A thrilling, moving story and well written. It has been a while since I had a story that caused me to reprioritize my work so that I could go ahead and finish the book.
The shock of Pearl Harbor and the unexpected condition of being at war is still fresh. The Japanese Empire has racked up victory after victory without pause. The Philippines have fallen, along with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, et al. Australia is threatened. Two mighty British warships, the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse have both been sunk, eviscerating Britain's naval presence in the Pacific.
With the US shocked by the unremitting success of the enemy, a plan is hatched at the highest levels of government to strike back, even if it is simply a gesture. Morale needs boosting. The public need to be shown that the enemy is not invincible. The airforce asks for volunteers to undertake a mission to an unnamed location, under unidentified circumstances, with a high probability of not returning. The only thing promised was a chance to strike back. With that proposition, the ranks were more than filled.
The plan is to launch sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers from an aircraft carrier the USS Hornet. Such large planes have never been launched from a carrier before. All the practice take-offs and landings are done on land. The planes are to launch some five hundred miles from Tokyo from the carriers, drop their bombs (without their Norden bombsights which are too sophisticated and secret to risk losing over Tokyo) and then fly on several hundred miles to allied held bases in mainland China. The distance is so great that the planes are stripped of anything disposable (including some of their defensive machine guns) in order to add extra fuel tanks.
Murphy was sailing with the Task Group. As the Task Group approaches Japan they sail into a massive storm. They are then spotted by Japanese fishing boats some seven hundred miles from shore and in the early hours of the morning and Tokyo is alerted. The planes, already operating at the extremities of their range, will now have to fly an extra two hundred miles. Their arrival over Tokyo will now be in the middle of the day, optimizing Japan's defenses. All planes are launched, to the amazement of everyone, but the storm precludes them from flying in formation. They encounter a head-wind for part of the journey and which consumes yet more fuel. The extra fuel tanks turn out to be leaking, some badly.
Despite all this, all planes make it to their targets and drop their bombs. All planes, despite being fired at and damaged by anti-aircraft guns as well as being attacked by Japanese fighters, are able to head towards China. Because of the continuing storm, the navigators are unable to take any celestial readings and so they fly by dead reckoning with a high margin of error. It is night by the time the planes arrive over what they estimate to be China. Some planes can't quite make it and ditch in the ocean in the dark. Others fly until they are on fumes, desperately trying to make out where they might be. Most bail out into the dark as their planes gasp out a few last miles.
And then the real tribulations begin as the crewmen seek to make contact with the Chinese, avoid the Japanese and make it back to allied lines. Amazingly, eighty-three of the crewmen sooner or later make it home, most early enough in the war to continue serving in the Pacific or in Europe. Eight are captured, of whom three are executed and one is starved to death. Five land their plane in the Soviet Union and are interned for most the war. Two members of the raid are killed when their planes crash land in the water. Another is killed when his parachute fails to open.
A small handful are dreadfully injured in their crashes or parachute jumps but most suffer only minor injuries. They receive enormous support from the local Chinese who have suffered several years of Japanese occupation and brutal repression. Indeed, the Chinese are to suffer yet further as the Japanese launch a campaign to recover the allied airmen, a campaign in which a further 250,000 Chinese are killed.
Nelson does a magnificent job of weaving many strands of the story together and yet keeps it moving and doesn't let the narrative get bogged down in detail. He makes many connections that might be less than obvious. For example, how the head of the Japanese Navy (and original opponent of the war) Yamamoto, was so incensed by the raid and the danger that it posed to the Emperor that it became part of his motivation for bringing about the clash at Midway with the US Navy, intended to be the decisive engagement in which the five Japanese carriers would destroy the three remaining American carriers in the Pacific and effectively bring the war to a close. Midway was decisive, but not in the fashion Yamamoto sought. The American victory was the decisive turning point of the war with the Japanese on the defensive for the remaining three years.
Nelson also has a wealth of obscure facts and insights that also add to the interest of the book. One of the pilots, Davey Jones, escapes and eventually ends up in the European Theater. There he flies numerous missions before being shot down and captured by the Germans, taken to Stalag III where he is one of the participants in the Great Escape, helping digging the tunnels. At the last minute, before the escape, he is moved to a different camp. A move that likely saved his life as fifty of the seventy-three who were recaptured were executed. The Great Escape is another magnificent World War II story suitable for 12 to 18 year olds.
Other tidbits - The fatality rate of allied prisoners of war in Germany and Italy was 4%, that of allied POWs held by the Japanese, 27%. Jake DeShazer found religion while being held captive by the Japanese and returned to Japan after the war as a Christian missionary. Mitsuo Fuchida, the leader of the naval air planes in the attack on Pearl Harbor also found religion, became a Christian, a conversion in which DeShazer was instrumental through his missionary work and his pamphlet accounts of his imprisonment. Fuchida eventually migrated to the US and became a US citizen.
Ultimately, though, Nelson's story is not about war, though he does do a good job of setting the context and the history. It is instead the story of eighty brave young men, serving their country as best they knew how, under remarkable circumstances and with astonishing repercussions. This is explicitly a tribute to these men whose accomplishments might otherwise easily disappear into the recesses of our collective memory. This book will keep their tale shining bright for that much longer.
This is a good complement to Ted Lawson's (one of the pilots who was severely injured) book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which was written during the war and was a huge hit. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a tremendous read and is excellent for good independent readers, say 8-12 years old, whereas The First Heroes would really be for YA or adults.
I would give The First Heroes a Recommended rating.