Heroes and angels

  • Published
  • By Andrew Billman
  • 341st Space Wing historian
April 18, 1942. On that day, 80 volunteer airmen flew 16 B-25B Mitchell bombers into history and soon became exactly what their commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, had predicted: "Heroes and Angels."

The news that American aircraft had bombed military and industrial targets in Tokyo and four other Japanese cities electrified Americans everywhere. At the same time, Japanese leaders were horrified that their sacred homeland had been struck for the first time by aircraft that had seemed to appear from out of nowhere.

Jimmy Doolittle and his "Raiders" did not simply materialize out of thin air in the skies over Japan. Methodical planning, technical innovation, and accelerated training placed these daring aviators on the heaving deck of the USS Hornet, 823 miles from Japan, as they prepared to launch off of the U.S. Navy's newest aircraft carrier for the very first time.

In preparation for the harrowing mission over Japan, alterations to the B-25B bombers included stripping the fuselage of every non-essential piece of equipment to include the twin 50-caliber machine guns in the tail of the bomber. In addition, extra fuel tanks were added to increase the bombers' range and room was spared to carry four 500-pound bombs in the bomb bay. All preparations were made, enabling the 16 crews to coax these aircraft down the pitching flight deck of the carrier into the air, then onto Japan. They knew there was a very likely prospect of being shot down, or having to ditch the plane in the ocean or crash-land on mainland China. They also knew once they were airborne, they would not be returning to land on the ship. Simply taking off from the Hornet qualified these men as heroes.

While the tactical effect of the raid's bombs was negligible, the strategic effects far surpassed all expectations. As a result of the raid, the Japanese high command determined that the defensive perimeter for the home islands had to be extended into the Central Pacific and include the island of Midway. In addition, aircraft and pilots remained at home to guard against further American attacks. Following the subsequent loss of four Japanese carriers at Midway, the Japanese lost air superiority over the Pacific and never regained it during the war.

Colonel Doolittle and his men achieved total surprise and faced virtually no threat while over Japan, their main enemy upon exiting Japanese airspace became fuel consumption. All but one of the raid's aircraft either crashed in China or had to ditch into the China Sea as they ran out of fuel and the crews either parachuted out of or swam away from their aircraft. One B-25B, after experiencing engine trouble following their bomb run, landed safely near Vladivostok where Soviet forces quickly seized the crew and their bomber. Soviet leaders, desirous in maintaining neutrality in the Pacific War, quietly interned the crew. The Soviets kept the B-25B and kept the crew for more than a year until the Americans were able to make their escape over land into Persia and then home in May 1943.

Unfortunately, none of the other Raiders landed as safely as the crew in Vladivostok. Two crewmembers drowned attempting to exit their aircraft as it sank near Poyang while another died when his parachute failed to open - these were the only fatalities that resulted directly from the mission. Out of the eight Raiders captured by the Japanese, three other Airmen were later executed by the Japanese following their capture in China, and another died from malnutrition and abuse while in Japanese custody.

The loss of these men and all aircraft initially caused Colonel Doolittle to fear a possible court martial. Little did he know the tremendous boost to morale he and his men had given the American people as a result of their courageous attack. Upon his return to America, following his safe conduct through friendly Chinese territory, Colonel Doolittle received promotion to Brigadier General and he humbly received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin Roosevelt on behalf of all his brave men.

Today, 11 out of the original 80 Doolittle Raiders survive: William Bower, Richard Cole, Thomas Griffin, Robert Hite, Edwin Horton, David Jones, Frank Keppeler, James Macia, Charles Ozuk, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher. A few of these men will participate in the goblet ceremony as they drink a toast from the silver goblet inscribed with their name as they salute their fallen comrades. To this day, these admirable airmen exhibit the Air Force value of service before self and stand as enduring legends and examples of the potential for greatness inherent within every American Airman.