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As a young lieutenant at sea aboard the USS Hornet, Army Air Force pilot Richard E. Cole didn’t know where he and his crew of 79 airmen were headed with 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers tied to the deck of a Navy aircraft carrier in the Pacific.
They all soon learned when they left port in California.
Four months after a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, devastated the U.S. Pacific fleet and killed more than 2,400 U.S. service members, the Doolittle Raiders airmen and their flying bomb-dropping cargo were sailing toward Japan on a mission of retribution with a target date of April 18, 1942.
“At the time of the raid I don’t think any of us realized the importance of the mission,” Cole, 98, said Friday in an interview with the Dayton Daily News. “It was our job.”
Today, thousands will gather at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to honor the Raiders in what’s been described as their last public appearance together in a final toast to their fallen colleagues.
“It’s an action story that deserves to be remembered,” said C.V. Glines, 92, a World War II pilot, author and “honorary” Raider who wasn’t on the mission but is the group’s official historian.
The bombing raid, led by then Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, a legendary airman in military and civilian ranks, struck the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya and Kobe. Historians credit the raid with turning the tide of the Pacific war in World War II.
“We were two days at sea when we were actually told what our target was,” Cole said. “At that time, the Navy personnel and ourselves, there was a lot of jubilation and so forth, and after a while it got kind of quiet and people realized what it really was.”
Cole, a Dayton native living in Comfort, Texas, and two other surviving Raiders, Edward J. Saylor, 93, of Puyallup, Wash., and David J. Thatcher, 92, of Missoula, Mont., will be at the event. A fourth, Robert L. Hite, 93, of Nashville, Tenn., will not attend because of health reasons.
Cole remembers sitting in the co-pilot seat next to Doolittle on the raid, codenamed Special Aviation Project No. 1.
“The most memorable thing (for me) I guess was the fact that I was a lucky guy and got to fly with Col. Doolittle,” he said. “The thing is I was born here in Dayton and I, as a young person, I had made up my mind I had wanted to be in aviation and he was one of my idols.”
Launch toward war
One by one, the B-25s loaded with fuel and 500-pound and 1,000-pound bombs lunged a scant 300 feet along the flight deck and into the horizon over an endless sea. More than 600 miles off the Japanese coast, they launched hours before planned, a hectic, emergency response because they feared a Japanese fishing vessel had spotted the armada and radioed the warships location to shore.
The pilots and crew knew the bombers wouldn’t have enough gas to land in China after the raid, Underwood said.
The Navy risked losing one or more of its five remaining carriers if the Japanese attacked the task force hauling the bombers to war.
“This is a huge gamble,” he said. “Had we lost one or two of those carriers … the Japanese pretty much have reign” in the Pacific.
The low flying, rumbling bombers targeted factories, oil storage tanks, and military bases with a newly developed bomb sight. They dodged anti-aircraft fire and fighter planes over Japan.
Japanese leaders had assured people their home island could not be struck, historians said. “They were surprised then when the twin-engine bombers ended up over their capital city and four other cities,” Glines said. “It was a tremendous shock to them and a morale boost to us in the States at the time.”
Low on fuel, every B-25 crashed landed or the crews bailed out, with the exception of one bomber that landed near Valdivostok, Russia. The Russians held those crew members under house arrest for more than a year.
A high cost
The cost of the raid was high. Two crewman drowned off the coast of China. One died when he bailed out. The Japanese captured eight airmen, and months later executed three. Another died in captivity, according to the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders website.
Doolittle feared he would be court-martialed, Underwood said. Instead, he and the men were lauded as national heroes.
“A lot of people when they heard that all the airplanes were lost said this was a mission that should not be undertaken, but they didn’t have all the facts,” Glines said. “The psychological blow to the Japanese was worth the flight and (the) boost that it gave to us here in America.”
Angered with China for shielding the airmen, the Japanese killed as many as 250,000 Chinese after the attack, historians said.
After the bombing of Japan, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto ordered his fleet to attack U.S. bases in the Battle of Midway in June 1942 to stop the Americans advance through the Pacific. The Japanese lost four aircraft carriers, and the Americans lost one.
For Japan, it turned out to be a “tremendous defeat,” Glines said.
While the damage the Doolittle Raiders’ 16 B-25s inflicted was relatively small, the strategic and psychological impact was large, Underwood said.
Japan bolstered the home island’s defenses with the return of four fighter groups to the mainland.
“It absolutely changes the course of the war,” Underwood said. “If you can force a major power that’s winning … to change their war plans, that’s a stupendous accomplishment.”