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Last Mission to Tokyo

Last Mission to Tokyo

The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raiders and Their Final Fight for Justice

A thrilling narrative that introduces a key but underreported moment in World War II: The Doolitte Raids and the international war crimes trial in 1945 that defined Japanese-American relations and changed legal history.



History in Five: How do you describe your book to others? 


Michel Paradis: Last Mission to Tokyo is a book about one of the most important war crimes trials to come after World War II, a trial that dramatically shaped international law and made the most lasting triumph of WWII the triumph of American values. 


The book takes its start from the Doolittle Raiders; eighty men who went on a one-way mission to bomb Japan in April 1942. It was a mission that turned the tide against the Japanese in ways few could have imagined at the time, and the Doolittle Raiders were some of the most celebrated heroes of the whole war. 


Most of the Raiders made it home, but some were captured by the Japanese and the horrors they suffered were unimaginable. When news got out that the Japanese had tortured and murdered some of the Doolittle Raiders, and put them before a show trial, it stoked the American bloodlust for revenge. But instead of taking an eye for an eye, the Army insisted on conducting a fair trial for the Japanese soldiers believed responsible. And what was remarkable was that the trial was basically fair. It was a riveting courtroom drama in post-war Shanghai in which young idealistic American soldiers wrestled with the Big Questions of truth, justice, and equality before the law. They reached an outcome that surprised—even shocked—the world. 


Hin5: How did you come to find this story? Why did you decide to write about it as a full book? 


MP: In 2007, I was working at the Department of Defense on the Guantanamo war crimes prosecutions and there was a debate over whether waterboarding constituted torture. We had heard a rumor that there was a post WWII war crimes trial where Japanese soldiers were supposedly prosecuted for waterboarding. So we sent a young marine captain to the National Archives to dig up the trial record which was the long-lost record of the Doolittle trial. As I read the transcript, I couldn’t believe it. All of these issues that we were confronting in Guantanamo—what rights we owe our enemies? What is torture? What is a fair trial? — had been at the center of this case back in 1946. But what horrified me that as I was reading it in 2007, it was the U.S. government that was now playing fast and loose with our values and international law. We were the ones looking for loopholes to justify torture and show trials. 


There were a number of notable parallels between the Doolittle Raiders trial and the War on Terror. The Doolittle Raid had been Japan’s September 11th. It was the first time the country had ever been attacked and the Japanese were terrified. That fear led them to some abominable practices, including methods of torture -- mistakes we were making more than sixty years later in the War on Terrorism. 


What happened at the Doolittle trial shouldn’t be a footnote in history—it’s an important episode that still has ramifications today. 


Hin5: Why isn’t the war crimes trial of the Doolittle Raiders better known? 


MP: The legacy of the war in the Pacific has always been shadowed by the firebombing and the nuclear bombing that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians—an epic and horrific event with visuals that are seared in our collective memory. 


But in its day, the Doolittle Raiders trial was one of the biggest war crimes trials in the world, with press attention equivalent to Nuremberg. I think part of the reason it’s been lost to the sands of time is that the lessons of the trial were expressly codified into the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which now forbids everything the Japanese were accused of doing. So the legacy is there and, at least as lawyers are concerned, there was no more need to look back to the source of that legacy— it simply became a backstory that faded from memory. 


War is a morally complicated endeavor, even when justified. I think that the trial itself brought out a lot of ugly truths, ones that don’t necessarily make for straight-forward American myth-making or simple history. But in the end, I think the Doolittle Trial should be remembered as one of our nation’s proudest moments from the war. We really did distinguish ourselves from our enemies and showed the strength of our values. And I trust readers to see that lesson in the midst of the moral complexity. 


You describe the moral dilemmas of attorneys Edmund Bodine and Robert Dwyer. Can you talk more more about that? 

Robert Dwyer is almost 40 years-old when WWII starts. He had gone to Harvard Law School and was enjoying a comfortable law practice in Rochester, NY. when he got drafted. He was assigned to a desk job in Shanghai when Fate intervened. Dwyer is asked to put together the Doolittle Trial and takes on the job with gusto. In trying to find those responsible for the torture and murder of the Doolittle Raiders, Dwyer decides to prosecute the Japanese lawyers, who were responsible for the Raiders’ show trial. Traveling literally thousands of miles across Asia, Dwyer made a case that stands up to the test of history by, in essence, putting a trial on trial. 


The other main character is actually one of Dwyer’s good friends in Shanghai, a decorated combat pilot by the name of Edmund Bodine. The Army realized it needed to give the Japanese a respectable looking defense lawyer, but who would want that job? Bodine, who had fallen in love with a Russian refugee in Shanghai, was happy to take on the case since it gave him a reason to stay in China with his girlfriend. No one seemed to care that he had failed out of law school and was not, in fact, a lawyer. 


