All these years I had this nagging
feeling these guys wanted their
The e-mail was from Iris Chang, author of the groundbreaking
bestseller The Rape of Nanking. Iris and I had developed a
professional relationship after the publication of my first book,
Flags of Our Fathers. In her e-mail, Iris suggested I contact a man
named Bill Doran in Iowa. She said Bill had some "interesting"
This was in early February 2001. I was hearing many "interesting"
war stories at that point. Flags of Our Fathers had been published
recently. The book was about the six Iwo Jima flagraisers. One of
them was my father.
Indeed, scarcely a day passed without someone suggesting a topic for
my next book. So I was curious as I touched his Iowa number on my
New York telephone keypad.
Bill quickly focused our call on a tall stack of papers on his
kitchen table. Within twenty minutes I knew I had to look Bill in
the eye and see that stack. I asked if I could catch the first plane
out the next day.
"Sure. I'll pick you up at the airport," Bill offered. "Stay at my
place. It's just me and Stripe, my hunting dog, here. I have three
empty bedrooms. You can sleep in one."
Riding from the Des Moines airport in Bill's truck, I learned that
Stripe was the best hunting dog in the world and that his
seventy-six year-old owner was a retired lawyer. Bill and Stripe
spent their days hunting and fishing. Soon Bill and I were seated at
his Formica-topped kitchen table. Between us was a pile of paper, a
bowl of popcorn, and two gin and tonics.
The papers were the transcript of a secret war crimes trial held on
Guam in 1946. Fifty-five years earlier, Bill, a recent U.S. Naval
Academy graduate, had been ordered to attend the trial as an
observer. Bill was instructed to report to the "courtroom," a huge
Quonset hut. At the entrance, a Marine guard eyed the
twenty-one-year-old. After finding Bill's name on the approved list,
he shoved a piece of paper across a table.
"Sign this," the Marine ordered matter-of-factly. Everybody was
Bill read the single-spaced navy document. The legal and binding
language informed young Bill that he was never to reveal what he
would hear in that steaming Quonset hut / courtroom.
Bill signed the secrecy oath and he signed another copy late that
afternoon when he left the trial. He would repeat this process every
morning and every afternoon for the trial's duration. And when it
was over, Bill returned home to Iowa. He kept silent but could not
forget what he had heard.
Then, in 1997, Bill noticed a tiny newspaper item announcing that
vast stashes of government documents from 1946 had been declassified.
"When I realized the trial was declassified," Bill said, "I
thought, Maybe I can do something for these guys now."
As a lawyer, Bill had spent his professional life ferreting out
documents. He made some inquiries and dedicated eleven months to
following where they led. Then one day, a boxed transcript arrived
in the mail from Washington. Bill told Stripe they weren't going
hunting that day.
The transcript contained the full proceedings of a trial
establishing the fates of eight American airmen-Flyboys-downed in
waters in the vicinity of Iwo Jima during World War II. Each was
shot down during bombing runs against Chichi Jima, the next island
north of Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima was coveted for its airstrips, Chichi
Jima for its communications stations. Powerful short- and long-wave
receivers and transmitters atop Chichi's Mount Yoake and Mount Asahi
were the critical communications link between Imperial Headquarters
in Tokyo and Japanese troops in the Pacific. The radio stations had
to be destroyed, the U.S. military decided, and the Flyboys had been
charged with doing so.
A stack of papers my brother found in my dad's office closet after
his death in 1994 had launched me on a quest to find my father's
past. Now, on Bill's table, I was looking at the stack of papers
that would become the first step in another journey.
On the same day my father and his buddies raised that flag on Iwo
Jima, Flyboys were held prisoner just 150 miles away on Chichi Jima.
But while everyone knows the famous Iwo Jima photo, no one knew the
story of these eight Chichi Jima Flyboys.
Nobody knew for a reason: For over two generations, the truth about
their demise was kept secret. The U.S. government decided the facts
were so horrible that the families were never told. Over the
decades, relatives of the airmen wrote letters and even traveled to
Washington, D.C., in search of the truth. Well-meaning bureaucrats
turned them away with vague cover stories.
"All those years I had this nagging feeling these guys wanted their
story told," Bill said.
Eight mothers had gone to their graves not knowing the fates of
their lost sons. Sitting at Bill's table, I suddenly realized that
now I knew what the Flyboys' mothers had never learned.
History buffs know that 22,000 Japanese soldiers defended Iwo Jima.
Few realize that neighboring Chichi Jima was defended by even
more-Japanese troops numbering 25,000. Whereas Iwo had flat areas
suitable for assault from the sea, Chichi had a hilly inland and a
craggy coast. One Marine who later examined the defenses of both
islands told me, "Iwo was hell. Chichi would have been impossible."
Land troops-Marines-would neutralize Iwo's threat. But it was up to
the Flyboys to take out Chichi.
The U.S. tried to blow up Chichi Jima's communications stations for
quite some time. Beginning in June of 1944, eight months before the
Iwo Jima invasion, American aircraft carriers surrounded Chichi
Jima. These floating airports catapulted steel-encased Flyboys off
their decks into the air. The mission of these young airmen was to
fly into the teeth of Chichi Jima's lethal antiaircraft guns,
somehow dodge the hot metal aimed at them, and release their loads
of bombs onto the reinforced concrete communications cubes atop the
island's twin peaks.
