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 April 18. The young boy helped Mr. Saylor’s crew navigate the Chinese countryside and helped scrounge up what little food he 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 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 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 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 antiaircraft 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 Delano 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 that we could get in this war, that 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 only 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 Hornet’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, 91, 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 their parts in the raid. Doolittle, eventually promoted to the rank of general, was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Yet the Raiders received little credit during the immediate aftermath of the mission.
“There was no victory parade or bond drive, or effort to capture all of them together and have a public display,” Mr. Anderegg said. “There was a war on, and they had their jobs to do. Reading the press releases [about the mission] was probably not high on their list of things to do.”
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, and it was only after it ended, in 1946, that 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, defend the U.S. during one of its darkest periods and live to tell about all of it.
“You realize you were lucky that you weren’t one of the victims in the war,” Mr. Cole said. “I lived my dream.”