By Fr. George Welzbacher
April 29, 2012
During some of the darkest days of World War II - the period from the disaster of Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941 to our astonishing victory over the Japanese navy at the prolonged, momentous Battle of Midway Island, from June 3rd to June 6th, 1942, the battle in which Japan sustained the crippling loss of no fewer than four aircraft carriers - during those six months, beginning with Pearl Harbor and ending with Midway, one catastrophe pressed hard upon another as the Philippine Islands fell swiftly to the Japanese, as then did Malaysia and the "impregnable" fortress of Singapore, then New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies, and then Burma and Siam, while Australia and British-ruled India stood ready to confront invasion. To hundreds of millions of Asians - including the populations of Korea, Manchuria, coastal China and Indo-China, populations that already had been brought, before Pearl Harbor, under the Japanese heel - it seemed as if the Japanese were the new Master Race, invincible in battle and destined to rule for an incalculable age to come. Americans' self-assurance was mightily shaken. Could it be that we could lose this war?
After all, from the Atlantic to the gates of Leningrad and Moscow, most of continental Europe was directly or indirectly within the Third Reich's domain, while The Heavenly Empire ruled from "the Land of the Rising Sun" bestrode, like a new Colossus, much of Asia and its perimeter off-shore. Then, on April 18, 1942, seventy years ago this month, the western allies were electrified by the news that a squadron of American planes, B-25's under the command of the legendary air ace, now Army Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, had bombed selected targets in Tokyo, Yokahama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and Yokosuka. While the physical damage to Japan was comparatively minor, the strike was a propaganda coup of the first rank: it gave reassurance to the American people that, despite the recent calamitous reverses, America could still be thought of as the "can do!" nation and that America, in striking at the Japanese homeland, was committing itself, compromise be damned, to nothing less than all-out victory. This raid was taken to be just an initial down payment, with much, much more to come. For America the war in the Pacific was beginning to lose the overtones of a doomed undertaking, while in Japan were felt the first stirrings of fear.
The Washington Times, in its national edition of April 16th, 2012, carried a fascinating account of the five (out of an original eighty) survivors of that "Raid to Remember" of April 18, 1942 as they prepared to hold what will probably be the last of their annual "get togethers, held this year at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio, 70 years to the day after that memorable event. May I share the report with you here.
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The Washington Times, April 16, 2012
Edward Saylor still vividly remembers the Chinese boy who helped save his life. In the days after his plane crashed into the waters just off China's coast, Mr. Saylor, now 92, and four other Doolittle Tokyo Raiders were desperate and hungry-but they had survived a daring mission that was America's first military strike against the Imperial Japanese homeland, four months after the infamous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
"The thought hits you, where you're at, what you've got to do. ... We don't speak the language; what do we do now? That's what was going through our heads," said Mr. Saylor, one of the five survivors of the raid who will mark its 70th anniversary on Wednesday, April 18th. The young boy helped Mr. Saylor's crew navigate the Chinese countryside and scrounge up what little food they could find, just enough to keep the exhausted airmen moving.
After a weeks long journey of more than 100 miles - all the while avoiding Japanese forces who had set up blockades of the Chinese coastline - the crew eventually was picked up by an American plane.
To this day, Mr. Saylor still feels a deep debt of gratitude to the young stranger, whom he never saw again.
"We owed him big time," he said of the boy. "He was sure good for us."
80 men who made history
Seven decades later, the five remaining survivors of the raid led by then-Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle recognize their prominent place in history. Nothing like it had ever been done before. But faced with an enemy that already had proved its ability to strike the U.S. homeland, 80 brave men volunteered for what had all the makings of a suicide mission, its main purposes to satisfy a burning desire for revenge, to boost morale in the war's darkest days and to demonstrate that the nation's resolve remained as strong as steel.
