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The Last Mission

The Secret History of World War II's Final Battle

The Last Mission by Jim Smith
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A gripping account of the final American bombing mission of World War II and how it prevented a military coup that would have kept Japan in the war.

How close did the Japanese come to not surrendering to Allied forces on August 15, 1945? The Last Mission explores this question through two previously neglected strands of late—World War II history, whose very interconnections could have caused a harrowing shift in the course of the postwar world. On the final night of the war, as Emperor Hirohito recorded a message of surrender for the Japanese people, a band of Japanese rebels, commanded by War Minister Anami's elite staff, burst into the palace. They had plotted a massive coup that aimed to destroy the recordings of the Imperial Rescript of surrender and issue false orders forged with the Emperor’s seal commanding the widely dispersed Japanese military to continue the war. If this rebellion had succeeded, the military would have proceeded with large-scale kamikaze attacks on Allied forces, costing huge casualties and just possibly provoking the Americans to drop a third atomic bomb on Japan over Tokyo–and continue to drop more bombs as Japanese resistance stiffened.

Meanwhile, in the midst of an “end-of-war” celebration on Guam, Air Force radio operator Jim Smith and his fellow crewmen received urgent orders for a bombing mission over Japan’s sole remaining oil refinery north of Tokyo. As a stream of American B-29B bombers approached Tokyo, Japanese air defenses, fearing the approaching planes signaled the threat of a third atomic bomb, ordered a total blackout in Tokyo and the Imperial Palace, completely disrupting the rebels’ plans. Smith and his fellow crewmembers completed the mission, and a few hours later, the Emperor announced the surrender over Japan’s airwaves, dictating the end of the war.

The Last Mission is an insightful piece of speculative investigation that combines narrative storytelling with historical contingency and explores how two seemingly unrelated events could have profoundly changed the course of modern history.

From the Hardcover edition.
Crown/Archetype; December 2007
384 pages; ISBN 9780307419477
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Title: The Last Mission
Author: Jim Smith; Malcolm McConnell
Good-bye, Holden Caulfield. I Mean It. Go! Good-bye!

Walter Kirn

It was a great book and I understood it. How great could it really be? I wondered. Mr. Durkee read whole chapters aloud, stirring his mustache and beard with puffs of air when he grew especially enthused. His impersonation of Holden Caulfield involved a compromise between his own voice--flat, midwestern, and modest in its vowels--and a lavish, nasal New England overdub that came in and out like a marginal radio signal. The effort of such complex enunciation dried his lips and forced him to keep licking them, which I found hard to watch. I gazed out the window at an old custodian weed-whacking tall grass around the flagpole.

My eighth-grade English teacher, Mr. Durkee, wore sandals with bumpy massage-nub soles and held the paperback inches from his glasses as he paced in front of the blackboard and performed, embarrassing us, as usual, with his commitment to raising our horizons above the ballfields and Lutheran steeples of eastern Minnesota. Between his readings, he spoke on themes and images. The word "nonconformist" was big, and so was "Christlike." I felt uncomfortable. He was trying to convert us, a couple of dozen unresponsive teens, to some sort of new philosophy or outlook that would set us at odds with our parents and our towns while granting us no clear benefits in return. The Catcher in the Rye, as he explained it, had helped to "radicalize" American culture and represented an artistic "watershed" in its portrayal of disillusioned youth.

Mr. Durkee so loved the book (the "text," he called it; another term that made me squirm and worry) that he insisted we read it twice--once at home, by ourselves, and a second time at school, together. His picture of our home lives was mistaken, though. Our houses were full of dogs and cats and siblings and noisy TVs and radios and telephones. There were lawns to mow and horse stalls to scrape clean and shirts to fold and even cows to milk. Flipping through The Catcher in the Rye and jotting our thoughts in the margins would not be possible for all but a few of us, and maybe none of us. Sure, our parents encouraged homework--technically--but only when it involved digesting science facts or wrestling with numbers. Our homework, if we were to be indulged in it, had to look like homework, and lazing around with a slim red paperback about a high-school dropout just wouldn't cut it.

Instead we depended on Mr. Durkee to read the book for us, and then tell us what it meant. This was a better plan all around. For one thing, there were curse words in the book, and it eased my conscience quite a bit to let someone else be responsible for speaking them. There were penalties for such language, I'd been taught, and I was in enough trouble as it was. The usual sex sins, the usual petty thefts, the usual forbidden dreams and longings. Mr. Durkee, on the other hand, with his nicotine-stained skin and his slouch and his odd clothes, struck me as someone who'd shot his wad, salvationwise. A little potty talk couldn't hurt him further.

