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.