Respect and Gratitude: the Doolittle Raiders - The Last Gathering

#1

OneManGang

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#1
Note: I wrote this piece back in 2007 on the 65th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. On November 9, the last survivors of the Doolittle Raid gathered for the last time at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio and opened the bottle of cognac mentioned below to toast their buddies who have gone on.

Respect and Gratitude: the Doolittle Raiders

The Army flyers were jolted from their sleep by the deep boom of naval gunfire. They knew instinctively this was not a Good Thing. Indeed, it wasn’t.

The task force had sailed in secrecy. The pilots and aircrew had trained in absolute secrecy. Now, in the middle of the great Pacific Ocean, the secrecy had been compromised. The cruiser USS Nashville had picked up a blip on radar. Powerful binoculars were trained in the direction indicated and found it. The blip turned out to be a Japanese fishing boat. Closer inspection revealed powerful radio antennae, it was a picket boat!

Nashville trained out its 15 6”/47 guns and opened fire.

The weather was atrocious, the target small, the shooting … well … less than stellar. Before the picket boat was finally dispatched to Davey Jones, radio operators on board the carriers picked up the frantic calls of the Japanese skipper. The task force had rung the front doorbell of the Empire of Japan.

The reason for all this secrecy and stealth was visible on the fantail (stern) of the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8). Lashed to her teakwood deck were 16 North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell medium bombers of the U.S. Army Air Force.

General H. Henry “Hap” Arnold (he earned the nickname “Hap” because he rarely was), the Commanding General of the USAAF, had been searching for some way to turn the tables in the Pacific. The Japanese had been running wild ever since the Pearl Harbor attack in December. He desperately wanted to strike directly at Japan, but how? The airfields in the Philippines that pre-war planning had detailed to be bases for B-17s now belonged to the air forces of Dai Nippon. The Navy came to Arnold's assistance with a hare-brained scheme just crazy enough to work. It was suggested that since the new B-25s had excellent short-takeoff capabilities, it might be possible to use a Navy carrier to get them close enough to Japan. Afterward the planes could fly to China and be turned over to the Chinese air force for continued use against the Empire.

“The planning for this raid began in the Navy Department when (Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J.) King and his operations officer, Captain F. S. Low, who suggested the idea, were discussing the possibilities of an air attack upon Japan.”

The mission itself was so secret that even the President was not told of it until the last minute.

“Until twenty-four hours before the raid only seven people – King, Low, (King's Air Operations Officer, Captain Donald B.) Duncan, Arnold, Doolittle, (Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chester) Nimitz, and (Task Force 16 Commander Admiral William) Halsey – knew of the complete plan. When Hornet was already in the Western Pacific and fast approaching the point where the planes would be launched, King put on his cap and went to the White House to tell the President. That was the first detailed information that Mr. Roosevelt had of raid on Tokyo.”

Experiments had been conducted and, sure enough, it was just possible for a B-25 to take off from a carrier with a useful bomb load. These test flights were done from a concrete runway marked off with the outline of a carrier deck. No one would actually make a carrier takeoff in a B-25 until the actual launch of the mission at sea.

The B-25 had started life as a design project of North American Aviation in response to a 1939 Army proposal for a 5-place medium bomber. Two designs were approved, one was the North American design, the other was the Martin B-26 Marauder. The Army Air Corps knew it was going to need lots of bombers and so, following the pattern of the B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, ordered both planes into production. Though not as streamlined or as fast as the B-26, the B-25 was much more adaptable and served not only in the bomber role but also became a superior low-level attack plane with its nose modified to accept up to eight .50 caliber machine guns and, in an extreme modification was fitted with a 75mm cannon.

The wing-loading on a B-26 was too high, requiring too lengthy a take-off run for a carrier launch. The B-25 would fill the bill.

Arnold approached the best pilot anyone knew and asked (well, ordered anyway) Col. James Doolittle to hand-pick enough pilots and aircrew for 16 B-25s, train them in carrier take-off techniques and lead the mission.

Doolittle was a pilot’s pilot. He was famous for his exploits in air races in the ‘20s and ‘30s and was renowned as the only pilot to tame the fast and tricky “Gee Bee” racing plane that had killed a number of pilots in spectacular crashes. He also held a PhD in aeronautical engineering. He knew wherefrom he spoke.

Doolittle had then selected 79 other men from various bomb groups and swore them to secrecy. Many of them came from the 17th Bomb Group which was the first USAAF unit to be equipped with the B-25.

Now here they were, as the klaxons blared “Army aircrews report to the ready room.”

At briefing they learned they were some 200 miles from their optimum launch point. A long and dangerous mission just became more so. The already overloaded planes would now be given ten 5-gallon cans of gas to increase their range. That was the good news. Instead of attacking Japan at night they would now arrive in bright mid-day. Oh, and there was a storm brewing off the China coast.

Each plane would carry three 500lb high explosive bombs and one 500lb incendiary. They would go in low and fast. The top-secret Norden bombsight was not needed so ground crew devised a simple instrument that proved adequate. Rumor had it the cost of materials was about 25 cents.

“Army pilots man your planes!”

Doolittle’s plane was first off the deck, with the shortest takeoff run of all. Amazingly, this would be the first time any of the pilots had actually flown off the deck of a carrier! All their training had been done on the same land base as the initial test flights with the runway still marked off with the dimensions of the Hornet’s deck.