Planning for the April 18, 1942, raid combined that need for vengeance with raw American ingenuity. It was the first-ever joint operation between the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF), predecessor to today's Air Force, and the Navy. B-25 bombers had never taken off from a Navy aircraft carrier before, and Doolittle, selected as mission leader, who piloted the first of the squadron's 16 planes, had less than 400 feet of runway to work with.
Unable to carry enough fuel for a round trip, Doolittle and his men planned to drop their bombs on Tokyo and several other Japanese cities and make a quick escape toward China, a U.S. ally. American political leaders had tried to hammer out an agreement with Josef Stalin to allow the bombers to land in the Soviet Union after the raid, but the Soviet leader had refused, leaving China as the only realistic option.
The men were under no illusions about their prospects for survival. Mr. Saylor, who grew up on a Montana cattle ranch and joined the military as a 19-year-old just as World War II began, didn't think he'd make it out alive. But the fear of death didn't panic him, he said. He and his comrades knew their mission, even if it turned out to be their final one, was a risk worth taking.
The raid "was the beginning of the end for them," said Thomas Griffin, now 95, who served as navigator on plane No. 9 and who later in the war survived 22 months in a NAZI prisoner-of-war camp.
"It gave the initial warning to [the Japanese] that we were coming and that they had more than they could handle," he said.
Rolling the dice
The mission wasn't just dangerous for the Raiders; it also was a major strategic gamble for U.S. military planners. The Navy had just four carriers in the Pacific Ocean, and two - the USS Hornet, from which the 16 bombers launched, and the USS Enterprise, which sailed alongside the Hornet as a protective escort - were assigned to the Doolittle mission. Already depleted from the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, the Navy was on risky ground. If either carrier was sunk or badly damaged, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for U.S. forces in the Pacific to make up the loss quickly.
"Now you've committed 50 percent of your available carrier task force to what amounts to almost a public-relations mission," said Craig L. Symonds, professor of naval heritage at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Even the most optimistic military men conceded that the attack, if successful, would do little tangible damage to the Japanese war machine. Often depicted as the tit-for-tat answer to Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid actually was more of a pinprick, Mr. Symonds and other historians say.
Each plane carried four 500-pound bombs. Encountering only light anti-aircraft fire from Japanese ground forces, the planes dropped bombs on 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, the raid's primary objective, and on two sites in Yokohama. Locations in Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and Yokosuka also were hit. The effects of the mission paled in comparison to the damage the Japanese had inflicted at Pearl Harbor, where more than 2,000 Americans had been killed and nearly 200 aircraft destroyed.
But what the Doolittle raid lacked in terms of physical damage, it made up for by dealing a stunning psychological blow to Japanese leaders and citizens, all of whom had believed they would be shielded from antagonists by godlike forces.
"The mission was designed for a couple of reasons," said Raider Richard E. Cole, now 96 years old and the co-pilot of plane No. 1, the first off the deck of the Hornet and the one piloted by Doolittle. "It was designed to let the Japanese people know that their government was lying to them about the island being impregnable. The divine wind, they thought ... would keep aerial attacks away."
The bombing had an equally significant impact on the American public, which had been waiting nearly four months for a response to Pearl Harbor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the raid's loudest cheerleaders, knew the U.S. psyche badly needed a boost. During the first few months of 1942, morale across the U.S., each of the surviving Raiders said, was at an all-time low as Americans wondered when, or if, the nation would strike back.
Pressure on FDR and others mounted quickly. With the Japanese continuing to push forces farther throughout the Pacific theater, something needed to be done quickly, both to bolster the U.S. military's hopes of waging a winning war in the Pacific and to counter the increasingly sour mood at home.
"It was the idea of saying to America, 'We will make this right.' And the idea of saying to the Japanese, 'You're not untouchable,' " said Clarence R. "Dick" Anderegg, head of the Pentagon's U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program. "This would be a message to the American public .... we COULD strike back."
To ensure they would make it to their targets, the 16 B-25s were stripped to the bone to make them lighter. Most of the guns were removed and replaced by black broomsticks and piping, meant to intimidate enemy pilots who strayed too close. Much of the planes' navigation equipment was taken out, leaving Mr. Griffin and the other 15 navigators with nothing but simple compasses as their guides while flying over the vast Pacific Ocean.
