Remembering the Doolittle Raid

The goings on in Albany have been getting me down recently, including things like the new abortion law.

But then I read a story that reminded me of an event in our history when average men bravely answered the call of their nation without a concern for “budget constraints.” The story dealt with the death of the last survivor of the Doolittle Raid, LTC Richard Cole, USAF Ret. who died at the age of 103. Cole, who was LTC James H. Doolittle’s copilot on the raid, served on active duty for 26 years, retiring from the Air Force in 1966. Coincidently, Thursday April 18, 2019, was the seventy-seventh anniversary of that heroic bombing raid on Japan.

For those who don’t know, the Doolittle Raid occurred at the lowest point in our war with Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Early in 1942 President Roosevelt asked his service chiefs how the United States could strike back at Japan. The commanders answered that B-25 medium bombers launched from a carrier 650 miles from the enemy coast, could carry out a successful attack and fly on to airfields in China.

In February 1942, crews from the Seventeenth Bombardment Group, based in West Columbia, South Carolina, were given the opportunity to volunteer for a hazardous mission being told only that it would be dangerous and take them out of the country for two or three months.

Twenty-four crews were selected from those who volunteered and they reported to Eglin Field in Florida. Here they underwent three weeks training on getting their bombers off the runway in 300 feet instead of the B-25’s usual take-off run of 3000 feet. In addition, crews practiced low level and night flying, low altitude bombing, and over water navigation.

On March 25, still not knowing the exact nature of the mission, the B-25’s departed Eglin Field for the west coast and the Alameda naval Air Station where they were taken aboard the brand-new carrier Hornet. On April 2, 1942, Hornet and Task Force 18, sailed from San Francisco — only after sailing did the flyers learn that their target was Japan.

The original plan was to launch the sixteen aircraft late in the day of April 18th, when the Hornet would be within 400 miles of the Japanese coast. Unfortunately, on the morning of April 18, while still 650 miles from the coast, the task force was sighted by a Japanese picket boat that radioed an attack warning before being sunk.

The Army B-25s were immediately launched. Flying at low level, the aircraft headed for their targets. They reached them at midday and after making their attacks 15 proceeded out over the East China Sea for bases in China while one B-25, extremely low on fuel, made for the Soviet Union.

With darkness falling, weather deteriorating and low on fuel, the fifteen B-25s, on course for China, neared the coast. With fuel exhausted, some ditched on the coast, and others flew inland before running out of fuel with crews parachuting to safety.

In the United States, news of the raid caused civilian morale, reeling from the series of defeats following Pearl Harbor to soar. Word of the raid was soon followed by news that American naval forces had halted a Japanese advance in the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May and in June by news of a decisive American victory at the Battle of Midway.

The Doolittle Raid had an impact far beyond its size or the damage it did to the enemy. It shocked the Japanese people, who had been told they would never be attacked. It also shocked the Japanese high command, particularly the Navy, that lost face by allowing American carriers to approach the Japanese home islands and escape unscathed and may have led to the disastrous decision to attack the U.S. Base at Midway Island in June.

Few of the young flyers were professional soldiers. They were young men, just out of high school and college, who had answered the nation’s call. They were led by James H. Doolittle, a reserve officer recently returned to active duty, who was perhaps the greatest aviator of his time and who would eventually command the Eighth Airforce in its bombing campaign against Germany.

I hope while all of these men have passed on now that our nation will never forget what they did or the sacrifices they made seventy-seven years ago. May our nation continue to be blessed with men and women like them.

Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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