The Hornet did have early hydraulic catapults but they were not up to the task of flinging a 14-ton bomber into the air. The only way was to pack the planes at the stern to free up about 400 feet of flight deck. The pilots would rev the engines up until it seemed they would rip off their mounts, pull the control yokes so far back they seemed about to cut the pilots in twain, release the brakes and hope for the best. Lines were painted on the deck so pilots could align their left main and nose wheels straight down the deck and avoid unpleasant contact with the carrier’s island or dribbling off the port side deck edge.

The Navy deck crews were up to the task. The Navy launch officer waved his flag and Doolittle ran up the twin Wright R-2600 engines to their full 1350 horsepower. The deck officer was timing it so that as the bow of the carrier rose and fell, Doolittle’s bomber would hit the end of the deck at its highest point for an extra “push” into the air. The Navy man dropped the flag, Doolittle let off the brakes and rolled down the flight deck.

He made it, then flew along the length of the carrier to confirm his compass heading and disappeared toward Japan.

One by one the other fifteen planes repeated the procedure. Once all were launched the Hornet and her sister ship Enterprise, (CV-6) which had accompanied the task force to provide air cover, turned around and made knots for Pearl Harbor.

The Mitchells performed beautifully. The Raiders reached Japan and attacked their targets just as briefed. Now, everyone knew a few 500-pounders weren’t going to defeat Japan, but they would send a clear message to the Emperor that the U.S. wasn’t going to roll over for him, his Army, or his Navy. Bomb blasts were heard in the Imperial Palace, it was time for the Army and the Navy to apologize to the Emperor.

The attack still came as a complete surprise. The Japanese assumed – even after the radio report from the now defunct picket boat – that the carriers would have to close to 200 miles or less in order to launch strikes. They figured they still had a good twenty hours before any attack. They never dreamed the strike would launch from 600 miles out.

The B-25s would attack targets in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Doolittle’s men saw many Japanese look up and wave at the low-flying bombers. They were amazed and speculated that the early national emblem (a white star with a red circle in the middle) looked enough like the Rising Sun to fool them. More likely, the very idea that American planes would suddenly appear on a spring day over Tokyo was so ludicrous that the civilians assumed the planes HAD to be Japanese.

The Raiders suffered no losses over Japan. In fact, some of the top-turret gunners claimed to have shot down Japanese fighters. This was not confirmed by Japanese records.

The flight to China was another story. The weather closed in and the planes were scattered up and down the China coast. Fifteen of the planes either crashed or were abandoned over the China coast. One plane landed at a base near the Russian city of Vladivostok where both plane and crew were interned until the crewmen escaped through Iran in 1943.

Doolittle himself had bailed out and after learning none of his planes had landed safely was convinced he would be court-martialed for having failed to deliver the bombers to the Chinese as promised. The Chinese, for their part, knew nothing of the mission and so had made no preparations for the bombers anyway. Someone in Washington had decided that given the abysmal security record of the Chinese, it was best to keep them in the dark until the last minute.

Two men were killed outright when their plane crashed on the coast. Eight of the Raiders were captured by the Japanese. Three of these men were executed in August, 1942. Another of the POWs died of disease. The remaining POWs were freed in 1945 after the end of the war.

Jimmy Doolittle could not have been more wrong.

He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leadership.

Every member of the Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Every year, the Doolittle Raiders gather, their numbers have thinned dramatically. As of 2013 only 5 of the original 80 remain.

At the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, there is a case containing 80 silver goblets and a vintage bottle of cognac. It is one of the most sacred pieces of memorabilia in the Air Force. On each goblet is the name of a Raider. As each Raider passes way, his goblet is turned upside down.

One day in the near future, the last two Doolittle Raiders will open that bottle, fill their goblets and toast their buddies.

It would seem appropriate for you and I to do the same, every day.


Bibliography


Doolittle, Gen. James A., and Glines, Carroll V., I Could Never be so Lucky Again. New York: Bantam Books, 2001

Glines, Carroll V. The Doolittle Raid: America's Daring First Strike Against Japan. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1991.

Jablonski, Edward. Airwar. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1971

King, Fleet Admiral Ernest J., and Whitehill, Walter Muir. Fleet Admiral King: A Naval Record. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1952

Lawson, Capt. Ted. W. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, ed. by Robert Considine. New York: Random House, 1943.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Volume 3, The Rising Sun in the Pacific. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1984.
 
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#7

Tin Man

Dirt's Childhood Playmate
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#7
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
 
#8

itsme

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#8
The story of the Doolittle raids is one of courage and true heroism. These guys had no clue if they would make it back alive and suffered through horrendous things for our country. They changed the war because of their bravery. Doolittle had that you can't stop me attitude was something that very few possess ever. If you've never read anything about the acts of courage do yourself a favor and read up on it.
 
#9

rs16

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#9
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
You have not lived if you haven't flown.
 
#10

JustFunnN'Orange

Kicked back on the beach
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#10
I bought a Cessna 172 in early 80's. And proceeded to get my license. On my first flight with my instructor I was "nervous as a long tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs"......But, as soon as I lifted off.....Oh, I have slipped the surly bond of earth.... came into my head and gave me incredible peace and exhilaration.....for a few seconds :) and then the anxiety came back but diminished with each successive flight.
I'll never forget those few secs.
 

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