An untold story from World War Two has inspired a best selling book called Flyboys, now available in paperback. The author is James Bradley, who recounts what happened when nine U.S. airmen were shot down in the Pacific.
Mister Bradley says he became interested in the story after publishing his earlier best seller, Flags of Our Fathers. That book was about the six U.S. servicemen, including the author’s father, who were photographed during World War Two, raising the American flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. The book brought him a flood of suggestions for other wartime stories that hadn’t yet been fully told. He says the story that captured his attention came from a retired attorney in Iowa, who’d attended a secret trial in Guam in 1946.
“It was a war crimes trial to affix guilt on Japanese officers for the beheading deaths of eight flyboys on the island of Chichi Jima. Nobody knew the story. Even the families did not know. The government classified the trial because they thought the horrendous fate of these flyboys was too terrible to let the mothers know. Not only that, he said that eight American flyboys had been killed, and the ninth guy got away, and his name was George Bush.”
That launched James Bradley on the quest that would result in Flyboys. The men of the book’s title were Navy and Marine airmen who came from many different backgrounds to honor a common call. Seventeen year old Dick Woellhof was from rural Kansas, too young to enlist without his mother’s permission. George H. W. Bush had just graduated from one of America’s most elite prep schools, and put off attending Yale to join the war effort. As flyboys, James Bradley says they became part of a vital and high-risk mission.
“Other than submarine duty, flying off an aircraft carrier in World War Two was the single most dangerous thing to do in all of the war. And if you look at the Pacific battlefield, it was basically a water war with a few rocks named Tawa and Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. These were taken and used as air strips. The strategy was to base airplanes to go and hit Japan.”
In September of 1944, George Bush was flying a bomber that was shot down off the coast of Chichi Jima. The island was the site of critical communications stations some one thousand kilometers from Japan. His two crewmen were killed, but the future President managed to bail out of the plane. James Bradley says Mister Bush paddled a raft for more than three hours.
“Then he saw a periscope come up and he thought, ‘I’m a goner. It’s a Japanese submarine. They’re going to get me.’ But incredibly, it was an American submarine. And the guy who got away in this story becomes the President of the United States.”
Eight other airman also survived after being shot down during bombing runs to Chichi Jima. They made it to the island, only to be captured and ultimately executed, on the order of Japanese officers. Mr. Bradley says the officers also commanded that their bodies be cannibalized.
“After the war it was the Japanese soldiers who came forward and told on their officers because they objected to that behavior. So we have in this trial the Japanese talking about the treatment of flyboys in a tremendous amount of detail. I also went back to Japan, and interviewed former Japanese soldiers who were there. Every single Japanese soldier ordered to kill a flyboy refused, and only did so when their own life was threatened. One of the executioners ran away, they couldn’t find him at the appointed moment. Another executioner disemboweled himself. He committed suicide over what he had done.”
James Bradley drew on his own experience as a student of Asian history and culture to write his book. He also visited the flyboys’ siblings, girl friends and fellow airmen, and told them what he had learned about what happened on Chichi Jima.
“I called James Hall in Missouri, and I said, ‘Mister Hall, do you know how your brother Floyd died in World War Two?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah, he died on impact when he hit the water,’ and I said, ‘That’s not really true. I know that Floyd spent 2 months on the island of Chichi Jima. He lived with a Japanese major. He was learning Japanese, teaching them English, using chopsticks, going to Japanese sake parties. And then one day it was time to kneel down and die.’ That’s how different the truth was from the cover stories the families were told. Now that they know the truth, no matter how gruesome it is, they’re talking about their flyboy brothers and they’re healing for the first time.”
James Bradley believes his book gives the families reason to be proud of the airmen.
“I found they did not plead for their own lives. They did not give up any secrets. They went to their deaths with honor. My dad is thought to be a huge hero because he was in an accidental photo on Iwo Jima raising the American flag. And here I found the stories of these flyboys on the next island, and they were not seen as heroes because nobody knew their identity.”
James Bradley hopes his book will help right that wrong. He says former President Bush has also brought new attention to the sacrifice of the airmen. He went with Mister Bradley to Chichi Jima, and in an emotional speech before the Japanese islanders, George H.W. Bush paid tribute to his fellow flyboys.
Flyboys was published in hardcover by Little Brown and Company, 1271 Avenue of the Americas. The paperback edition was published by Back Bay Books.