“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.”
– The Washington Post

“The First Heroes is an awe-inspiring read about the famous Doolittle Raid: Roughly four months after Pearl Harbor, America did the impossible: It flew 80 men (many below the age of 30) in 16 planes deep into the heart of the Japanese Empire, bombing Tokyo, and sending the message that the sleeping giant had awakened. But the most harrowing experiences for the young American aviators took place after the attack when they were forced to bail out over China. A few Americans fell into the hands of the Japanese–with terrible consequences to follow. Nelson’s minute details (such as how the Japanese chief of antiaircraft defenses had to commit suicide) are what make the book so memorable. But I leave it to you to discover the rest of them.”
— The Weekly Standard (selected as one of the year’s best books)

“A riveting history of the daring April 1942 bomber raid on Tokyo led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. Given the decidedly civilian subject matter of Nelson’s previous work (Let’s Get Lost: Adventures in the Great Wide Open, 1999, etc.), his decision to chronicle the Doolittle Raiders’ mission over Japan seems a bit of a stretch. But, inspired by his father’s WWII service, the author brings a passionately fresh perspective to this amazing story. Nelson details the extensive challenges inherent in a strike against Japan, which had not only destroyed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor but also established a buffer zone around the home islands by securing islands throughout the Pacific. Though this seemingly prevented Allied bombers from taking off from and returning to aircraft carriers, aviation hero Doolittle organized a group of volunteers who would bomb Tokyo and then bail out of their fuel-starved airplanes over Japanese-occupied China. Meticulous research and extensive interviews with 20 of the mission’s surviving participants demonstrate that Doolittle’s audacity trickled down to these volunteer aviators. The author suggests that the mission’s real danger lay not in forcing huge B-25 bombers to take off from storm-soaked aircraft carrier decks or making bombing runs over Tokyo in broad daylight, but in the crews’ struggles to reach friendly forces in China. The aviators, most of them seriously injured, found themselves evading escape throughout Asia or tortured in Japanese POW camps. Ultimately, Nelson judges the Doolittle Raiders to be heroes, not only for their incredible Tokyo mission, but for their continued struggle against fascism even after cheating death early in the war. A gripping drama of WWII, retold with such freshness that it’s nearly impossible to put down.”
— Kirkus (starred)

“In April 1942, 16 American bombers under the overall command of James Doolittle attacked Tokyo and other Japanese cities. The military effects of the Doolittle raid were negligible, but the psychological effects were enormous. For the Americans, still reeling from the shock of Pearl Harbor, it provided a great emotional lift. The Japanese, supposedly impregnable in their home islands, now felt vulnerable, which probably led their high command to blunder into defeat at Midway. Nelson is the son and nephew of World War II veterans, and this work is clearly a labor of love. With unstinting admiration, he describes the heroism of the various crew members; in Nelson’s view, they illustrated how ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things when properly led and motivated. The most interesting part of the book is the harrowing story of survival as crew members are forced to ditch their planes on the Asian mainland. This is a thrilling real-life saga that both informs and inspires.”
— Booklist

“Some historians and Pacific War veterans may take issue with author Craig Nelson’s title, arguing that the first American heroes of World War II were the gallant men who held off vastly superior Japanese forces on Wake Island, Java, Bataan, and Corregidor for nearly six months, until their food and ammunition ran out. But in retelling the story of Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle’s daring raid on Tokyo in April 1942, Nelson convincingly shows that Doolittle and his 16 B-25 bomber crews scored the first victory for a disheartened nation in that war. Coming scarcely six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and just nine days after the fall of Bataan, Doolittle’s raid was a sorely needed boost for the American people and a crushing blow to Japan’s self-confidence. It temporarily took Americans’ minds off the fact that all the soldiers of General Douglas MacArthur’s Army of the Pacific were by that time either dead or in captivity — the greatest military defeat in U.S. history. Nelson has done a great service to current and future generations by making Doolittle’s story come alive once again, using meticulous research and the first-person narratives of the aviators themselves to let the reader feel part of the preparation, the mission, and the costly aftermath for the 80 daring young men who took part. In relating what happened to Doolittle and his crews, Nelson highlights major events of the Pacific War; the exceptional plight of aviators taken prisoner by the Japanese; and the price paid by Chinese civilians who helped some of the downed raiders to safety. (The American Museum of the Asiatic Holocaust WWII, in Falls Creek, Pennsylvania, shows how some Chinese are still suffering, 60 years later, from the biological and chemical warfare waged upon them by furious Japanese officials, in retaliation for their aid to Doolittle and his men.) The First Heroes reminds us all of what serving your country really means.”

“The Doolittle raid was Franklin Roosevelt’s answer for Pearl Harbor. The gutsy mission shocked the Japanese, electrified America and determined the shape and tenor of the entire Pacific War. If you want to read one book to understand how a humbled America rose to defeat mighty Japan, you hold that book in your hands. Read about the original “Mission Impossible” of WWII. Read about the boys who flew off into history, believing they would never come back. Read about the boys who were The First Heroes.”
— James Bradley, Author, Flags of our Fathers

“The First Heroes is epic in sweep. The story of the Doolittle raid lifts off the page as rich and engrossing as any legend, and Craig Nelson proceeds to bring to vivid life the dramatic story behind the story. This is an astounding feat — the hours breathe with even the tiniest gesture of young men desperately fighting to stay alive, to the panorama of modern war and a turbulent century in the making. Nelson is an amazing storyteller.”
— Doug Stanton, author, In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors

“In this passionate and intimate history, Craig Nelson reminds us that America’s first response to Pearl Harbor was neither tepid nor undramatic, but rather one of warfare’s boldest chapters of righteous revenge.”
— Hampton Sides, author, Ghost Soldiers

“I vividly remember as a boy, in the demoralizing months following Pearl Harbor, the disbelief and elation that greeted news that American bombers had actually struck Tokyo! Now Craig Nelson has given us every detail, every secret, every story behind this raid that first taught an insecure nation that we could hit this enemy and, in time, defeat him.”
— Joseph E. Persico, author, Roosevelt’s Secret War

“Craig Nelson hs produced a book that is, quite simply, unforgettable. The First Heroes lives and moves with staggering power and vitality. I never wanted it to end.”
– Léon Bing, Author, Do or Die

“The First Heroes is the best kind of history: important, thoughtful and wonderfully gripping. Craig Nelson has done a splendid job of making America’s first victory in World War II seem so vital, so relevant that reading it feels like living it.”
— Susan Isaacs, author, Compromising Positions