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Mission to Tokyo — a book for those who want the knowledge, not simply the facts

29 October 2012

Mission to Tokyo — a book for those who want the knowledge, not simply the facts

Mission to Tokyo: the American airmen who took the war to the heart of Japan, Robert F. Dorr, 2012, ISBN 978-0-7603-4122-3, 328 pp.


As is the publishing business custom, Zenith Press has provided a copy of this book to read and provide an objective review. No compensation has been offered, expected or requested — nor is compensation accepted.


(illustration courtesy of Zenith Press)

Vibrant writing by Robert Dorr places the reader into the times and the minds of the men who flew that first massive and unconventional raid against Japan — the attack which signaled a significant strategic shift in strategy. Dorr is an accomplished writer and son of a diplomat so, perhaps, that is why he can knit the threads of history together, tightly or openly, so that readers have flavor of the experience of all those involved on that mission. Not a simplistic rattling off of facts and dogma — instead he relates the history one might learn while talking informally on a porch with the experts, those who really know it. We are so much the richer for Dorr’s work on Mission to Tokyo, since this is an historical book, not a propaganda piece or a title for enthusiasts. He describes the day-to-day grind of each crewman of several aircrews, along with how morale was enhanced, as well as the personalities of the decision makers as they went about preparations designed to destroy the capacity for Japan to wage war.

Dorr does what good historians do, he relates facts accurately and concisely. Dorr also does what great historians do and writes to give us the entire story with all the context, weaving a story possessing the intricacy of a Persian carpet, that is easily and captivatingly told. The story of the mission to firebomb Tokyo from medium altitudes and at night — all but obviating the design goals of the “Superfort” designers of Boeing. He goes further to explain how the massed raids of similar size in the European Theater of Operations, which were designed to overwhelm defenses, could not be formed on this mission since only three airfields could be utilized.

The 9th and 10th of March 1945, are the two but telling days, primarily covered in this work. Mission to Tokyo — dedicated to the 10,000 airmen involved in the mission — begins at 10 a.m. on 9 March as do four major threads of the book — the stories of four airmen, two of whom fated not to see 11 March. For these bomber crewmen the United States had fought westward across the Pacific Ocean to occupy three heavy bomber bases — Saipan, Guam and Tinian — and it would be from these three bases that their Stratofortress bombers would assault Japan in a radical new way.

Dorr describes the Boeing B-29 Stratofortress teething problems. No surprise, these difficulties, since the B-29 was a technological leap ahead with its high performance wing, new engines, pressurized crew spaces, centralized defensive fire control, long range and huge bomb load. It was placed into service prior to the correction of many glitches due to the priorities of the war effort — especially with the engines. The B-29 was a purpose-built aircraft — a weapon forged for the single purpose of directly attacking Japan — with each B-29 built to fly long distances over the water of the Pacific Ocean to bomb the home islands of Japan from high altitude and with precision. Altitude and speed would protect her crew in combination with escort fighters and 0.50 caliber machine guns. Of course, the plan did not unfold as expected as no plan survives first contact in combat operations. Dorr gets into the  grit of the Pacific strategic bombing effort without sensationalism and always with objectivity. The engine problems, which too often ignited perilous wing severing magnesium fires, are described including the economics of their production as well as why a poor choice, perhaps, of place of manufacture was made. Other books mention the engine reliability issue, others write proudly of how quickly the Army Air Force could change an engine. Dorr tells the tale of why so much practice in quick engine changes occurred and the anxiety of the flight crew monitoring these engines on each 15 hour mission.

High altitude bombing was not acceptably succeeding, so the decision was made to bomb from medium altitudes with mixed ordinance loads of high explosive and pyrotechnic (i.e., fire bombs). The evening of 9-10 March mission also had the defensive machine armament removed to increase war loads. Dorr ably brings the crew thinking to light on this matter as Stratofortress crews respected and feared Japanese interceptor pilots, regardless of the statistically driven decisions from General Staff. We learn that General LeMay spoke with a quiet voice and rear gunners began preflight preparations with a screwdriver. The flight planning, formation points near Japan as opposed to the home bases, bomber loss stories and the tragic coincidence of three B-29s crashing onto the same mountain during that fateful evening — all are told and more.

Amazing stories are here, too, such as a propeller which balanced itself after a blade tip was lost with a hole of exactly needed size in another blade also occurring — the propeller simply did become unbalanced and performed normally for several more hours through landing. Many books have told the tale of the first B-29 to land on Iwo Jima but Dorr completely weaves the heart rendering telling by observing the crew was a combat loss within the weeks which followed. His book is replete with this caliber of research and detail often overlooked.

The atomic bombing missions and Silverplate crews  are also written about, along with description of crewmen personalities though these missions would occur half a year later. The comparison and contrasting of each of the two atomic missions is worth the price of the book, alone .

The most operative word for this book may be “personality” since the thinking of so many people involved is so wonderfully related — from LeMay, to the aircrew, to Yoko Ono. Dorr makes this part of history complete and makes what could be a complicated story easily comprehensible.

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