The Doolittle Raiders: the Final Chapter
It is early 1942. Memories of a vicious attack in Pearl Harbor burn hot in your mind. They especially trouble you, because you are a young man in the Seventeenth Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Corps. Now, war has been declared and training has begun. You suspect you will go to battle soon. You’re restless, and your nerves jangle and rattle.
One day, you attend a meeting with a high brass officer who is part of a special mission. He says it will be dangerous and some of you will get killed. You will leave the country for a long time too. He can’t tell you where you are going or what they have planned for you. All he can say is he needs volunteers.
This is the exact scenario, and the choice, that one hundred and forty men faced in 1942. When it came, their hands shot up in the air. Little did they know, the mission would be one of the most dangerous and daring of the second world war, and it would come to be known as the Doolittle Raid.
The freshly-minted volunteers arrived at a shuttered, mosquito-infested swamp in Florida called Camp Elgin on March 1, 1942. They trained with B-25 Mitchell bombers that someone had stripped to the bare bones. They even took the guns – mounting black-painted broom sticks in their stead. A questionable runway occupied the space, with narrow, white paint strips and a 500-ft goal post. For those not familiar with bombers, 500 feet is a fraction of the space they typically need to get airborne.
It provided an ominous clue to the gravity of their mission, along with the man tapped to command it. Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle was already famous among all those youngsters of the early 1940s. They had grown up admiring the likes of him – a very famous air racer with an upstanding military record. By 1942, Doolittle had already made himself a legend. So, it was only fitting the government chose him to lead a legendary raid. He made no bones about what the boys faced either:
“This is the toughest training you’ll ever have. It will be the most dangerous thing any of you have ever done. It is inevitable that some of your planes will fall into the hands of the enemy… If you have any doubts, drop out now.”
Not a single volunteer stepped back, and they never would. Doolittle crammed the next three weeks of their lives with rough and tedious training. It mostly involved clumsy attempts to get those lumbering bombers off the ground with just 500 feet of take off space. He also ran the boys through rigorous exercises in low-level bombing, night flying, and over-water navigating. The volunteers still had no idea where this would lead. They had a couple guesses, the famed army “scuttlebutt” as they called the rumor mill, but nothing was certain except the imminent danger they were in.
On a dark night late in March of 1942, the volunteers for the secret mission, by then dubbed “Special Aviation Project #1”, got rousted out of their beds. “They shook us out of the sack… like a police raid on a crack house,” Raider Lieut. Ellis “Sally” Crouch recalled. Those who had quarters with their wives didn’t even get a goodbye. Then, they all gathered into their planes and took off for California.
After a few stops for last-minute checks and modifications, crews loaded sixteen of the planes onto one of the Navy’s newest aircraft carriers – The USS Hornet. The real meaning of that short runway training began to sink in. It also sank in that not all of the one hundred and forty men would go on the actual mission. The sixteen planes only had room for eighty.
After a few last wild nights on US shores, all of the men, even the ones who wouldn’t go on the raid itself, boarded the USS Hornet. Their famous mission leader, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, scrambled aboard after a personal good-luck call from the higher ups in Washington. After the ship cleared the famous Golden Gate, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. “The target of this task force is Tokyo.”
At last, the cat leapt out of the bag with a bang. The entire ship from bow to stern erupted into cheers, shouts, and applause. “It was like you were at a football game and somebody had just kicked a goal at the last second,” Raider Bob Bourgeois said of it. At last, US momentum would pack a punch, and it would strike the heart of the war machine that had destroyed Pearl Harbor.
But with a great mission always comes great risk. So much that the volunteers had been dubbed “the Suicide boys” by the few people in the know. First, they had to escape Japanese detection through a turbulent voyage across the vast Pacific. If they even made their take-off point, they would launch heavy bombers off a small aircraft carrier, with only about a half-dozen feet of clearance on either side of them. Factories in Tokyo, which, in a best-case scenario would be a 450-mile flight away, and heavily defended by fast-flying zeroes and ace pilots, were their target. Once they dropped their bombs, the pilots had to rely primarily on dead reckoning to make it to friendly territory over China. All of this with no guns, radio silence, and the high probability of expending their fuel. It was a mission so risky the generals who planned it anticipated losses of up to fifty percent.
“When you are young… you don’t think about it,” said Raider Dick Knobloch. “You know if you are going to have fifty percent losses, you look at the other guy and say, you poor devil, you aren’t going to make it.” Others didn’t trust to luck that much. “As we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, we wondered if we would ever see it again,” said a Raider Bombardier, George Larkin.
