This is such a sad, tragic story, and, like with the Titanic, we all know the ending when we start reading; but it’s a story that needs to be told and remembered. These Hellcat pilots were patriotic, dutiful youth, thrown into a cruel Pacific war they didn’t start. The...
This is such a sad, tragic story, and, like with the Titanic, we all know the ending when we start reading; but it’s a story that needs to be told and remembered. These Hellcat pilots were patriotic, dutiful youth, thrown into a cruel Pacific war they didn’t start. The more we can learn about their story and keep it alive, the better.
The author chose the narrative device of alternating between the military life of the pilots and that of their civilian relatives back home. Unfortunately, as written, there is not enough detail, drama, and material about the civilian side to keep it compelling and authentic, until the end. Apparently taken mainly from surviving letters and a few very old memories (from interviews of the few still living relatives), I found this material lacking and slow in the first half of the book. Truthfully, there just might not be much contemporaneous material around anymore dealing directly with what these men actually did in daily life while at the various stateside training bases.
There is, unfortunately, an inconsistency of the voice perspective in the narrative. Sometimes the author is the narrator, then there is an abrupt switch to the point-of-view of a relative or pilot, a commander, newspaper readers, or someone else. Such an abrupt switch in who is doing the storytelling makes it more difficult for the reader to follow who is speaking, who is an eyewitness, and what is inserted opinion or liberal interpretation. When you read something like “Their survival depended, in part, on the whims of an admiral who considered their well-being subordinate to his wishes” – [page 78 in the Advance Reading Copy] -- I was left wondering WHO said that, exactly? Is it just a modern-day projection by the author?
While the references are impressive in the bibliography, there also seems to be an over-reliance on unit Action Reports, often either primarily or exclusively. While unit Action Reports are a fine source, their formal tone comes through in the text: dry and limited.
Unfortunately, much of the climax action of the story is still clouded in mystery, and may be, forever. One key piece of research seemed to be missing: What does the JAPANESE unit action report have to say about that fatal dogfight of August 15? The one from the unnamed Japanese commander who launched the “fifteen to twenty Japanese army and navy fighters”? This unit report might have been destroyed before occupation, or, could still be in the Japanese unit archives. There is no mention of its disposition during the intelligence investigations after August 15, 1945. Likewise, there is no mention of interviews and statements of record from the Japanese commander and the surviving 6 to 11 (?) Japanese pilots in the dogfight.
Apparently, DNA work is still ongoing such that the book will need an epilogue eventually to update what new information has been discovered about the remains from one Air Group 88 pilot that were recovered on land by local Japanese and handed over to a Buddhist priest at the “Miyohoji Shrine for burial” [p. 223] Didn’t the Japanese always cremate quickly, such as with the American P.O.W.’s in Japan? The book does not explain this anomaly.
The book captures very well the harrowing, risk-filled life of carrier pilots in 1945. This story is so important to American national memory that this book is highly recommended, though some readers may need encouragement to “stick it out” through the first half. A very good map is included which depicts the routes of Air Group 88 missions in July and August of 1945.