Bombs Away

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, it took this country just short of one month to fulfill President Bush's promise that "the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon." As the greatest military power in the world, America still needed those few weeks to provide for logistics and muster the troops in a campaign that brought down the Taliban. This makes the feat of the Doolittle Raid all the more unbelievable.

On April 18, 1942, a little over four months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America retaliated with a bombing raid on Tokyo, fulfilling President Roosevelt's desire to "find ways and means of carrying home to Japan proper, in the form of a bombing raid, the real meaning of war." And it was done with just 80 men in 16 planes under the fearless leadership of Lt. Col. James Harold Doolittle. Precisely how it was done and the consequences it had for those Doolittle Raiders is the subject of Craig Nelson's awe-inspiring book, The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid -- America's First World War II Victory (Viking, $27.95).

Nelson puts the daring raid into perspective when he reminds us that "as of 1940, the U.S. stood fourteenth in global military power, trailing Germany, France, Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, China, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland." It was far from certain that America could ever respond in kind against an empire that encompassed most of the Western Pacific, stretching 6,000 miles. "Dangerous, important and interesting" -- that was about the extent of the description officer Davey Jones could offer when he asked for volunteers for the mission to Tokyo. Most of the men were in their early to mid-twenties, and "few had second thoughts -- pretty much every hand in that room shot up as fast as Jesse Owens," Nelson writes. Though Doolittle later warned his men, "It is inevitable that some of your planes will fall into the hands of the enemy," no one shied away.

Right up until the raid, military planners struggled with the logistical nightmare of figuring out how to launch bombers from an aircraft carrier, have them head hundreds of miles into heavily fortified Japan to drop bombs, then somehow find a way back. Because of fuel constraints, the hope was that the bombers would release their payload and land in Nationalist China. But even this proved to be dicey when the Japanese discovered the secret plan and the planes were forced to launch from 688 miles away -- more than 200 miles farther away than the planned takeoff site.

Nevertheless, after successfully hitting Tokyo -- which Nelson describes in a superbly detailed chapter -- all but one of the planes made it to China, although the fliers weren't sure whether they were in Nationalist or Japanese-controlled territory. One bomber actually landed in Russia. What happened to the flight crews after the raid fills the remainder of The First Heroes -- from the majority who made their way safely through China, to the unlucky few who fell into the hands of the Japanese, and the crew who ended up interned in the Soviet Union for more than a year. Nelson paints a shocking portrait not only of what happened to American POWs at the hands of the notorious Kempeitai (the Japanese Gestapo) but also of Japanese reprisals against Chinese accused of aiding the Americans in their escape.

The Doolittle Raid served as a morale booster at a time when, in Doolittle's words, "America had never seen darker days." But it was a mission that came with a hefty price tag.

Behind Enemy Lines

As with the men who volunteered for the Doolittle Raid in 1942, perhaps the most remarkable fact surrounding the 101st Airborne Division in 1944 was the youth of its 14,000 members and their lack of combat experience. Yet in the early hours of June 6, D-Day, these men parachuted behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied France in anticipation of the Allied invasion by sea later that day. It was practically a suicide mission, and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had been briefed that casualties among the 101st could run as high as 80 percent. Still, the division was filled with men eager to fight. One of those men was 20-year-old Joe Beyrle of Muskegon, Mich.

But as Thomas H. Taylor reveals in The Simple Sounds of Freedom: The True Story of the Only Soldier to Fight for Both America and the Soviet Union in World War II (Random House, $24.95), Beyrle got more than he bargained for. After landing less than three miles from his battalion's objective -- the bridges of the Douve river -- Beyrle accidentally stumbled across a machine-gun nest of Fallschirmja{dier}gers (German paratroopers) and was taken prisoner. And from that moment on, Beyrle's sole focus was on escaping: from his POW marching column after it was hit by friendly fire, and not once, but twice, from a Stalag deep inside the Reich.

Each attempt brought him closer to death. The first time he broke out of Stalag III-C, in October 1944, Beyrle and two other escapees hopped a train, aiming to get off somewhere on the Eastern front. Instead, they found themselves in a railyard in Berlin and eventually at the most feared address in the city -- Gestapo headquarters on Prinz Albrecht Strasse. As Beyrle tells Taylor, "I'd resisted interrogation before, better than most. Under the Gestapo I was not being interrogated, just tortured, extremely tortured for the pleasure of the torturers." Yet by the strangest of circumstances, he and his fellow POWs were brought back to their Stalag, where, undaunted, they plotted to escape again in January 1945. Finally successful, Beyrle linked up with the Russians and, rather than find a way to join the Americans, chose to fight alongside the Red Army, becoming the only American ever to do so in World War II.

Duel in the Sun

This fall marks the 60th anniversary of the battle of El Alamein, where British and Commonwealth forces clashed with the Panzerarmee Afrika in northern Egypt. Commemorating this pivotal point in the war are two well-researched books that explain how and why the battles were won.

The first is Alamein, by Jon Latimer (Harvard Univ., $27), who himself once served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Latimer spent considerable time at ground level with former infantrymen and dispels the notion that Italian soldiers were incompetent, though he concedes that their ability to adapt "operational concepts to technology was almost uniformly disastrous." (Until February 1943, Italians actually outnumbered Germans in North Africa.) In The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II (Viking, $32.95), authors John Bierman and Colin Smith have written a colorful history in the spirit of Antony Beevor's spectacular Stalingrad.

Latimer's Alamein spends substantial time on personalities like Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery and Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, though much is written from the frontline perspective as well. From reading both, a few points become clear: The victory at El Alamein was of "colossal significance" for the Allies, as Latimer says. Bierman and Smith note that it was "the first indisputable victory over a German-led army, some three months before the even more momentous German surrender at Stalingrad." And Latimer says the defeat was "far less significant" for Nazi Germany, since at the exact same time, the Wehrmacht was beginning its slow retreat from the Eastern Front -- a retreat that would not end until the Russians reached Berlin itself. *

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at the Weekly Standard.