There was a time when heroes walked the earth, and stories of their adventures have been told again and again. There is one story of astounding bravery and sacrifice from that time, however, that has all but vanished from our national memory.
The tale begins with the dream of a President; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dream of vengeance against the Japanese for their attack on Pearl Harbor. His military chiefs know all too well, however, that what the Commander-in-Chief wants - a direct assault on Tokyo itself - is an impossible fantasy. American forces are too meager to attack the capital of the world’s greatest military power.
The captain of a submarine has an idea; a radical breakthrough. He believes that two separate branches of the service - the Army and the Navy - could join together for the first time to launch bombers from the decks of a carrier. As more and more in both services believe this can actually be done, a secret mission takes form. Its leader will be Jimmy Doolittle, a middle-aged family man who, decades earlier, had won front-page headlines around the world. A pilot once as famous as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, Doolittle’s glory days are long gone. For this mission, he’ll use technical expertise and daredevil bravery to achieve a stunning victory - and again find himself in front-page headlines around the world.
One hundred and forty men volunteer to crew the planes; of these, eighty will ultimately be chosen. Kept entirely in the dark about the mission and its target, these boys (most just a few years out of high school) are trained to launch sixteen-ton bombers from within a mere 500-foot path, and then fly so low to the ground that their altimeters read ‘0.’ Modified for the attack with special gas tanks and turrets, the planes are riddled with mechanical failures, and the boys soon come to realize they are getting a one-way ticket. On this mission, the chances are great that no one will come home alive.
The attack plan will, again and again, go astray. Detected by Japanese spies before their launch site is reached, most of the squadron will be forced to crash-land, parachuting into occupied China. One crew, trying to refuel out of Vladivostok, will instead find themselves interned and treated as prisoners of war for many years behind the Iron Curtain. Eventually they will develop ties with a Middle East trader, and be smuggled across Soviet borders into Iran.
Some of these young Americans, landing in a war zone, will be captured by the Japanese, who will confine them to years of solitary, torture them, force them to sign false confessions, judge them war criminals, and ultimately have them executed by firing squad. One young man will be starved to death in Tojo’s military prisons; the others of his crew, rescued at war’s end, will have been reduced to living skeletons. One of those tortured to the limits of human endurance will find God, and return to Japan after the War on a campaign of forgiveness. One will be lost in a limbo of Army bureaucracy and mental illness. Over a quarter of a million civilians will die.
The mission will become, however, America’s first great World War II victory. It will deliver a crushing blow to Japan, a shock that will directly lead to the extraordinary triumph of Midway. It will be a major turning point for Britain and the U.S., the start of our winning the War, and in fact the start of the world’s believing that the Allied Powers might triumph. Originally considered a suicide mission, 90% of its men will come home alive, famous around the world.
The First Heroes is the story of thousands, risking everything, for a mere thirty seconds . . . a half-minute that reversed the course of time.
A half-minute that’s been all but forgotten.
The First Heroes
On Tuesday, February 3rd, 1942, a squadron of 140 young men flew across the country to Eglin Field, Florida, just outside Pensacola. They had volunteered for what they were told was an extremely hazardous and important mission. It would require three months of duty overseas. Other than that, they knew nothing.
These volunteers were, for the most part, just small-town boys still living at home with mom and dad when the Army signed them up and taught them how to fight. Before the War, they’d never been far from the house they were born in; never been on a boat, or a plane; and most of what they knew about Asia came from watching Paul Muni and Luise Rainer acting as Chinese peasants in The Good Earth. Originally from every corner of the United States, the only thing these boys had in common was their very brief experience in flying North American Aviation’s spanking-new bomber, the B-25 Mitchell. Within three months, they would be famous around the world.
Since America had only just declared war against Japan six weeks earlier, none of these young volunteers had yet seen a day of actual combat. The military experience of 21 year-old Harold Spatz of Lebo, Kansas, the engineer-gunner on Bat Out of Hell, was typical:
First we took our basic training. It was really, really tough, a two or three-week period called Tiger Camp that would kill an ordinary guy. On the go twenty-four hours a day practically; day after day; day and night. Then came Aircraft Mechanics School, where you had to learn real fast about engines, hydraulics, instruments, fuels, electrical, carburetion, whatever, and they didn’t know what planes we’d eventually get on and they didn’t really have any good ones to spare for training, so they’d just throw us into anything and make us learn from there.
Right after that was gunnery school, where they’d blindfold us and make us dismantle and reassemble .50 caliber machine guns. To learn how to target, we had to shoot skeet out of the back of a pickup truck. Then was flying school, which was fun, but it was weeks and weeks of this day and night, day and night, and I thought it was never going to end.
When the call for volunteers came, I jumped.
One of the squadron’s oldest members was 30 year-old bombardier Jacob DeShazer, and this trip would be the first time he’d ever been outside the state of Oregon. Shy and small, Jacob would sit in the Bat’s clear Plexiglas nose, listening through headphones to the 24 year-old pilot, Bill Farrow, whose drawling Southern whine would tell Jacob which landmarks ahead needed to be destroyed. DeShazer would position the targets with his bombsight and, at exactly the right moment, he’d flip his control panel switches for group, salvo, or interval, the plane’s armored belly would hinge open, and the bombs would fall.
