One by one, 14 of the Doolittle Raiders, 3 in wheelchairs and several slightly stooped by age and the solemnity of the occasion, approach a wooden case holding 80 silver goblets. Each removes a cup engraved with his name and accepts a splash of brandy.
The old warriors form a loose semi-circle. Maj. Gen. David M. Jones, 88, begins: "Gentlemen, your attention. I will now call the names of our departed." As the former pilot names each colleague who either fell in battle or has died since the end of World War II, he is answered with an emphatic "Here" from a surviving crew member, an acknowledgment that while a man’s body may be gone, his spirit lives on. In a moment of silence to honor two men who died since the group last met a year ago, two goblets are turned upside down.
Jones reads the last name, then lifts his chalice: "Gentlemen, to our good friends who have gone."
This simple yet poignant annual ceremony, never before seen by the public, took place April 18 in Columbia, South Carolina, where the famous squadron known as the Doolittle Raiders was first mustered. Exactly 60 years earlier, under the legendary leadership of then-Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, the Raiders performed one of the most daring military actions ever carried out. Just as the United States seemed on the verge of military collapse in the Pacific, these brave men launched a seemingly suicidal bombing run on a supremely confident Japan.
Memorialized in the classic book and subsequent film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo—as well as last year’s breathless Hollywood romance, Pearl Harbor—the mission has been remembered at Raider reunions held nearly every year since 1947. This year’s reunion in Columbia was one of the largest and most elaborate appreciations; it was certainly among the most emotional. Over five days, 14 of the surviving 23 Raiders (2 more have died since April) were feted with sold-out banquets, the reading of an impassioned note from President Bush, speeches by radio host Oliver North and retired astronaut Brig. Gen. Charles Duke, a parade down Main Street and an air show featuring meticulously maintained B-25 bombers similar to the 16 flown by the Raiders. History buffs of all ages asked the men to autograph posters, vintage photographs, model planes, baseballs and even the belly of one of the B-25s.
"They had their first union here, so we felt that they should have one of their last reunions here," said Brig. Gen. Carey Woodson Randall, chairman of the Columbia-based Celebrate Freedom Foundation, which hosted the event. "Bombing Japan just a few months after Pearl Harbor was a total shock. No one thought it could be done."
To understand the extraordinary derring-do of the Raiders, one needs to remember the circumstances of the time. The Japanese had just upended U.S. attempts to stay out of World War II with their devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. And Allied troops were being punished in the Philippines. An angry President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded that his military brass design a strategy to strike back at the Japanese and show that the United States wasn’t about to roll over. The improbable solution: the Doolittle Raid.
Today it’s almost routine that bombers take off from fortress-like carriers, refuel in midair and travel thousands of miles to pummel enemies with virtual impunity. But consider what these men faced: only two B-25s—medium-range, twin-engine bombers—had ever taken off from the deck of an aircraft carrier (and those on a test flight in friendly waters). The bulkiness of these aircraft made landing on a ship impossible, which meant that they would have to find a safe landing strip after they hit their targets. Plus, not one of the 16 pilots (each with a crew of four) had flown any kind of plane off a ship at sea.
Despite these obstacles, a small carrier task force under the command of Adm. William Frederick "Bull" Halsey, Jr., assembled at a top secret location in the Pacific off Hawaii in April 1942. Their orders were to bring the carrier USS Hornet and the Raiders to within 450 miles of Tokyo, a distance that the planes could cover and still have enough fuel to fly deep into China, beyond the grasp of the Japanese. Bad luck, however, struck even before a single plane took off. Six hundred fifty miles off Tokyo, the ships stumbled upon a Japanese picketboat, which they promptly blew out of the water. Halsey and Doolittle, assuming that the enemy crew had alerted mainland Japan of an impending attack, agreed that the Raiders had to take off immediately; otherwise, the B-25s would have to be dumped overboard so that the Hornet could scramble its own fighters.