Nerves only increased as the task force plunged for the chilling isolation of the Pacific. It didn’t help that the weather turned decidedly hostile for most of the voyage, although, it at least helped conceal them from the enemy…for a time.
When the Task Force loomed 650 miles from Japan, almost 200 miles short of their mark, a stray Japanese Patrol vessel stumbled upon them. A serious problem, since the task force floated well in range of land-based enemy bombers. They scrambled and sunk the patrol boat, but not before the Japanese sailors fired off a warning to Tokyo. Surprise, their biggest ally, might have just been lost. Even so, the generals commanding made a choice. The mission would be a go – and it would go right now.
It would be one hell of a launch too, since the weather had not let up. Bombardier Bob Bourgeois didn’t recall it with fondness. “This was zero weather conditions… that means you can’t see across the table… the bow of the ship was going down and picking up water and throwing it over the deck. I have never been in worse weather in my life!” The weather reports from their target area didn’t look so appealing either. They would face terrible winds for the entire flight, which would tax their already strained fuel supplies.
Doolittle and his crew took off first on that choppy, windy morning. Despite the sheer terror of the sailors watching as his plane picked up speed across his five-hundred-foot runway, he felt confident. His co-pilot, Dick Cole, felt slightly less so. Only one thought ran through his head as the space between the carrier and the house-sized ocean swells shortened. “It’d be a pretty bad feeling for everybody behind us if we took off and dropped into the water.” Luckily, they avoided that morale sinker by a scant couple of yards.
The rest revved up their engines and prepared to follow suit. Some went off flawless, and others hit snares that could have killed them before they started. The first casualty of the raid was actually a Navy sailor who got his arm sliced off in the melee. Despite the perilous swells, the terrible weather, the possible onset of the enemy, and the fresh blood on the take-off strip, all sixteen bombers made it safely off the carrier. From there, it would be a long, tense, and lonely flight across the Pacific.
By the time the flight crews reached Tokyo on April 18, 1942, the clouds had dissipated and made way for sun. Visibility had cleared to almost perfect. It was the only thing to run smoothly. Most of the bomber crews had used dead reckoning to reach Japan, so they were hopelessly lost by the time they rumbled over Tokyo. Tokyo defenses such as antiaircraft fire and hot pursuits snarled a good many planes up too. The pilots soon lost the clear air and visibility to thick smoke and flak. Even so, the bomb bay doors opened, and the eggs began their descent.
The bombs gave a good jolt to the people down below. Despite a warning from the Japanese vessel at sea, the city wasn’t prepared in the least for the attack. Many mistook the haphazard swarm of planes for a military exercise. They were stunned when explosions rang out and buildings went up in smoke. Fires raged, with many innocent civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And the chaotic entrance the bombers made actually worked to their favor. Their attack waves came in such random spurts that ground crews couldn’t mount an adequate defense. They didn’t know where or when to shoot. By the time they finally got organized, the last bomber had already ripped through, and buildings smoldered in Japan’s capital.
In terms of physical damage, the Doolittle Raid was a drop in the bucket of the utter destruction to come. Yet, as a moral victory, it landed a staggering blow. The Japanese military thought their homelands were impregnable, too far removed from American shores for any aerial attack. It only took sixteen bombers, flown by eighty brave men, to put a pretty big fissure in that façade. The raid also handed a tremendous boost to the strained US populace. Pearl Harbor had been avenged. The Americans had made their first strike.
Unfortunately, that boost came at a price. As the Raiders turned their planes toward China, the weather took another nasty turn. More clouds, oncoming darkness, and a terrible head wind barred their way to safety. Just like with Tokyo, the Bombers arrived in scattered fragments over China. One crew abandoned course entirely and landed in Soviet Russia.
As for the rest, they bailed out into the pitch blackness over marshes and muddy rice paddies. Some sustained critical injuries, three lost their lives, others fell prey to bandits, and more wound up lost in isolated pockets for weeks. Still others wound up into compassionate hands who hid them from the Japanese at the risk of their own lives. Eight Raiders landed in occupied China and were taken captive by the Japanese. They endured months of brutal torture, solitary confinement, and deplorable conditions, while three were executed.
Even with the loss, in both civilian and military lives, the Doolittle Raid earned a place in the history books. It was an insane risk at a very turbulent time. A failure would have broken US morale and taken the lives of eighty brave pilots. When Doolittle bailed out over China, he had no idea where the rest of his Raiders had ended up. He suspected the mission had failed and he would be court martialed. When he returned to the United states, they instead lauded him a hero, promoted him to Brigadier General, and gave him a Medal of Honor.
