We never know when greatness will be thrust upon us. We never know when we will get the chance to do something that will have a truly significant impact, not only on us personally, but also on history, itself. The vast majority of us will never have that opportunity or, perhaps, may not seize it when it presents itself. But, for 80 young men, most of which were barely out of their teens, that fateful opportunity came on April 18, 1942.
I am referring to the daring, many thought foolhardy or ill-advised, bombing attack on mainland Japan, what is commonly referred to as the “Doolittle Raid.” Permit me to “set the scene,” so to speak. It was early 1942. The Japanese had just executed a daring, dastardly, and devastating sneak attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor in which they had essentially wiped out our military capabilities in the Pacific and thrust the US headlong into WWII. Americans were shocked and scared, and morale was extremely low. Japan, which had been terrorizing east Asia for a decade, was perceived to be a mighty and invulnerable fighting machine. FDR and the senior military leadership conceived a plan to bomb the Japanese mainland to boost American morale and to demonstrate to the Japanese and the rest of the world that they were not invulnerable.
Some points of information about the raid:
- The commander, Lt. Colonial Jimmy Doolittle, had been a well-known test pilot and aeronautical engineer before the war.
- The raiding party consisted of 16 B-25 bombers and a total crew of 80 persons. The planes, would be launched from an aircraft carrier, which would get as close to the Japanese mainland as practicable without being spotted. Nevertheless, these planes would not have enough fuel to be able to return to the carrier. Therefore, the plan was to have them try to reach parts of China that were not under Japanese control. Failing that, they would have to crash-land or “ditch” with the crews taking their chances on survival.
- The bombers would not have fighter escorts and, furthermore, in order to reduce weight and increase range, they would not have a full complement of armament. Essentially, they would be defenseless against enemy fighters. Not exactly a suicide mission, but close.
- The group succeeded in bombing multiple targets in Tokyo, Osaka and other cities. None was shot down
- Following the raid, 15 of the 16 bombers proceeded toward the designated landing areas in China. (The 16th was extremely low on fuel and had to head for eastern Russia, which was closer. When it landed near Vladivostok, the plane was confiscated and the crew detained.) The Chinese resistance was supposed to guide them in using homing beacons and provide refueling. Due to a miscommunication between the American brass and the Chinese resistance, however, the Chinese were not expecting them. In any event, despite a strong tailwind, none of the 15 was able to reach the designated airfields. They were all forced to bail out or crash-land near the Chinese coast.
- Thanks to assistance from Chinese civilians and guerilla fighters, most of the crewmen survived. Of the 80 crewmembers only three were killed in the mission, itself, and four more perished in POW camps. Many of the others were even able to return to service.
- In retaliation for helping the Americans the Japanese launched a brutal campaign against the Chinese in the area (Operation Sei-go) in which upwards of 250,000 Chinese were slaughtered, mostly civilians.
- Initially, Doolittle had thought his mission to be an abject failure, because all 16 planes had been lost and the damage inflicted had been minimal. In fact, James Scott, journalist and author of the book “Target Tokyo,” an account of the mission, opined that the raiders inflicted merely a “pinprick” of damage to Japan’s war capabilities. But, Doolittle had misjudged the tremendous morale boost it provided. He was promoted two grades to Brigadier General, and he and many of the others received various medals.
One historical footnote: many historians, including Scott, maintain that the success of the raid goaded the Japanese into attacking the US at Midway later that year in retaliation. Our decisive victory in that battle was the turning point of the war.
The surviving Doolittle raiders held a reunion almost every year through 2013. The highlight of the reunions was the roll call and subsequent toast saluting those who have died during the previous year.
As I said in my opening paragraph, most of these heroes were just ordinary men who volunteered for a bombing mission not realizing the significance. For example, consider David Thatcher, who passed away this week at the age of 94:
- He was one of ten children born and raised on a dairy farm in rural Montana.
- He joined the army right after graduating high school before Pearl Harbor.
- He volunteered for the mission without a second thought. As he related to a reporter from the Lincoln Star Journal in 2013 “we didn’t think it [the bombing mission] was important then. We thought it was just another mission.”
- When his plane crash-landed on the Chinese coast he became a hero. Luckily he was not as severely injured as the others, so with the assistance of some local villagers he tended to them. He made sure pilot Ted Lawson got to a local hospital (where his severely injured leg was amputated). He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions. Ironically, Lawson later authored the definitive book on the raid, 3o Seconds Over Tokyo, which was later made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson.
- He eventually returned to combat, flying 26 missions over North Africa.
- After the war he returned home to Montana where he worked for the post office until his retirement in 1980.
The last surviving member of the raiders is Colonel Richard Cole who served as a gunner on one of the planes.
The raiders have been celebrated in various books and movies. The best and most extensive display of raid memorabilia is at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
Doolittle, Thatcher, Lawson, Cole and the others were just ordinary guys who did an extraordinary thing when the opportunity arose. Let us not forget them nor the considerable significance of their achievement.