The First Heroes : The Extraordinary Story of Doolittle Raid--America's First World War II Victory
An "awe-inspiring [and] surprisingly detailed" (The Washington Post Book World) chronicle of the turning point in the war against Japan
Immediately after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to restore the honor of the United States with a dramatic act of vengeance: a retaliatory bombing raid on Tokyo. On April 18, 1942, eighty brave young men, led by the famous daredevil Jimmy Doolittle, took off from a navy carrier in the mid-Pacific on what everyone regarded as a suicide mission but instead became a resounding American victory and helped turn the tide of the war. The First Heroes is the story of that mission. Meticulously researched and based on interviews with twenty of the surviving Tokyo Raiders, this is a true account that almost defies belief, a tremendous human drama of great personal courage, and a powerful reminder that ordinary people, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, can rise to the challenge of history.
Planned in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor at the behest of President Roosevelt, the U.S. bombing raids on Japan in spring 1942 were the first U.S. strikes of the war. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle of the Army Air Force, in consultation with the U.S. Navy, planned for B-25 medium bombers to take off from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, hit targets including Tokyo and land at airfields in unoccupied China. The project was innovative and risky, as no medium bomber had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier, and at the time, Allied forces were being constantly beaten by the Japanese. Nelson (Let's Get Lost), whose father was a WWII Air Force pilot in New Guinea and whose mother served as a wartime air traffic controller in Atlanta, digs deeply into the planning, training and carrying out of the mission, sometimes awkwardly employing military slang, but infusing the account with infectious enthusiasm and numerous engaging first-person accounts. All the planes successfully took off and bombed their targets, but a last-minute hitch left them without enough fuel; most reached Allied lines, but eight crew members were captured by the Japanese and tried as war criminals: three were executed. The fates and subsequent careers of all the veterans quoted in the book are warmly detailed, making this an involving account of a lesser known period of the war.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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September 29, 2003
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Excerpt from The First Heroes by Craig Nelson
History Runs Away...
On October 14, 2000, I received a letter from an eighty-two-year-old man with the most distinctive handwriting I'd ever seen. Each stroke, a carved and italic spider line, looked as though it had been painfully chiseled into the page. The writer explained that "as a rural farmboy, I augmented my modest allowance by operating a trap line before catching the school bus. In skinning my catch, i.e., badgers, coyotes and skunk, I froze my fingers. Now, as an octogenarian, I'm paying for it with non-operative finger joints."
The letter was from Harry McCool, the navigator of plane four in the covert operation that became the first U.S. victory of World War II. Harry wrote me in answer to a questionnaire I had sent to every surviving member of his mission almost sixty years after it had taken place. I'd become convinced that their astounding story was one of the greatest moments in American history-a story that, until earlier that year, I'd never heard.
In World War II my father served with the Army Air Forces in New Guinea while my mother was an air traffic controller in Atlanta; later one of my uncles would become a career air force navigator. They filled my childhood with stories of daring raids, secret missions, and the astonishing bravery of what I learned, much later in life, were men barely out of their teens. Then Vietnam happened, and we no longer talked so much about my uncle's job or my parents' service years. It wasn't until I came across the story of Harry and his fellow airmen in an old issue of American History magazine that those tales from my childhood suddenly took on historical significance. That mission was the birth of the U.S. Air Force-a key part of my family's past-and I didn't know a thing about it.
Embarrassed and ashamed about my ignorance, I started asking around. It turned out that almost anyone who had been alive during World War II was as vividly aware of the story as Americans of my generation recall precisely where they were when John Kennedy was assassinated. Yet, with the exception of diehard World War II scholars and buffs, it seems to have completely escaped the attention of most other Americans today. Some areas of national amnesia deserve immediate attention, and I believe this is one of them.
I saw the story as one of ordinary people who became heroes, but in interviews, it became clear soon enough that more than a few of those involved believed otherwise. "None of us thought of ourselves as heroes," insisted copilot Dick Cole, while navigator Nolan Herndon had even stronger feelings: "To tell you the truth, I wish all of that would go away. We were just doing our job." Their job was an assignment many predicted would be a suicide mission, carried out by men with only rudimentary training. It would require, for the first time, the cooperation of thousands of recruits from both the army and the navy, as well as a new, frightening, and exhilarating method of flying bombers that no one had ever attempted before and no one would ever try again. Almost every man on the mission would be forced to abandon his plane as he ran out of gas in the middle of the night in a violent thunderstorm on the far side of the world. The men escaped from enemy-controlled territory by resourcefully managing to communicate with people who couldn't speak, read, or write their language.
Several of these boys, landing in a war zone, were captured, confined to years in solitary, tortured, forced to sign false confessions, tried as war criminals, and executed by firing squad. One flier was starved to death, while the survivors, rescued at war's end, had been reduced to living skeletons. One of them, tortured to the limits of human endurance, found God and subsequently returned to Japan on a campaign of forgiveness. Another was lost in a stateside limbo of army bureaucracy and mental illness. Still others were interned as enemy aliens by the Soviet Union, and had to be smuggled out into what is now Iran.