Monday, December 7, 2015

Just thirty seconds

Last summer I was able to visit a place I've wanted to see for a long time: Pearl Harbor.  I think my wife and kids were a little bored by it, but I appreciated seeing a place that was so important to 20th century American history.  And while the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a demoralizing shock for the American people, I'd like to talk about the response that came less than six months later.  Lead by Jimmy Doolittle, American bombers staged a daring raid on the Japanese mainland that came as a complete surprise – to both Japan and America. If you've seen the movie Pearl Harbor, you might remember the Doolittle Raid at the end, which is a bit dramatized but not so far off. But what it doesn't convey is the huge impact such a small raid had on the war. The Japanese went from "fearless to fearful," their sense of isolated security and racial superiority suddenly threatened, and Americans realized they were still in the fight.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is the account of one of the pilots of those bombers, Capt. Ted Lawson, that implausibly took off from aircraft carriers. They had to take off much further from Japan than planned due to their sighting by a small monitoring ship (which was sunk) and didn't have enough fuel to fly to safe bases within China. The planes nonetheless completed their bombing missions – a pin prick, really – then made their way the best they could to the coast of China. Most planes crash landed and Lawson and his crew were severely injured (Lawson's leg had to be amputated). Spread out along the coast, only a few were captured by the Japanese but most managed, with a great deal of hardship and the self-sacrificing help of the oppressed Chinese, to escape and return to America.

I found the book much better written than I had expected and it caused me to cringe numerous times as I read what the crew went through in their ordeal. First-hand accounts are valuable, but can be limited in scope and even self-serving, but Captain Lawson's account is very well done. It's a short and easy read that gives the reader an insight into what went into such a daring raid.  (Winston Groom's recent book gives an excellent explanation of just how important for morale this incident was – and he even gives it a great deal of credit for turning the tide of the war.)

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