Inside the Capitol

Sunday, June 19, 2005

6-29 Chichi Jima

WED, 6-29-05

CHICHI JIMA -- Lying 150 miles north of Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima is another of the Volcano Islands, with a great harbor in the caldera of a volcanic explosion. It was used as a staging area for the Japanese defense of Iwo Jima.
Although it has a good harbor, Chichi Jima is very mountainous and couldn't be used for air fields. But the high peaks made great locations for radio towers. It was the communications center for the Japanese war in the Pacific and was even better fortified than Iwo Jima.
The Japanese expected an invasion of Chichi Jima, which the United States had used a century earlier as part of its effort to force trade with Japan. Chichi Jima had an ideal location as a refueling and restocking point for trading ships going to and from Japan.
But the United States chose not to invade. Instead it conducted daily air raids on the heavily-fortified communications towers and facilities. It took the precision of dive bombers and glide bombers to pinpoint the small locations. That meant every pass had to be made through a barrage of heavy antiaircraft fire.
During the period that U.S. aircraft carriers were in the area, Chichi Jima was bombed often. Nine of our pilots were shot down over the island. Most of the pilots landed in the ocean on the other side of the island. All but one of them swam for shore and were taken prisoner. None were ever heard from again.
The one pilot who swam away from the island was picked up by a waiting submarine and taken to safety. What would have happened if he would have been taken captive also? Democrats wouldn't have to worry about the current president of the United States, because he wouldn't be here. And neither would his father.
The Navy pilot who escaped was George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States.
What would have been his fate had he been captured? We know we never had heard from any of the eight pilots who were captured, but for over 50 years we never knew the details. The families never knew the details. They knew nothing.
The United States and Japanese governments both withheld all details because they were too horrible to reveal.
James Bradley, a son of one of the Iwo Jima flag raisers, wrote Flags of Our Fathers, revealing the never before known details of that controversy. Following on the overwhelming success of that book, Bradley set out to dig through the recently declassified reports about the fate of the Chichi Jima pilots. He has produced an equally sensitive and moving account of that incident.
I'm not going to tell you the pilots' fate. You'll have to buy Bradley's book, Flyboys. Other recent books also mention the subject. Bradley's book also does much more, telling the story of the development of U.S. airpower, despite everything the Army, Navy and military-industrial complex could do to stop it in the early days.
He tells of Gen. Billy Mitchell's efforts in the 1920s and 1930s to convince top military brass that war now had a third dimension that would take over from land and sea power as the dominant force. Military brass wanted to hear nothing of it and neither did big industry that made battleships and tanks.
But Mitchell was persuasive and began swaying public opinion. So the military court martialed him for not staying quiet, as he had been ordered to do. Mitchell was a broken man, but he continued lecturing about the emergence of air power. And he warned of Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines.
Bradley also gives us a touching insight into George H. W. Bush's early life as a privileged son of the elite, who could easily have avoided military service, but instead enlisted on his 18th birthday and became one of the Navy's youngest pilots.



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