On Monday, the nation honored Col. William M. Bower, the last surviving pilot of the April 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid, the risky surprise attack on the Japanese home islands that bolstered American morale in the early, tragic months of World War II. Col. Bower died Jan. 10 at age 93 and was laid to rest Monday at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Doolittle Raid was one of the gutsiest calls ever made by a president. Shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a directive that the United States hit the Japanese homeland as soon as possible. Those were dark days. America was in an existential fight, not with ragtag bands of violent extremists but with the mightiest armed forces in history, then at the height of their power. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Empire enjoyed an unbroken string of victories. Bombing Japan was intended to deliver a blow to Imperial pride.
The raid was planned and led by Lt. Col. (later General) James “Jimmy” Doolittle. Eighty volunteers were tasked to fly 16 B-25 medium bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo and other targets. The plan carried incredible risk. The Hornet could be detected by enemy naval forces and sunk. The weather might force a scrub or cause the bombers to miss their targets. The lightly armed aircraft might be shot down before reaching Japan. Even if successful in dropping their payloads, the crews would have to ditch their aircraft, parachute to Earth and survive the hunt by the Japanese army through Manchuria.
Despite these challenges, the raid was a success. The bombers launched from the Hornet and flew undetected to strike their targets without losing a single aircraft. The raiders did minimal damage to Japan’s industrial base, but they inflicted a telling blow to the Japanese sense of security and caused decisionmakers in Tokyo to radically shift strategy. Roosevelt maintained the air of mystery by sharing none of the operational details of the attack, and quipped to reporters that the raid was launched “from our new secret base at Shangri-La.”
The aftermath of the attack is as much a tale of human endurance and courage as the raid itself. Most of the crew members survived the mission. Col. Bower bailed out of his plane in the darkness and waited for dawn on a mountaintop wrapped in his silk parachute for warmth. He linked up with other members of his crew and was smuggled out of China by Nationalist guerrillas. Of those who didn’t make it back, two men drowned and another was killed while bailing out. Eight were captured by the Japanese, of whom three were executed and one died of disease. The highest price was paid by China. An estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians were murdered in reprisal actions by Japanese forces for the assistance given to American flyers.
Col. Bower showed the typical modesty of heroes from the Greatest Generation. “Dad was very humble about what he did,” his daughter Mindy Bower told The Washington Times at his graveside in Arlington’s Section 54. “He didn’t want any fuss. His attitude was that that was their job.” The Doolittle Raiders remained close after the war, getting together for hunting and fishing trips well into old age. Gen. Doolittle - or “Dad’s fishing buddy,” as Mindy jokingly called him - came on the trips into his 90s. He died in 1993 and is buried in Section 7a, uphill and to the west of Col. Bower, just below the Tomb of the Unknowns.
A silvered B-25 flew over the cemetery this week in tribute to Col. Bower, glinting in the bright sunlight, flying low enough for those on the ground to hear the rattle of the twin engines. A caisson drawn by a team of white horses stood in the shade of a nearby copse of trees. A 21-gun salute echoed over the Arlington Hills. Col. Richard E. Cole, 95, co-pilot of Crew 1 and one of five surviving raiders, walked alone to the graveside and saluted his departed friend. The sound of “Taps” melted into the warm spring breeze.
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