Today, he and his men are forever cemented in World War II History – the first strike, the daring mission, the Doolittle Raiders. They also engraved their names onto eighty silver goblets. Each year from then on, the Doolittle Raiders would reunite. They turned over the cups belonging to men who had died that year. The last two surviving Raiders would split an 1896 bottle of Cognac – the year Jimmy Doolittle was born – in their goblets.
Decades later, at a quiet museum in Dayton, Ohio, the remaining Doolittle Raiders sat down together for the last time. While four still lived, only three could attend their final reunion. They had frosty hair and their bodies bent with age. Time was on the march, and they had decided to open that bottle of Cognac. Among the people who witnessed this historic close of a mission was a young woman in a WWII-themed olive-green dress… me.
Of course, I wasn’t allowed in the room itself. Very few people were. However, the remaining Raiders made a day of their final reunion. They gave speeches and posed for pictures. The museum provided a flyover of B-25s. I saw it all, thanks to my father, who let his pesky daughter tag along for such a historic event. As for the toast with the famous cognac, the museum channel played it on live television for those who wanted to watch. My dad and I had purchased Doolittle Raider glasses at the museum that day. As the men made their final toast, my dad and I toasted along with them in our hotel room.
The day had a profound effect on me. I think I was meant to see it too, because one of those Raiders, Dick Cole, gave me an important message. Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot was destined to become the final Doolittle Raider. At that reunion, he said something that has always stuck with me. He talked about how everyone called him and his fellow raiders heroes. They became models for courage and bravery, with memorials and plaques the world over dedicated to them. Yet, Cole didn’t view himself that way. He insisted that he, and all of them really, were just young men. Just eighty young men doing their jobs. That’s how they looked at it back then and through the years.
It hit me in my core, because I’m just one woman in a crowded room. When I sit at my desk and write, I know billions of other people are doing the same thing. I see it all over social media and on the fabulous blogs I encounter on WordPress. How can I, the silly girl in the World War II dress, make a difference? Well, Dick Cole says I can make a difference by showing up and doing my job. And that might make one hell of a difference someday.
On April 9, 2019, the Doolittle Raider chapter came to an official close. Dick Cole, the last one, passed away at the ripe old age of 103. He and his raiders may be gone, but their stories will live forever, as will those amazing words he uttered to a crowd at a quiet Ohio museum. He probably had no idea the impact they had on that girl in the olive-green dress. Even when I feel hopeless, I will show up and I will do my job. For you, Mr. Cole, and for all of the Doolittle Raiders. For all of the fading people whose stories deserve to be told. Because it will make a difference to someone, and even if it’s in the tiniest form imaginable, it might make a difference to the world.
“The Doolittle Raid: America’s Daring First Strike Against Japan” – C.V. Glines
“The First Heroes” – C. Nelson
“I Could Never Be So Lucky Again” – J.H. Doolittle
Wright-Patterson Airforce Museum
The Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Official Website:
EAA Airventure – Doolittle Raider Presentation
I would like to thank a special guest photographer for this post, my dad Daryl Burns, for letting me use some of his pictures! The rest are by yours, truly. For more warbird photos, click here.
Very well-written post! It is actually quite moving.
Thank you! I was so glad to be able to go to that final reunion. An experience I will never forget!
This is a most wonderful story you have told here! I was transfixed all the way through and then at the end there was you!!! How great is that! Bravo for sharing this.
Thank you! 🙂 I am so glad you enjoyed it 🙂
What a daring strategic escapade indeed and such a shot in the arm for the American people. The
effect of the raid really shocked Japan and left a fear of attack on their homeland so dramatic they kept much of their fleet to protect it (unnecessarily) that could have been better employed in a more concentrated Pacific offensive drive and support effort of its conquests. Being present at the final reunion was a true participation in history for you. You were there. There is no greater joy for a historian than to be part of history itself.
“There is no greater joy for a historian than to be part of history itself.” What a perfect way to word it, Carl! 🙂 I couldn’t agree more – seeing that final reunion was a very memorable experience for me, I’m so glad I was able to go.
Wow, amazing message.
Thank you <3
MB, you wrote a vivid, moving, riveting, informative post with a “you are there” feel. Brava!
Thanks, Dave! 🙂 So glad you liked it, I sure enjoyed being there for that reunion. It was funny when I asked for time off work for it. My boss says, “You know, most people your age come to me asking for time off for a rock concert or something. This is new.” Hahaha 🙂
Congratulations on being at the last reunion and writing a wonderful tribute to the Doolittle Raiders and their mission. I read Ted Lawson’s book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo in grade school. It was only just over 20 years after the mission but seemed like ancient history to a twelve-year-old kid. Thanks for keeping these memories alive.