What makes Bodine fascinating though, is that he can't let go of his conscience. He knew he was essentially hired to be a potted plant at the trial, but he can't ignore the truth of what is right in front of him. And even though he was not a lawyer, he began to act like one: he made the case about the truth and he pulled no punches. It took incredible moral courage for an Air Force pilot to challenge his own, especially after the war. 


The result was that Dwyer and Bodine were more alike than different. There were all these political forces swirling around them. But they committed to what they thought was right. You have these two imperfect people fighting for something as basic as truth in Shanghai in 1946, in the afterglow of the victory in the Second World War. It really makes you think the best about humanity, about what America is capable of doing. 


Hin5: This book includes a lot of the Japanese perspective on this story. What did you learn about the Japanese that surprised you? 


MP: When I first came to this story, I was probably like most American kids who grew up learning about WWII in history class. I thought the Japanese were pretty uncomplicated villains— essentially Asian versions of the Nazis. But researching this story from the Japanese perspective gave me the opportunity to learn otherwise. 


First, the Japanese government was not monolithic in the way the European fascists were. There was no Japanese Hitler. Instead, you had these real divisions within the government over what they were doing, especially over their treatment of prisoners. You had liberal factions insisting on respect for international law coming nearly to blows with those from the militarist factions who were arguing for brutality. That made many of the terrible things the Japanese did, less the result of systematic evil like you had with the Holocaust, and more the results of awkward compromises and weak governance. And that offers a real warning to us all. It does not take a Hitler for a government to do terrible things or make disastrous mistakes. 


The very fact that the Doolittle Raiders were put before a show trial was the result of a compromise and heated controversy inside Japan’s cabinet. Liberal factions within the government were concerned that Japan was becoming a pariah state like Germany and insisted on respect for international law. 


My research assistants in Japan didn’t fully know the full story of the trial either, which made what we uncovered all the more exciting. 


Hin5: You describe methods of torture used by the Japanese that are eerily familiar to the modern reader— despicable methods, like waterboarding. Given your experience as an attorney defending prisoners in Guantanamo, what was your reaction when you learned about this? 


MP: It blew me away. Nearly every torture technique that the Japanese used against the Doolittle Raiders was mimicked by the United States government against prisoners in the War on Terrorism. It was appalling. I had always grown up thinking that it was not the kind of thing the United States did. It was the kind of thing the Axis powers did. It is why we fought WWII. But then we did it and for largely the same reasons, and with largely the same excuses, as the Japanese relied upon when they tortured the Doolittle Raiders. 


Hin5: Was there anything in the original source documents that provided a deeper understanding of the events taking place? 


MP: Because so little is known about this episode, I had a real opportunity to dig into the story with fresh eyes: everything from the chance to interview the children of many of the people involved, to learning about the American presence in Shanghai after the war, including the fraught relationship between the U.S. Army and Chiang Kai-shek, to the small things that you find in random archival documents and personal papers, such as the fact that the cheap beer in Shanghai was often poisonous or how the atmosphere of “free love” would be enough to make the Baby Boomer’s blush. 


One of the more rewarding aspects of the research was learning about some of the Doolittle Raiders as real human beings, particularly the ones who endured years of Japanese captivity. One, who is a central figure in the book, was a young man named Chase Nielsen. A Mormon from Utah, he was one of the few Raiders who was married. He endures horrible things at the hands of the Japanese, the worst of which was probably the years of solitary confinement that would drive a normal person insane. But he managed to keep his mind together in ways that the other surviving Raiders couldn’t and after he was liberated, he returned to Shanghai to testify as the star witness in the Doolittle Trial. He’s such a fascinating person. He is so deeply traumatized by everything that happened to him and the trial becomes his way of coping. People didn’t use the term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” back then, but it is clearly what he is dealing with. And so one of the more gut-wrenching parts of the story was seeing someone in that kind of pain and seeing him look to the legal system as a way to heal. 


Hin5: What has been the lasting historical and legal impact of the Doolittle war crimes trial? 


MP: Far more than is commonly understood, even among legal scholars. At bottom, the book reveals a secret history of the parts of the Geneva Conventions that remain vitally important today. As just one example, there was a case in the Supreme Court back in 2006, where the Court invalidated some of the Bush Administration’s policies in Guantanamo. To reach that conclusion, the Supreme Court relied upon the very part of the Geneva Convention that was included in 1949 because of the Doolittle Trial. 


What would you like readers to take away from Last Mission to Tokyo?


MP: History is multifaceted and historians need to account for many points of view, which is what I try to do in this book. Ultimately, the Doolittle trial highlights the values that Americans cherish, along with some uncomfortable truths. 


It’s also a reminder that creating and defending a just, principled and free society is difficult—and ongoing—work