Doolittle Raider 70th Reunion
FOX19's Kris Nuss
"Don't call them heroes- they hate that," cautioned Jim Liles, crew chief for the B-25 Yellow Rose.
In an effort to avenge Pearl Harbor, 79 men volunteered to follow Jimmy Doolittle into the fray of WW2. They didn't know where they were going, they didn't know when. They were told upfront that their chances of making it back were slim.
They became legends.
"We volunteered," admitted Edward Saylor, engineer of plane 15, "we didn't know for what. Short takeoffs were a hint. Didn't know they'd be on a carrier until they taxied us alongside and we saw cranes hoisting our planes on board."
Once safely out to sea they were briefed. Their job was to bomb Tokyo. Strictly a military mission, they were ordered to avoid the Imperial Palace, schools, churches, or any civilian institutions. It was a bold plan since the island of Japan hadn't been successfully attacked in generations; the Japanese felt they were protected by the gods. And the range- how could the Army Air Corp get bombers within range of striking distance?
The Navy made room on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet for 16 twin engine bombers, with the proviso that if attacked, the bombers would go over the side so the ships fighters could be brought above deck to defend her. The B-25's were lashed to the deck, and space was tight; one tail hung well over the edge of the carrier. The runway was so short, the pilots had trained intensely- there was no room for error, and they all knew it. The ship was turned into the wind and a crewman timed the swells to help with each takeoff.
Since they were flying bombers, the Raiders couldn't return to the ship. The men hoped to land in friendly Chin and make their way back to a military instillation. But because a Japanese fishing boat spotted the Hornet, the men were forced to take off more than 200 miles further out than anticipated. As such, they knew they would run out of gas before they could reach safety.
Flying low in hopes of avoiding enemy detection from scout planes, the Raiders fulfilled their mission, striking the heart of Japan. In an effort to lighten their planes to save fuel, tail guns were removed and replaced with painted broom handles. Some of the other guns jammed, rendering planes defenseless; they had to barrel through enemy anti aircraft fire and fighter interception with little or no protection.
The Raiders paid a price; one man was killed after the bailout. Two crewmen drowned in their bailout at sea. Eight men were captured by the Japanese; three executed after a mock trial, one perished from starvation and malnutrition. Some were POWs within Japan for years. One crew was interred by the Russians after landing in Vladivostok. The men who evaded capture and made it back were ushered into other theaters of war.
Of the five remaining Doolittle Raiders, four reunited in Dayton, OH for their 70th anniversary. Those returning were Lt. Col. Richard Cole, co-pilot of plane 1; Maj. Thomas Griffin, navigator of plane 9; Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, engineer of plane 15; and Ssgt. David Thatcher, engineer/gunner of plane 7.
"We didn't expect to survive the mission," Saylor said, shaking his head. "The odds were too much against us. Low altitude, no defense, no reason to be optimistic about it. I wouldn't recommend it. It was scary getting through the Jap lines. A priest found us and hid us in a cave. The Japs spent hours trying to find us. We had to stay hidden because we were the only people on the island who had heels [shoes]."
"Oh, it was scary," relayed Thatcher. "We hit the water wheels down, flipped us right over. Everyone was thrown out of the plane but I was knocked unconscious. Took me a minute to realize I was upside down but I got out of that plane as fast as I could."
Doolittle's co-pilot, Dick Cole said emphatically, "If you weren't scared, you were a fool."
China was inevitably ravished by the Japanese who cut a vicious swath through the country in a retaliatory gesture for aiding the Raiders.
The raid did minimal actual damage, however the psychological effects on both sides were enormous. American morale was bolstered by the daring attack as we struggled to our feet after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were demoralized by the enemy breaching their divinely protected shores, and were forced to scramble in defending their homeland.
I hung back and watched the Raiders being mobbed by interviewers. They had been fielding these questions for years and were very modest. They seemed visibly uncomfortable when people mentioned the word "hero". As the media shuffled out after the time allotted, I went to each Raider and thanked them for their service. I blurted, totally in awe of them all, that whenever I watch too much news and it seems as though there is more evil than good in the world, I look up on my bookshelf where the Doolittle Raid books rest and am reminded that there has always been and there always will be someone out there who will do the right thing in defense of everyone else. They each then shook my hand and thanked me for being there, and caring.
Sigh. My heroes.