I must say that’s one book on this subject I haven’t read yet! I really need to get on that 🙂 Thanks for giving this a read and sharing your thoughts – I’m so glad you enjoyed it
I never read the book but I have seen the movie with the same name, starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Walker, and Van Johnson:
Surprisingly, it was made in 1944, while the war was still on. If 20 years was later enough for the war to seem like ancient history when you were in grade school, imagine how it seems to kids now, when quite a few high school “graduates” can’t even say who fought who in World War II.
I think we might actually be seeing a very renewed interest in WWII in the up-and-coming generation. WWII Hist-Fic novels are doing insanely well. Multiple friends of mine have also contacted me asking about WWII reading material for their pre-teen kids. It makes me very happy to see it! 🙂
Wonderful job of sharing the experience with us. It was very moving and I really felt like I was a fly on the wall during the narration.
So glad you liked it! 🙂
Thanks for another great post. Hoping to make it to Pearl Harbor later this summer. Wish I could bring you along as a guide. 😉 Question: How much of your passion for history was passed down from your dad?
I would love to visit Pearl Harbor someday. My husband and I have thought of going to Hawaii for our fifth wedding anniversary next year, so maybe I will get to see it then! Take lots of your fabulous pictures if you go. I’m sure I could blame my dad for some of that history blood 🙂 He has a pretty impressive shelf of WWII books!
I will definitely take lots of pics. Hope you get to go next year too.
Great story, thank you.
Thank you for reading!
Wonderful sharing M.B. History is glad you were there to document the last reunion and to help relive it through your words. I read some of the raid events, its challenges and sacrifices, during my military studies. You shared it beautifully and honorably. Thank you! Ideally, we all want peace around the world but when duty calls I’m so thankful that dedicated, honorable people rise to the occasion. May we never forget the sacrifices of those who dedicated themselves toward freedom in the world.
That’s a wonderful way you put it 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂
Gladly. Thank you. 😀
That’ a riveting story, M.B.! I knew nothing about this. Wonderful that you were there to witness that final reunion. Thanks for sharing this.
Well thank you for reading! 🙂 I’m always happy to pass along the stories 🙂
This is a amazing post, M.B.! My dad was a tail gunner in B-25’s in the Philippines in WWII. Even though that was a fast and nimble bomber, it was remarkable that they got those birds off that deck. We saw those goblets when we were in Dayton. How cool that you were there for the last ceremony! 😊
Those goblets are so cool, aren’t they? They have them on permanent display there in Dayton, which is very cool. I’m so grateful I was there for that final reunion, it’s an experience I will never forget 🙂 Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts and your dad’s story! All those bomber pilots were so brave!
Great story! I hope that we never forget!
Agreed! Glad you enjoyed it
What an interesting and well-written post.
Thank you! 🙂
It was an incredible mission and those who volunteered were so very brave.
Completely agree. Sometimes I don’t know how people can have that much bravery!
Gripping story. Right from the start, you take us right back there in their midst. I believe I have said before, this is how history should be written
Thank you so much! <3 I'm very glad it moved you
Great post, M.B. You may want to check out my post about the Doolittle Raid at https://mypoetrythatrhymes.wordpress.com/2012/04/.
You’ve done it again, Lee! Gosh you do such fantastic work with turning these historic events into such wonderful poems. Thanks so much for sharing that here!
Thank you so much for showing up in my reader today, you did your job beautifully, and made me cry a little. 😘
<3 <3 Stop it, you're going to make me cry now! :) Thank you so much for sharing that, you made my day!
Such a beautiful tribute…well-written and interesting. More people need to appreciate and care about history and the special people who made a tremendous impact upon it.
I completely agree! 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post
Although I am not normally a reader of military stories, yours seem to pull me in and keep me reading! What a wonderful and interesting tale about WWII and the brave men who served. Great job! Sandra
That is very flattering! Thank you so much for saying so <3
An amazing story of courage and daring brilliantly told!
Thank you! So glad you liked it
And you did it well.
Thank you very much! <3
An enjoyable and inspiring read. I remember seeing the Spencer Tracy movie on TV when I was a teen in the 70s but that was about all I knew about this. Your moving retelling of this story passes it to new generations who need to hear it. Kudos!
Thank you so much for saying so! I really really need to see that movie. I haven’t yet – fail! 🙁 Haha.
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As I am sitting here in tears after reading this, I say to you M, job well done. Your grandmother would be so proud of you and your incredible talent. Thank you for honoring our war heroes with your writing!
Glad you liked it!
You certainly make a difference by telling tales that will soon be lost. We need to learn from the past, especially warfare. You go girl (in the green dress).
