stunt imaginable, including flying through a hangar and riding on the wheel axle while landing. He was first to fly across the United States in a single day. And he also earned a master's and doctorate in science from MIT. Arnold decided that if anyone could lead this dangerous mission, it was Doolittle.

The crucial question, however, was could a bomber take off from the short landing strip of an aircraft carrier deck? It had never been done before. But after intensive short takeoff training at what is now Eglin Air Force Base in Florida's Panhandle, Doolittle and his 79 crew members with their 16 B-25 bombers were ready for action, Scott writes.

The carrier USS Hornet was to bring them to within 400 miles of Japan to launch the attack, but because they were spotted early by a Japanese picket boat, the raid was begun from 824 miles out.

The mission plan was to bombard not just Tokyo's industrial-military sites — arsenals, factories, oil refineries, steel mills — but also targets in Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya. The bombers would then proceed to China (parts of which were occupied by Japanese forces) where, with the help of friendly Chinese, their crews would be rescued.

Scott's descriptions of the raid are vivid, and often harrowing. Bombardier Denver Truelove dropped his bombs on a power plant. The building's sides, he recalled, "rounded out" and burst; "dust and bricks were everywhere." Maj. Jack Hilger, while trying to avoid anti-aircraft flak over Nagoya, bombed an arsenal, a gasoline storage warehouse and his largest target, the Mitsubishi Aircraft Works. Engineer crewman Jacob Eierman wrote, "I could see the bombs strike and flames burst up all over it."

The attack did not go unopposed. The author tells of the bombers' numerous encounters with enemy fighters. "Tracers were looping up at us from behind and below," reported gunner Eldred Scott, who fired back: "I think I got him." With enemy machine gun rounds pinging off his right wing, gunner Melvin Gardner shot down two Japanese fighters, "one on fire."

And, as in all warfare involving civilian targets, the innocent suffered. Doolittle's plane, while attempting to bomb a Tokyo arsenal, "hit fourth-grader Shigeru Kojima in the shoulder; he collapsed and started convulsing … and died."

The final tally of the raid was about 112 buildings destroyed, with 87 people killed, 151 seriously injured. But the author goes on to show how that destruction was nothing compared to the astounding 250,000 Chinese who were slaughtered by Japanese forces in retaliation for aiding Doolittle's fliers who made it to China.

Of the 80 Doolittle Raiders, three were executed by the Japanese. But 61 survived the raid and the war. And America's morale and honor had been restored.

Filled with acts of thrilling heroism and sacrifice, Target Tokyo is the definitive account of the amazing Doolittle raid.