The WWII Flyboys were the first to engage in combat aviation in
large numbers. In bomber jackets, posing with thumbs up, they
epitomized masculine glamour. They were cool, and they knew it, and
any earthbound fool had to know it too. Their planes were named
after girlfriends and pinups, whose curvy forms or pretty faces
sometimes adorned their sides. And inside the cockpit, the Flyboys
were lone knights in an age of mass warfare.
In the North Pacific in 1945, the Flyboys flew the original
"missions impossible." Climbing into 1940s-era tin cans with bombs
strapped below their feet, they hurtled off carrier decks into
howling winds or took off from island airfields. Sandwiched between
blue expanses of sky and sea, Flyboys would wing toward distant
targets, dive into flak shot from huge guns, and drop their lethal
payloads. With their hearts in their throats, adrenaline pumping
through their veins, the Flyboys then had to dead-reckon their way
back to a tiny speck of landing deck or to a distant airfield their
often-damaged planes never made it to.
The Flyboys were part of an air war that dwarfed the land war below.
In 1945, the endgame in the northern Pacific was the incineration of
Japan. This required two layers of bombers in the sky-huge B-29s
lumbering high above with their cargo of napalm to burn cities, and
smaller, lower-flying carrier-based planes to neutralize threats to
the B-29s. My father on Iwo Jima shared the same mission with the
Chichi Jima Flyboys: to make the skies safe for the B-29s.
Japanese military experts would later agree that the napalm dropped
by these B-29s had more to do with Japan's surrender than the atomic
bombs. Certainly, napalm killed more Japanese civilians than died at
Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Most of the Chichi Jima Flyboys fought and died during the worst
killing month in the history of all warfare-a thirty-day period in
February and March of 1945 when the dying in WWII reached its
climax. If you look at a graph charting casualties over the four
years of the Pacific war, you will see the line jump dramatically
beginning with the battle of Iwo Jima and the Flyboys' assaults
against mainland Japan. And few realize the U.S. killed more
Japanese civilians than Japanese soldiers and sailors. This was war
at its most disturbing intensity.
It was a time of obscene casualties, a time when grandparents burned
to death in cities aflame, and kamikaze sons swooped out of the sky
to immolate themselves against American ships. It was the time of
the worst battle in the history of the United States Marine Corps,
the most decorated month in U.S. history, a valorous and brutish
time of all-out slaughter.
By February of 1945, logical, technocratic American military experts
had concluded that Japan was beaten. Yet the empire would not
surrender. Americans judged the Japanese to be "fanatic" in their
willingness to fight with no hope of victory. But Japan was not
fighting a logical war. Japan, an island nation, existed in its own
moral universe, enclosed in a separate ethical biosphere. Japanese
leaders believed that "Japanese spirit" was the key to beating back
the barbarians at their door. They fought because they believed they
could not lose.
And while America cheered its flyers as its best and brightest, the
Japanese had a very different view of those who wreaked havoc from
the skies. To them, airmen who dropped napalm on defenseless
civilians living in paper houses were the nonhuman devils.
This is a story of war, so it is a story of death. But it is not a
story of defeat. I have tracked down the eight Flyboys' brothers and
sisters, girlfriends, and aviator buddies who drilled and drank with
them. Their relatives and friends gave me photos, letters, and
medals. I have scoured yearbooks, logbooks, and little black books
to find out who they were and what they mean to us today. I read and
reread six thousand pages of trial documents and conducted hundreds
of interviews in the U.S. and Japan.
The families and friends of the Flyboys could only tell me so much.
Their hometown buddies and relatives had stories of their youth and
enlistment. Their military comrades had remembrances from training
camp up until they disappeared. But none of them-not even the next
of kin or the bunkmates who served in the Pacific with them-knew
exactly what happened to these eight on Chichi Jima. It was all a
dark hole, an unfathomable secret.
In Japan, some knew, but they had kept their silence. I met Japanese
soldiers who knew the Flyboys as prisoners. I heard stories about
how they were treated, about their interrogations, about how some of
the Flyboys had lived among their captors for weeks. I met soldiers
who swapped jokes with them, who slept in the same rooms.
And I ventured to Chichi Jima. Chichi Jima is part of an island
chain due south of Tokyo the Japanese call the Ogasawara Islands. On
English maps the chain is called the Bonin Islands. The name Bonin
is a French cartographer's corruption of the old Japanese word
munin, which means "no man." These islands were uninhabited for most
of Japan's existence. They literally contained "no peoples" or "no
mans." So Bonin translates loosely into English as No Mans Land.
I hacked through forest growth in No Mans Land to uncover the last
days of the Flyboys. I stood on cliffs with Japanese veterans who
pointed to where they saw the Flyboys parachute into the Pacific. I
strode where Flyboys had walked. I heard from eyewitnesses who told
me much. Others revealed a great deal by refusing to tell me
Eventually, I understood the facts about what happened to Dick,
Marve, Glenn, Grady, Jimmy, Floyd, Warren Earl, and the Unknown
Airman. I comprehended the "what" of their fates.
But to determine the "why" of their story, I had to embark upon
another journey. A trip back in time, back 149 years, to another
century. Back to when the first American military men walked in No
Excerpted from "Flyboys: A True Story of Courage" by James Bradley. Copyright © 2004 by James Bradley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.