James Scott’s “Target Tokyo” is a gripping history of the daring retaliatory airstrike mounted by U.S. Army aviators after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

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‘Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor’

by James Scott

W.W. Norton, 640 pp., $35

In the early days of World War II — just four months after Pearl Harbor — U.S. Army aviator Col. James Doolittle led a perilous retaliatory strike on Japanese soil.

In “Target Tokyo,” author James Scott offers a gripping work of history that tells the extraordinary tale of the Doolittle raid and its aftermath.

Scott is an agile writer who offer strong portraits of key figures such as Doolittle. And his immense amount of research enabled him to produce a book that appeals not just to military buffs, but to a much broader audience.

The broad sweep of his tale ranges from the White House, where a shaken President Roosevelt mapped out his response to Pearl Harbor, to the coastal provinces of eastern China, where Scott offers intimate accounts of Chinese villages who risked their lives to save B-25 bomber crews.

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Scott also delves into the technical and logistical complexities of the bombing strategy, which involved training of B-25 bomber crews to take off from an aircraft carrier — the USS Hornet — that crept across the Pacific toward Japan.

There was no way for the crews to land back on the USS Hornet, so they were supposed to try to reach air strips in China. But after the USS Hornet encountered a Japanese fishing boat conducting surveillance, the secrecy that surrounded the mission was shattered.

So, the 80 members of the B-25 bomber crews were forced to take off from the carrier hundreds of miles farther from Japan than initially planned. None of them had enough fuel to make it that far, so 15 of the 16 crews ended up crashing their aircraft.

Improbably, most of Doolittle’s raiders were eventually able to make their way back to the United States, where they received heroes welcomes from a nation that had very little good news to boost morale on the home front.

Meanwhile in China, in the aftermath of the bombing raid Japan sought to punish those who had aided Doolittle’s crews with a brutal military campaign that Scott says claimed an estimated 250,000 lives. Scott writes that American military officials expected that this slaughter was anticipated by senior American leaders who judged it a “worthwhile risk.”

In this early phase of the war, America still appeared focused on campaign that would avoid running up civilian casualties. Scott writes that Doolittle, as he prepped his crew for the raid on Japan, repeatedly stated that the crews were to try to bomb only military targets such as refineries, steel plants and ammunition dumps.

“There is absolutely nothing to be gained by attacking residential areas,” Doolittle declared.

Once their B-25 bombers were over Japan, in the sometimes chaotic efforts to unload their bombs, some schools and hospitals were hit.

But the 1942 raid on Japan was a mere pinprick compared to the air attacks that the U.S. would launch in the later days of the war, when U.S. air power was vastly more capable and far less restrained in its targets. Scott notes the gruesome toll of later U.S. aviation raids, although I would have appreciated a bit more analysis and reflection on the evolution of the U.S. tactics through the war.

As the war came to a close, Scott writes that U.S. incendiary raids on Japanese cities with conventional weapons killed 330,000 people and left another 8.5 million homeless. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed another 125,000 Japanese in a bloody final chapter to the war in the Pacific.