Sorties Into Hell: The Hidden War on Chichi Jima – Book Review
Sorties Into Hell: The Hidden War on Chichi Jima
Lyons Press, 2003
The island of Chichi Jima seemed to meet all the requirements of the United States military for a forward base near Japan. It had a good harbor and was 140 miles closer to Japan than Iwo Jima. The Japanese were building an airfield on the island, but it wasn’t selected for invasion because there was no room on the island for a base to support the expected B-29s making emergency landings. This left the large Japanese garrison on the island isolated, except for periodic air attacks. Yet despite this, there was a nasty and brutal conflict on Chichi Jima, and if the submarine Finback was slower in getting to the island, the World’s history would be quite different to this day. This is due to the fact that George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States and father of the 43rd President, would have been captured by the Japanese, executed, and possibly cannibalized by the Japanese garrison.
Sorties into Hell is a true life horror tale of how a civilized nation’s soldiers can sink into the lowest depths of depravity. It not only recounts the tales of the 22 airmen who were captured by the Japanese, but of the amazing detective work by the occupation forces sent by the United States to demilitarize the island. However, the United States has a longer history with Chichi Jima than commonly supposed. The Bonin Islands were ‘discovered’ by the Japanese in 1593, 50 years after the Spanish. In fact, in Japanese Bunin meant ‘Land of No Men’. In 1853, Matthew Perry landed on Chichi Jima and found an expatriate colony of British, Italians, Danes, Sandwich Islanders and the American family of Nathaniel Savory of Bedford, Massachusetts. Nathaniel Savory had transplanted the colonists to the island, and was determined to make it an American possession. He passed on this determination to each of his descendents. Commodore Perry then made him the Agent for the United States on the island, and tried to build interest in it as a coaling and way station for shipping. There the islands lay forgotten by everybody but the Japanese. In 1862 Japan returned to claim the islands. The Savory’s presence grew on the island, and they had two iron clad rules. The first was that every Savory would learn English in addition to Japanese. The second was that, despite being Japanese citizens, they would remain loyal to the United States. When World War II broke out, the Japanese looked at the Bonin Islands and decided that the most logical target would be Chichi Jima. All the citizens were evacuated from the island to the homeland, and the Japanese started to fortify the island. Iwo Jima, in fact, was fortified more as an afterthought than for any obvious strategic value. Yet what did Chichi Jima have that made the United States attack it, beyond nuisance value? On the island was the main communications array that allowed the Imperial Japanese Navy to communicate with its far flung ships and bases. Thus the stage was set for tragedy.
On the 15th of June, 1944, the first two American pilots fell into Japanese hands; on July 4th, another flyer was captured. These three pilots would be the only American captives to land on Chichi Jima and live to tell the tale, as they were then transferred to Japan. Afterwards, any American unlucky enough to find himself captured on Chichi Jima would be executed. While it could not be proven that every American prisoner executed was cannibalized, there was proof enough that the senior officers on the island did eat the livers of some of the captives, and at least once, meat from the thigh and legs of an American was served to the enlisted mess. Sometimes the executions were performed by members of the garrison whom the commanders felt were not properly motivated. After the war, the civilians who were evacuated returned home, and one of them was Fred Savory. As he was fluent in both Japanese and English, and considered himself an American, he was a natural to act as a go-between for the Americans and the Japanese forces. The Americans had grave suspicions of atrocities against the captives, but the cover stories were good enough to delay retribution until Fred Savory overhead a snippet of conversation that would lead into five months of investigations into the war crimes. Colonel Presley Rixley did not have a functioning staff, but he made due. It was his diligence, and the diligence of the investigating staff, that brought the Japanese to trial. And after the trial, which took place on Guam Island, five of the leading figures in the horror that was Chichi Jima were lead to the gallows and hanged for their crimes against humanity.
Chester Hearn authored Sorties into Hell: The Hidden War on Chichi Jima, and 21 other books. Sorties Into Hell is well written, and supported amply with illustrations that aid, rather than detract, from the text. Chester Hearn uses both primary and secondary sources to unravel the tale of the horrors on Chichi Jima. The book is technically proficient, and is free of grammatical or typographical faults. Sorties Into Hell is highly recommended for any student of World War II in the Pacific, and with a list price of $14.95 (US) for the soft cover edition, is well within the budget of most readers.