Despite the detailed planning, the mission still ran into problems even before the first plane left the Homet's deck. The plan called for the ships to get about 400 miles off the coast of Japan before they took off - considered the closest they could come without being spotted. But Japanese scout ships, deployed to the far reaches of the Pacific to warn of approaching enemies, spotted the two vessels while they were more than 600 miles away.
The raid was scheduled to commence at dusk, but with the element of surprise in doubt, Doolittle decided to launch it 10 hours earlier and about 200 miles farther out to sea than planned.
Storms during the morning of April 18, which brought heavy rains and fierce winds, made matters even worse for the Raiders.
"When I got in the airplane, the wind was blowing across the deck so hard I couldn't hardly stand up," said David Thatcher, 90, an engineer-gunner on Crew No. 7.
Once in the air, the planes flew toward Japan with no discernible formation. Each took its own separate path, enabling the crews to move as quickly as possible, thereby conserving fuel. The mood inside each plane was tense. None of the Raiders, including Doolittle, knew exactly what would happen to them after the bombs had been dropped.
To help stay calm, Mr. Saylor reached for a small bottle of whiskey he had brought along for the trip.
"I guess it calmed my-nerves a little. Whiskey will do that to you," he said. "That was the only time I ever drank on duty, and nobody cared."
Avoiding capture, staying alive
For the 80 Raiders, the most harrowing and memorable experiences came in the hours, days, weeks and months after the bombing run had ended. One Raider died while bailing out from his plane. Two drowned in the waters off the China coast. Another crew crash-landed in the Soviet Union.
Eight Raiders - including 92-year-old survivor Robert L. Hite, co-pilot on plane No. 16 were captured by Japanese forces. Three of those men were executed by firing squad, and another died of malnutrition.
"They treated us pretty rough," Mr. Hite said of his time in captivity. "We were in solitary confinement. Each person was in a cell by himself. We couldn't speak to one another. We didn't know for sure what would happen. Then they condemned us all to death."
Mr. Hite and his three comrades avoided that fate, surviving more than three years in the Japanese prison before eventually being liberated by Allied forces as the war came to a close.
Mr. Cole's crew members made it into China and were rescued. Mr. Griffin and the rest of the crew on plane No. 9 safely bailed out over China.
Mr. Thatcher pulled his four fellow crew members from the wreckage of plane No. 7, which had come to rest in waist-deep water. He spent the night bandaging the other men, all of whom had suffered cuts, gashes and other minor injuries. He later was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in the line of duty.
Each of the 80 men received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the raid. Doolittle, eventually promoted to the rank of general, was awarded the Medal of Honor....
Confirmation of the daring raid first leaked out not from American press accounts but via Japanese newspapers. Many American media outlets on April 18 reported that the raid had taken place but that it had not yet been confirmed by either political or military leaders. The location from which the Raiders launched was shrouded in mystery, and FDR, questioned by reporters three days later, refused to shed light on the situation.
The war raged on for another three years. In 1946, the survivors began their annual reunion ceremony. Mr. Hite, Mr. Thatcher, Mr. Griffin, Mr. Cole and Mr. Saylor will gather next week in Dayton, Ohio, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for the events marking the 70th anniversary of the raid. It's expected to be the last time the five men will come together.
On display at the base, which houses the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, are 80 goblets, one representing each Raider, and a bottle of Hennessy Very Special Cognac, a gift from Doolittle to be opened by the final two living Raiders.
Over the past 70 years, as their fellow Raiders have passed away - Doolittle died in September 1993 at the age of 96 - the five survivors have remained grateful that they were given the chance to make military history, to defend the U.S. during one of its darkest periods and to live to tell about it.
"You realize you were lucky that you weren't one of the victims in the war," Mr. Cole said. "I lived my dream."
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