"Holden accepts nothing at face value," he told us after finishing one chapter. "He questions the value of basic institutions. He sees through social roles. The America of the 1950s was different from the nation of today--fearful about change, conventional, preferring stability over free expression."

Stability sounded pretty good to me. I was a raging conservative that year; I'd lived through about as much change as I could take. 1975, in the St. Croix River valley, was a plague year of divorces and teenage suicides and gas shortages and drug busts and mental breakdowns. The '60s had finally made it to the boonies and it felt as though my small town had been invaded by a swarm of psychedelic locusts. The Vietnam War was ending, but someone had spraypainted dripping, blood-red peace signs all over the library and the general store. The antique bandstand on the village green hosted a round-the-clock miniature Woodstock of blaring FM rock and stolen six-packs and screaming matches with the constable. The last thing I wanted to hear about in school was the case for free expression and more chaos.

Not only didn't I welcome Mr. Durkee's ideas about Holden as a proto-hippie, I didn't believe them. This Holden character was a good kid; a privileged softy. Sure he drank and smoked a little and was given to moody, irritable funks, but he also fretted about his family and tried to do the right thing more often than not. Mostly, he just seemed bored and very tired. Funny, too, though I dared not laugh at him out of respect for Serious Literature. This was grave business, Holden's nonconformism, and when Mr. Durkee finally closed the book, he asked the class whether Holden was insane or if his "repressive era" was at fault--for being so hypocritical, so bland, so dull, so intolerant. The "era," we said, since we knew a test was coming.

To me, though, the era sounded, well, beautiful. The tidy parks with their flocks of fluffy ducks. The glamorous restaurants that served drinks to minors. The museums. The trains. The crime-free avenues. New York, as pictured on the evening news, was a hellhole of muggers and uncollected garbage, of sidewalks strewn with junkies' hypodermics, and to think that there had been this golden decade when teenagers could roam about at night there, checking in to hotels and blithely wandering--repressive? Hardly. It sounded like a blast.

My first college roommate was a Long Island Quaker who spent the evenings playing acoustic guitar while I sat on my bunk bed and drank beer and tried to sing along. The songs were mournful, idealistic, sensitive. Neil Young. James Taylor. The hits from Godspell. When my roommate's fingers got tired, we played the radio--a New York folk rock station, mellow and uplifting--while discussing, oh I don't know, nuclear disarmament. We were terribly liberal, out to save the world, though secretly lonesome for our homes and families. The important big books we pretended to admire weren't sinking in as deeply as they should have been and I, for one, felt like a phony amid the ivy.

One night it came in over the radio, into our smoggy little Princeton dorm room with its paisley batiks and Jimmy Hendrix poster and towering stereo speakers and two-foot bong, that John Lennon, the Beatle, had been assassinated outside his apartment building near Central Park. My roommate collapsed. He genuinely grieved. I envied his responsiveness to tragedy and figured that it was due to his ability to picture the scene of the crime, which I found difficult, having never visited Manhattan.

All I knew of Central Park and its environs came from Salinger and Mr. Durkee. It seemed like such a cheerful place, full of strollers and charming eccentrics and young families. I decided to refresh my memory by opening The Catcher in the Rye for the first time since junior high. This was a big mistake. A Lennon mourner caught me in the act, grabbed the paperback away from me, and tossed it across the dining hall. Only later did I find out why. Lennon's killer, according to the news, had been fixated on the novel, and in its pages had discerned some sort of secret message authorizing his crime.

Now I was really intrigued. I'd gotten the book wrong again, it seemed. The first time around I'd missed its radical message about nonconformism and so on, and this time I'd missed its advocacy of violence toward multimillionaire rock musicians. I read it again, but I couldn't find the part that compelled Mark David Chapman to blaze away. This novel that had seemed to me once so breezy and straightforward--a couple of days in the life of a glum wisecracker who couldn't quite figure out where he was going and ached for all the people he'd left behind. But I had to admit the book had power. Wow! What power! To throw an entire generation into a social and philosophical uproar, as Mr. Durkee had taught, and then to whisper evilly in the ear of a grandiose music fan with a loaded pistol.

I knew by now that Salinger was a recluse, but I also happened to know that one of his children, a son, was somewhere on the campus, a Princeton student. I had someone point him out to me one day. He was tall and athletic and handsome. This baffled me. I expected an odder, less conventional creature. Someone with wrinkled slacks. So much for looking to life to help with books. Still, it was exciting to see the guy and have secondhand proof of his father's physicality.