Doolittle did not hesitate, ordering his crews to start their engines. Two hundred miles short of their planned takeoff point, each Raider understood that even with the extra fuel they had hurriedly loaded on board, they might have to ditch their airplanes into the ocean or parachute into Japanese-held territory. To make matters worse, an unexpected squall sent waves arcing over the carrier’s deck.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the mind-set of the Raiders. These men had volunteered only several weeks earlier for a secret mission that Doolittle warned could cost them their lives. But they didn’t learn that they would fly right down the throat of the Japanese empire until they boarded the Hornet. Still, the Raiders had a major weapon at their disposal in the person of Doolittle. Although of slight stature, he was a man of towering accomplishment. Not only had he won accolades as one of America’s top test and racing pilots, he had also earned a PhD in aeronautical engineering at MIT and managed the aviation division at Shell Oil Company. If anybody could pull this off, it was "Jimmy" Doolittle.
"The moment we feared most was the takeoff, but strangely enough it was the easiest part of the mission," recalls Jack Sims, 83, copilot of the 14th plane to take off from the carrier. "We had the heavy wind coming across the deck, plus the acceleration of the ship, so we had more speed than we needed."
With no time to assemble into a conventional formation, each plane was on its own, skimming along wave tops to avoid detection. As they dropped their bombs (each carried four) on factories or military sites in five Japanese cities, they were met with limited ground fire; only a few enemy fighters mobilized. Some historians contend that resistance was slight because the Japanese mistook the B-25s for their own planes on an air raid exercise. Whatever the reason, not one of the American planes was shot down.
Once past Japan, four crews ditched their aircraft in the water or near shore; other crews bailed out over land. Only three men died as a result, although eight were captured by the Japanese, including Chase J. Nielsen, now 85, navigator of the sixth crew. "It was already dark, and the pilot asked me how much time we had before we got to the coast," he says. "I said two minutes. But the red light flashing on the panel said we were out of fuel already, so we took our chances on ditching. It tore the plane up and killed two of us." The remaining three were captured and subjected to what Nielsen says was a kangaroo court. "We were ordered executed, and then my sentence was commuted to life in prison in solitary confinement," he remembers. One of his colleagues perished in prison, while the pilot was executed by a firing squad.
Bombardier Jacob DeShazer, 89, was on the last plane to leave the deck of the Hornet and a member of the only other crew taken prisoner by the Japanese. He was interrogated at length and tortured. Just as he was losing hope, he was given a Bible. "The Bible says that if we believe in Jesus in our hearts, we’d be saved," he says. "Boy, when I read that and they were threatening to cut our heads off at any moment, I just felt like I’m free, I’m ready to die to do whatever God wants me to do." Two of his crewmates were executed. After three years and four months in prison, the war ended and DeShazer returned to America.
But he didn’t stay stateside long. In 1948, he returned to Japan as a missionary and spent the next 30 years introducing Christianity to the Japanese. One of his converts, Mitsuo Fuchida, had led the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
A whiff of mystery surrounds the fate of one plane, the eighth to take off. After dropping his payload, Capt. Edward York steered toward Russia and landed near Vladivostok. Official records indicate that the pilot chose the course because Russia was close and he was low on fuel, but Nolan Herndon, now 83, and the plane’s navigator, isn’t so sure. He suspects that the maneuver was designed by military leaders to test the loyalties of the Russians, who were nominally U.S. allies but accommodated the Japanese to avoid confrontations on their eastern borders. In fact, Russian officials imprisoned York and his crew. All five escaped 14 months later with the help of local smugglers, who led them through the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan.
Most of the men, including Doolittle, found their way to safety with the help of Chinese farmers and guerrillas. Though all the American planes were lost, historians consider the mission a great success. Because of it, Japan was forced to recall top officers from the Pacific front to plan a defense against further assaults on Tokyo. "It was the first good news that the American public and our allies had gotten," says Thomas Griffin, 86, navigator of the ninth plane. "Everything was bad news up until the time of this raid. Here, four months after Pearl Harbor, we were over there dropping bombs." Says Williamson Murray, a senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Analyses outside Washington, D.C., "The Doolittle Raid clearly played a major role in pushing the Japanese to launch the Midway operation before they were ready, which led to a loss of four carriers and 350 top airmen. That was a turning point in the war."
For most, this year’s reunion was an inspiring celebration of memories. But for some, it was an opportunity to look to the future. Columbia resident Hope Mizzell, 31, brought her daughter Sybil to one of the dinners. Just 17 months old, Sybil probably won’t recall the night she met Doolittle’s Raiders. But her mother felt it was important that she be there: "I was hoping to get a picture of her with one of the Raiders. She doesn’t understand it now, but some day she will, and with a photograph, she’ll see that she participated in something special."
She got her picture.