I couldn’t agree more that we need to learn from the past. Thanks for coming by and giving this a read! <3
Another great history lesson. Thanks for such an enjoyable read.
Thank you so much for reading it, I’m glad you enjoyed it
I am not a history buff, but your writing brings me around. You are very good at this 🙂 !
That is very flattering, thank you very much! 🙂
I think it must also be mentioned that the courage and dedication to the allied cause of the Doolittle Raiders was matched if not exceeded by the Chinese civilians without whose help few if any of the Raiders would have returned home. The Chinese risked their own lives and the lives of their families to assist the Americans. The Raiders left. The civilians could not.
The Raiders were certainly aware of the grave risks the Chinese faced for helping them. I believe at least one Chinese civilian was made an honorary Doolittle Raider and attended several reunions.
A few weeks after the raid, in what was probably an operation planned months before, the Japanese sent a massive number of troops into the provinces where the Raiders landed. Were the Japanese even more brutal than normal because of anger over the attack on their homeland? No one can say for sure. What cannot be disputed is that the Japanese were exceedingly ruthless and brutal. In addition to their normal methods of mass rapes and indiscriminate murder, they used biological warfare on civilians. An estimated 250,000 died in addition to about 30,000 Chinese Nationalist forces.
Today, knowing the Japanese as a friendly ally and peaceful people, the unspeakable horrors they committed throughout WWII in the name of nationalism are hard to comprehend.
Does this tarnish the Raiders? I think not. They bravely completed the mission and supplied a much needed shot in the arm for American morale. Any knowledge of potential repercussions would have been kept far above their pay grade. America got a measure of revenge for Pearl Harbor. That was all they and the American public were told.
To borrow a phrase: “And that’s the rest of the story.”
An important and well-written post. Thank you.
Thank you for reading it!
Wow. The threads of history are long and it is amazing you were at the final reunion and blog history today, weaving those threads into important stories. Keep up the great work
Thanks so much! I like how you worded it – “the threads of history are long.” That’s very poetic! 🙂
Thank you for sharing the story! Wonderful post!
Thank you for reading it 🙂
I know! I don’t know how they did it
Beautifully written as always.
Thank you, friend!
My pleasure my friend
A superb and very moving post MB – you were very lucky to have met some of these brave men and I’m not surprised they had a lasting effect on you.
I have a few books on the Doolittle raid – it really was a very daring plan, and one that could have so easily ended in total tragedy. You can only image what was going through their minds as they advanced the aircraft throttles to take off from the Hornet – it must have been like stepping off the edge of the world into the unknown.
Yes – into the unknown is a good way to put it – especially with how terrible the weather was that day. I can’t even imagine. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!
There are always so many feelings to go with a story like this. Nostalgia, the kind that jumps from the page, not mine, seems to be the prominent one. And wow, 103. That’s a long life to live.
I know, 103! I actually saw him speak again (after the reunion) when he was 101 and you would never know. He still seemed so vibrant and full of life.
It’s a wonder, to reach that age and not be addled with the years. Most people I know who get to be 80 are suffering from this or that disease that prevents keeps them from recalling their own kid’s names.
Same here. Although my grandma is in her 90s and doing pretty well. Maybe she’ll make her centennial!
If anyone deserved to be at at that final reunion, it’s definitely you thanks to the hard work you put into researching and sharing these fascinating pieces of history. As I was reading your account I was holding my breath, wondering how it would turn out – and I already knew the outcome! That, my friend, is good writing. 🙂
This has made my day! Thank you so much for reading and for saying such nice things! 🙂
So moving, so well-written. What a lovely and poignant tribute.
Thank you very much, and thank you for reading it 🙂
What a wonderful narration!
Thank you! <3
You’re welcome! ❤️
Great story and lesson! Thanks@
Glad you liked it – hope you’re well!
Loved it, MB; just loved it.
Yay! 🙂 I’m so glad!
Another wow! This is exactly how history should be taught. Maybe we wouldn’t repeat it so often…
🙂 That is very flattering, thank you! Ah, yes. If only we could educate, it would be so much harder to repeat 🙁
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I positively love this post, MB. Thank you.
It was a pretty amazing experience! Wouldn’t take it back for anything
I can’t tell you how much it pleases me that your father brought you there.
🙂 On that same trip, he also brought me over to Huffman Prairie, which is where the Wright Brothers did a lot of experiments and more test flights to further advance their Flyer machines after Kitty Hawk 🙂 The museum has restored the place to look just like it did back then, and it’s a pretty cool spot to walk around. As I could easily call my dad the world’s biggest Wright Brothers enthusiast, it’s also one of his favorite places to visit.
How great is it you were able to share such an experience. Both of you.