They are all in their 90s now, all five of the original 80 intrepid airmen who dared to undertake a one-way trip to Tokyo in twin-engine WWII bombers launched from the heaving deck of an aircraft carrier seventy years ago.
It had been just four months since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and since that day the Imperial Japanese military had run rampant across the Pacific, occupying and fortifying every island chain and atoll in their path, including the Philippines. Americans had had to watch from a position of ignominious defeat and military helplessness, while facing the prospect of a vast war in Europe as well. Everyone knew that it was impossible to carry out even a token attack against the Japanese homeland; everyone except an American aviation icon named Jimmy Doolittle.
Like most other eight-year-olds of the time, Jimmy Doolittle was a personal hero to me, the fastest man in the world in his famous Geebee racing plane, his record-setting long distance flying feats and his pioneering use of instrument-flying technology. Along with Charles Lindbergh, a New Jersey neighbor whose yellow Stutz “Bearcat” passed through my town regularly, Doolittle seemed to be someone I knew. A Reserve Army Air Corps officer, Doolittle convinced America’s leaders – including a brooding President Roosevelt – that with careful planning and some engineering know-how, (and a lot of practice) - the twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber was capable of flying from a Navy carrier and sending a message to an arrogant enemy “safe and secure” from outside attack in their island redoubt.
At 0815 on April 18th, 1942, manned by 80 American volunteers and carrying 2000 pounds of bombs each, the 16 bombers launched in angry seas from the deck of the USS “Hornet”, far short of the planned launch time and place, after being seen by Japanese picket ships. Now, it was virtually impossible that they would be able to make it to safe landing sites in enemy-occupied China as planned. (As it was, aviation gasoline in five-gallon cans was being fed into fuselage tanks by hand to offset fuel consumed in the take-off runs according to previous plans.) The expedited launch not only meant the raiders would have to fly an additional four hundred miles and two extra hours, but that they would now be” sitting ducks” in broad daylight instead of having the cover of darkness. And it would appear, to an alerted and waiting enemy!
The story of that unparalleled mission is well-told in the book “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and in dozens of books and film documentaries over the years. Still, I think, it is worthy of a few paragraphs, especially when recent polling suggests that 72% of American high school graduates don’t even know about Pearl Harbor, less the meeting of four living legends in Dayton, Ohio a few weeks ago.
All 16 bombers exited Japanese airspace intact, spread out over miles from each other, leaving the enemy homeland with no terribly-serious bomb damage, but with a populace shocked by the knowledge that they had indeed awakened a “sleeping giant”. And in America: well, I can remember in detail to this day, exactly where I was standing (in my aunt’s dining room), and what I was thinking about when a daytime radio program was interrupted with the news of the Doolittle raid and the condition of some of the surviving crews. It was a gigantic lift for national morale, and a change in mindset for a population bereft of “good” news.
Thanks to an unexpected tail wind the crews of 11 bombers bailed out over China, one made a wheels-up landing in a rice paddy, while three others ditched in Chinese coastal waters. Another made it to “friendly” Russia, where their plane was confiscated and the crew interned. (Captain Edward York, pilot of Plane No.8 escaped after 14 months.) Of the 80 men who flew that historic mission, 3 died exiting their aircraft, and 8 were captured by the Japanese. 3 POWs were executed, one died of malnutrition, and four were repatriated at war’s end after 40 months of harsh punishment. Lieutenant Ted Lawson suffered a serious leg injury during his offshore ditching of plane No. 7, requiring an amputation performed by Lt. Thomas White, a physician flying as a gunner on plane No. 15.. (White became the author of “3o Seconds Over Tokyo”.)
Thanks to the help of Chinese citizens, most of the raiders made it home. In reprisal, the Japanese dispatched 53 battalions of soldiers to hunt down those “saviors”, murdering as many as 250,000 Chinese civilians to “teach a lesson”, a detail of their experience never forgotten by the survivors to this day.
And so a few weeks ago, four of the five surviving Doolittle Raiders (Colonel Robert Hite was ill at home), met once again in an annual reunion begun years ago by Doolittle himself, surrounded by the famous 80 engraved silver goblets and the bottle of 1876 vintage brandy which will be used for a final toast whenever only two survivors remain. After their private meeting behind closed doors, Colonel Richard Cole, age 96 – Doolittle’s co-pilot in plane No. 1 – sat with Edward Saylor, Thomas Griffin and David Thatcher, all in their 90s – as sixteen beautifully-restored B-25 Mitchell bombers flew overhead , their Wright Cyclone engines rendering a salute which spoke more eloquently than mere words could have.
P.S. Most of the Raiders went on to fly and fight until the end of WWII and beyond. Ten were killed in later actions, and four ended up as POWs of the Germans.
Caption Photo No. 1 Doolittle’s B-25 Mitchell medium bombers crowd the after-deck of the U.S.S. Hornet, preparing for a 2200-mile “one-way” mission. U.S. Naval Archives
Caption Photo No. 2 Four of the five living Doolittle raid survivors look on as sixteen beautifully-restored B-25 Mitchell bombers perform a fly-by salute at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Dayton, Ohio on April 18th, 2012. AP Photo