Time has taken its toll on the Doolittle Raiders, but 70 years later their heroic deeds live on.
The five remaining survivors from Jimmy Doolittle’s legendary April 18, 1942, bombing raid on Japan are expected to reunite at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, this April. As their designated historian, I will recount to their audience what they and 75 others accomplished that day seven decades ago during America’s first strike against Japan.
Those of us in uniform at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack could not believe that the Japanese had the capability to surprise us and cause the damage they inflicted on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. We did not imagine that the Japanese could also advance across the Pacific and take Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong and Singapore, and would soon occupy the Philippines. And those of us flying B-25s then could not fathom how 16 of the twin-engine bombers were able to pull off a retaliatory bombing mission against the enemy’s capital and four other major cities less than five months later.
Although the damage they inflicted was minimal, that single mission lifted the gloom that had descended upon America and its Pacific allies. The details were kept secret at first, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the press only that the bombers had been launched from “our new base in Shangri-La,” the mystical valley in Tibet that James Hilton featured in his novel Lost Horizon.
The facts released afterward were dispiriting. Fifteen planes had been lost in crashes, and three crewmen had died that day. One B-25 landed safely in Russia, but its five-man crew had been interned. Eight Raiders were captured by the Japanese, and their condition was unknown. All the others eventually managed to make their way ahead of murderous Japanese troops to Chungking with the help of thousands of Chinese, who paid with their lives for their assistance. Doolittle was promoted from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general, skipping the rank of colonel, and received the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. All the Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Besides conducting the first offensive air mission against the Japanese Home Islands, the Doolittle Raiders accomplished a number of other military air firsts. Their raid was the first joint war action by the U.S. Navy and Army Air Forces. The Raiders were the first (and last) to launch heavily loaded land-based bombers from a carrier deck on a combat mission, and the first to use cruise control in attacking a distant target.
But the most significant result of the raid was that humiliated Japanese militarists felt forced to change their strategy in the Pacific, and decided to attack Midway Atoll two months later with a four-carrier task force. They lost all four carriers, a heavy cruiser and about 200 aircraft. The Doolittle Raid and the defeat of the Japanese forces at Midway changed the character of the Pacific War.
As the war proceeded, few knew what had happened to the surviving Doolittle Raiders. The general public wanted more details. Captain Ted W. Lawson, one of the B-25 pilots, published a book in 1943 titled Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo while he was recovering from the amputation of his left leg caused by the crash of his plane in China. Coauthored by Bob Considine, a popular sports writer, it became an instant bestseller and was the basis for a 1944 motion picture starring Spencer Tracy as Doolittle.
The entire story had still not been fully told, although the War Department later released an explanatory statement with carefully selected details, including the names of all the Raiders and their next of kin. Lawson was unaware of the secret pre-mission planning activities by Doolittle and the Navy or the experiences of other Raiders who subsequently flew combat missions in China, North Africa and Europe. What was not generally known then was that four Raiders serving in North Africa had been shot down, captured by German forces and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.
While serving at the Pentagon in the early 1960s, I met Doolittle Raider Colonel Richard A. Knobloch when we teamed up to get our flying time at Andrews Air Force Base. During a flight to Colorado Springs, he mentioned that he wanted to visit the Air Force Academy visitors’ center, at the time located at the guard gate while the main buildings were being constructed. He said he wanted to see the 80 silver goblets on display there that had been donated to the Raiders by the citizens of Tucson, Ariz., at a reunion in 1959. He explained that they were engraved so the names could be read right side up or inverted when a Raider was deceased.
The goblets were arrayed in a large cabinet with a spotlight on them, and I was extremely moved by the sight of those glistening symbols of courage. They reminded me of the risks this group of 80 volunteers had undertaken on a mission with such a low chance of survival. I understood no one had written a book about the raid since Lawson’s celebrated account, but I felt there must be more to the story than was generally known. Knobloch agreed and said the Raiders were looking for a “name” writer to tell it. Although I had written several aviation books by that time, I could not claim to be a name writer, but asked him if I might try.
I was invited to the 1962 Doolittle Tokyo Raider reunion in Santa Monica, Calif., and presented my request during their business meeting. I told them I had flown B-25s, and was still on active duty and on flying status. I mentioned my books and asked for their cooperation and agreement to proceed. Their vote was a unanimous “yes.”
General Doolittle said, “I will not only cooperate, I’ll give you my wholehearted cooperation.” I didn’t know what to expect, but when I returned home an insured box was waiting for me. It held a personal account of Doolittle’s pre-raid activities and after-action reports that previously had been stamped “Secret.” There was also an envelope containing postage to send everything back.
In the spare time from my official duties, I researched Air Force files and interviewed Raiders at the 1963 reunion, by phone and by correspondence. Meanwhile, I queried publishers and received a contract with Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. The book, Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders, was released in time for the April 1964 reunion in Fort Worth, Texas. It received favorable reviews and was reprinted several times.
At that reunion, the four Raiders who had survived Japanese imprisonment said they’d like to have a separate book about their experiences. They said there was much more to tell about the appalling treatment they had endured than I had included in my book or had been publicly disclosed. The result was Four Came Home, published in 1966, also by Van Nostrand. Pictorial Publishing Co. reprinted it in 1996 with additional photos.
I have attended every Raider reunion since 1962, and have been privileged to tell the Doolittle Raid story to their audiences and introduce the Raiders so they could answer questions and talk about their experiences. The years have taken their toll on Doolittle’s men, just as they have on other World War II veterans. Each year the Raiders have acknowledged their losses at a poignant annual toasting ceremony during which those silver goblets are inverted in solemn tribute “to those who have gone” since the previous reunion.
As a result of these frequent contacts during the reunions, I wrote a follow-up book in 1988 that updated the other two, titled The Doolittle Raid, originally published by Orion Books and now by Schiffer Publishing Ltd. Later I was honored to assist General Doolittle in writing his autobiography, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again, published by Bantam Books in 1991. He died on September 27, 1993, at age 96.
The reunions and the press interest they generate have helped keep the Doolittle Raid story alive. Before taking off from Hornet, Doolittle had promised the Raiders that he would give them a party in Chungking after the mission, but events dictated otherwise. However, he kept that promise in December 1945 at a hotel in Florida, at his own expense. The Raiders have held reunions every year since then except 1946, 1950 and 1966, mostly at the invitation of admirers. Doolittle had one stipulation in accepting those invitations: They must always pay back in some way any group that hosts them. To carry out this order, the Raiders donate scholarships in his name each year to students nominated by their hosts or make a contribution to a local charitable cause.
In the seven decades since their mission, 75 Raiders have gone west. In addition to the seven who died as a direct result of their mission, 10 were killed in subsequent combat actions and three in accidents during WWII; the others have died since then of natural causes. It is understood that when the last two Raiders reunite for the final time, they will drink a concluding toast to their departed comrades and await their own final calls. Those 80 men shared a common risk in a mission against great odds, and will remain outstanding examples in American military aviation history of dedication to their country’s security and duty before self. Their silver goblets will remain on display in perpetuity at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Aviation History Contributing Editor C.V. Glines retired from the U.S. Air Force as a colonel after more than 27 years of service. He is the official historian for the Doolittle Raiders.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.