Book Review Thirty-Two
November 10, 2012
Veterans Day, one of the most sacred of American holidays, is just around the corner. While it is a day to recognize all of the men and women who have served in our armed forces, a special place of honor is reserved for those who have been and are, in harm's way. During World War II Laurens County was well represented in the Pacific Theatre. Robert Dorr's Mission to Tokyo expertly tells the story of the bombing campaign against Japan. Dorr's narrative centers around the first low level B 29 incendiary raid that took place on March 9-10. 1945. Using 166 interviews and select print sources, the emotions, conflicts, compassion, and the simplicity of shared moments are used to illuminate the lives at the center of this major change in the air war. "Wake-Up", "Struggling", "Striving", "Squabbling", and "Flexing the Fire" are a few of the chapter titles.
The author is at his best when he describes the personal interaction between various members of the aircrews as well as those in command positions. Major General Curtis Lemay, commander of the XXI bomber command had earned a reputation as being hard-nosed, stone faced, and a man who was purposefully difficult to understand when he spoke with his ever present cigar or pipe. He earned the respect of his superiors by the results he had achieved in the Eighth Air Force against Germany. Lemay had also been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for a B 17 mission against Regensburg. On Guam with thirty minutes left before the first reports from the lead bombing crew would be available, Lemay let his guard down with his public affairs officer Lt. Colonel St. Clair McKelway (who would later have a distinguished career with the New Yorker). As Dorr describes it, Lemay went to his Quonset hut and retrieved two Coca-Colas. For the next few minutes it was just two men indifferent of their rank waiting to hear the outcome of the battle.
One of the most moving accounts of courage involving the B 29s occurred on April 12, 1945. A phosphorus bomb malfunctioned and exploded in the face of Staff Sergeant Henry Erwin. Despite being blinded and on fire, he carried the bomb to the front of the B 29 and threw it out a window saving his plane and fellow crewmen. Landing first at Iwo Jima and later being flown to Guam, Erwin defied all the odds and survived numerous surgeries during which pieces of the bomb would burst into flames when exposed to the air. Lemay quickly secured approval from Washington and sent a plane to Hawaii to retrieve the only available Medal of Honor then present in the Pacific. He was medically discharged as a Master Sergeant in 1947 and served for over 35 years at a veteran's hospital in his native Alabama.
I have always been an avid reader of World War II aviation history. Mr. Dorr's Mission to Tokyo ranks in the top ten of those many volumes. It is worth at least a partial second read for me because of the manner in which he is able to describe the commitment to duty and unselfish valor of the men who flew their powerful yet often flawed aircraft.
Robert Dorr is an Air Force veteran, having served in the Korean War and is a retired senior American diplomat. He contributes frequently to the Air Force Times, Flight Journal, and other publications relating to air warfare.