My literature classes didn't help me deepen my understanding of the novel. The Princeton English Department, just then, was in a phase of high obscurity, and readable modern American authors such as Salinger weren't part of the syllabus. Desperate to take on the snobbery of my teachers, I came to regard the old hermit's books as classy young-adult fiction in a league with Old Yeller, Black Beauty, and A Separate Peace. The pleasure I took in Holden's voice (once I learned to distinguish it from Mr. Durkee's) was Exhibit A in the case against his greatness.

I published my first book in my late twenties, a collection of stories on modest hometown subjects that featured several teenage narrators and reminded some reviewers of Salinger. This wasn't the wonderful compliment it seemed. Write about a white male under twenty in this country and you're sure to be compared to Salinger--never wholly favorably, even when the critic likes the book, and even when he makes it clear that he considers Salinger himself dated, minor, light, or overrated. Comparing young male writers to Salinger is code for saying they have a way to go before they become important, mature, profound.

The comparisons made no sense to me. My reactions to Holden Caulfield had always been personal, despite others' urgings to view him as an artifact of cultural, not actual, history. To me he was, above all else, an Easterner, and privileged in ways that I had never been. A gifted family, artistic, cosmopolitan. An expensive private education. Exposure to Broadway, to world-class museums. The learning, sophistication, and experience that Holden threw away in a few days would have lit up my small-town high school for a year.

The kid was sent to a madhouse, for heaven's sake, and madhouses were for rich folks. The farmers and Mormon kids I was writing about wouldn't have known who to go to for a reference to a respectable madhouse. What baloney.

But I picked up the book again, anyway. Just curious. It had been years and I'd forgotten most of it, which is always how it happens with novels I love. People tell me that the mark of a great book is the way it sticks with you, stays vivid over time, but I disagree. The best books fade into the scenery, dissolve into instant backdrop, return to dust. But that dust is never the same, it's changed forever. The book hangs on like a spore inside soil, and now and then it's suddenly reactivated by certain conditions of temperature and moisture.

The book had been reactivated in me every eight years or so. This was our third round. I fully expected that it would be our last. My intention was to erase whatever influence it might have had on my own beginner's fiction. Either that or determine that it had no influence; that my stories were as original as I'd hoped.

I sat on a porch in Montana, where I lived, far, far away from the scenes of Holden's delinquency, and sought to clear my head of Mr. Durkee, the dead John Lennon, and my Princeton professors. Too much static. I wanted a clear signal. Holden and I would meet out in the open, shake hands, and--I hoped--be finished with each other.

The edition was not the one I'd read before. Its cover was illustrated, not solid red, and featured a kid in a trench coat and hunting cap against a blurred background that looked like New York City. And though it showed Holden as Salinger described him and as most careful readers surely picture him, the image bewildered me. It was too fixed, too specific, too inert. Where was Mr. Durkee's young radical? Chapman's dark muse? The author's handsome son? Where was my own preferred vision of the character, the exhausted, cranky, preppy softy?

I read the book in one sitting, as usual, and forgot it even faster than in the past. I'd turn a page and look up from the porch, across the street at the neighbor's station wagon and his yard full of rusty tricycles and crabgrass, and the preceding page would vaporize. Good-bye slobby roommate. Good-bye old pederast. Good-bye ducks. Good-bye Central Park. Good-bye kid sister. At the end, Holden says how he misses everyone, a stroke that always comes as a surprise to me and seems both too broad and sloppy and too brilliant. I said good-bye to that, too, then shut my eyes. My conscious, definitive reading was over, leaving me with . . . what? As a writer myself, it was time I pegged this book, assessed its technique, its style, its larger context. But nothing came. Just self-centered memories. Watching a school custodian mow grass. Singing Neil Young songs in a filthy dorm room. Hearing a radio bulletin: "Former Beatle . . ." Standing next to a mailbox in Montana, reading the first reviews of my own stories.

The best books vanish. I don't know where they go. One looks for them and only finds one's self. And then, under strange new circumstances, they're back. An editor phones (the one behind this volume) and tells me he's compiling a book on Salinger, and though I thought I was rid of that damned novel, here it is once more, open on my desk. How maddening. It's as if I'm being stalked. I'm sure that it's gone, that I'm free, but then I turn . . .

Mr. Durkee, was it the same for you?

The Peppy Girls of Friendswood, Texas

Rene Steinke

Before I could drive, I spent a lot of time lingering on the grounds of the church where my father was a minister, waiting for him to take me home. Next to the church, there was an ugly green building made of aluminum siding, a sort of gym with a narrow attic space upstairs furnished with cast-off couches and coffee tables. I was probably slouched on a mildewed cushion in that attic, in a kind of trance broken only slightly by the sound of car wheels in the gravel of the parking lot, when I picked up J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories.

From the Hardcover edition.