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.