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Listen to these guys while you can; they won’t be around much longer,” I have been told more than once. “These guys” are the men and women who served during World War II and can still share their experiences and insights. Those who were in their 20s in the 1940s are in their 70s in the 1990s–and the ravages of time are gradually reducing our opportunities to record firsthand experiences, and to ask the questions that we can’t answer with a book or a video.

Recently, I had one of those memorable experiences where I didn’t want to wash my right hand for a week because I had shaken the hand of a person who helped make aviation history. This time, two of the three hands I shook at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum Langley Theater had held the controls of North American B-25 Mitchell bombers during one of the most famous aerial attacks of all time–Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo Raid of April 18, 1942.

They were retired Air Force Maj. Gen. David M. Jones, skipper of Crew 5, and retired Colonel William M. Bower, pilot of Crew 12, both of whom were among the crews that flew 16 bombers off a carrier on a one-way trip to attack the “unbombable” Japanese capital city. The crews knew that they would have to find a landing field or bail out in the dark if they ran out of fuel over China after bombing Tokyo.

The third hand I shook had been working radio knobs within the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) while she was carrying Doolittle’s B-25s toward Japan. It belonged to Hornet‘s special intelligence officer and Japanese language interpreter, Navy Lieutenant Gilven M. Slonim, who was monitoring radio signals from a picket boat that had sighted the U.S. ships. When he heard that the task force had been discovered and the sighting report had been repeated by a Tokyo naval broadcast, Slonim scurried to the bridge. His report stung task force commander Admiral William F. Halsey, aboard the carrier USS Enterprise, into action. He flashed a message to Hornet skipper Captain Marc A. Mitscher, who was prepared to launch the bombers early if they were discovered before reaching the planned takeoff point closer to Japan. The klaxon horn sounded, Mitscher ordered via loudspeaker, “Army pilots, man your planes,” and they were off.

All three of the men whose hands I shook had historical significance for me. The first two gave the official lecture, and the third attended and was available to hand shakers and questioners like me. I was the guest of C.V. Glines, editorial adviser and frequent contributor to Aviation History, official historian of the Doolittle Raiders, and author of Doolittle’s memoirs, I Could Never be so Lucky Again. He was in town to deliver the manuscript for another aviation history book, a biography of aerial explorer-pilot Bernt Balchen.

The narratives presented by Jones and Bower were fascinating, a chronological journey through an exciting and dangerous operation. As a former Air Force pilot, I experienced the strongest empathy for these guys as Jones described how he faced a terrible reality over China when he gave the order to bail out because there was no landing site in view and the fuel was about gone. Last to leave the plane, he related to us some 50-odd years later how he hesitated in agony before he dropped out of the belly hatch–and then hung on until the last of his fingernails broke off and he dropped. And there he was, not 20 feet away, still alive and telling me about it–with a grin on his face.

These are narratives you can’t get from a medium other than the horse’s mouth. Just being in the same room with a person who was there and hearing it firsthand makes it all so real and personal. If you have the opportunity to hear one of these live rememberances, by all means do so. You will come away with a new appreciation for what it really was like, and an admiration for those like Jones and Bower who, when asked how they could accept the dangers inherent in the decision to launch early, answered, “That’s what we were there to do, and we just went ahead and did it.” It is because of heroes like these that we are free today. And that’s why we get a thrill out of shaking their hands and saying, “Thank you.”

Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History