Jacob also had a .30 caliber machine gun by his side; if enemy fighters attacked the plane head-on, the Bat’s only defense was Jacob using this gun through a hole in the plane’s nose. Like Harold, he’d only had a few months of training before answering the call.
Pilots, on the other hand, went through a lot more before getting an assignment, according to Bat’s co-pilot Bob Hite, a 22 year-old from Odell, Texas:
I wanted to fly. Almost everybody wanted to. It was a glamorous part of the service; they played it up big in the movies and on the radio. If you got in, you had nine weeks of pre-flight, nine weeks of primary, nine weeks of basic, nine weeks of advanced, nine weeks of transition when you got into the Bs, nine weeks of crew training, then you were sent overseas.
So we had almost a year of heavy training, and it was good stuff; an amazing job that the Air Force did at that time to get us ready.
The outcome of this mission for Harold, Jacob, Bill, Bob, and their 25 year-old navigator, George Barr, a tall, lanky redhead from Brooklyn, would be either death by execution, three years spent in hell, or a mental collapse into psychosis.
Pilot Ted Lawson, a 25 year-old college kid from Fresno, California, would come home from this assignment so physically maimed that he couldn’t bear to see his pregnant wife, Ellen; he was sure she’d leave a crip like him. A year later, however, his memoirs would be published by Random House and turned into an MGM box office sensation, with Ted played by Van Johnson and his commander by Spencer Tracy.
Their operations officer, Captain Ski York, a 32 year-old West Point grad from upstate New York, was one of the few to touch down at Eglin Field already knowing the mission’s destiny:
I was fairly well convinced that none of us would come out of this thing alive. I was surprised that with such a conviction, my excitement and nervousness was replaced by a deep and unusual, for me, calm.
My only real thought was that I had not been as good a husband as I could have been, and I blamed myself for being such a bastard at times.
The men arrived to find Florida in the middle of a heat wave. Their cockpits were scorching, fogged-up by the humidity; clouds of mosquitoes attacked day and night. They also found they’d been quarantined away from everyone else on the base, and that strange things had been done to their planes.
Like all bombers, the Mitchells were chubby instead of sleek, but at a length of fifty-three feet, they were small, especially when compared to such armored giants as the B-17 Flying Fortress (which came with thirteen machine guns installed, compared to the Mitchell’s three). The Mitchell pilot and co-pilot would sit in a cockpit just barely big enough for two grown men; behind them, in a lowered cubbyhole, sat the navigator with his instruments. One of the cubbyhole’s crawlspaces led to the bombardier, who sat in the plane’s ribbed, clear nose, and another led to the engineer-gunner, in a Plexiglas roof bubble with twin .50 caliber machine guns on a rotating turret.
The Florida planes, however, were missing their ball turrets. Instead of this third machine gun, two broomsticks, painted black, stuck out from the tail. “The bottom turret was very complicated and worked ‘backwards’ to what was normal,” their mission leader complained. “It would have taken more time than we had available to master it; a man could learn to play the violin good enough for Carnegie Hall before he could learn to fire this thing.” He’d had the broomsticks attached to scare off enemy fighters. De-icer boots had been screwed into the wings, and rubberized 160-gallon gas tanks now lined the tight crawlspaces and were wedged into the bomb bays, while dozens of extra cans of gas were locked-down where the men usually stored their extra gear. The bays themselves were stocked with five 100-pound explosives and one 500-pound incendiary, and these modifications, in total, overweighed the craft by three tons. All the radios had been removed, and instead of their state-of-the-art Norden sights, the bombardiers had to use a sliding gauge of cheap aluminum to target their explosives.
The training for their mission proved to be just as strange. The Eglin Field runway had been flagged at 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500 foot points, and the overloaded bomber had to take off by the 500 marker, or its pilot would be excused. Army fliers had never before tried to launch from such a short start, and the technique needed to do it was harrowing. They’d keep the brakes on, rev the engines to full bore, and as the plane would violently shake on its tricycle struts, the wing flaps would be turned to down position, and the brakes would be released. The plane would then tilt back, its tail skidding against the ground and its wheels wobbling in every direction as it zigzagged haphazardly down the runway before lifting away. The taxiing looked so awful, in fact, that his buddies told Ted Lawson he should call his plane The Ruptured Duck, which he did - even drawing a sputtering cartoon Donald on its side.
Before Florida, no one believed that a B-25 could take off in a mere 500 feet. By the end of a week, these pilots could do it in 250.
The volunteers were next trained in hedge-hopping - flying at extremely low levels to evade enemy radar - which involved tilting around buildings, grazing over trees, and inching under power lines with altimeters that read ‘0.’ The low-altitude runs also included experiments to see how far down they could get while accurately bombing: Lawson said that he “laid one of the Duck’s 100-pound eggs in practice one day from 500 feet. The shock of the explosion on the ground threw me against the roof of the pilot’s compartment and raised an egg on my head.”
With all their peculiar modifications, the Mitchells were jinxed. The new rubber gas tanks leaked, the carburetors had to constantly be re-tuned, the engines would frequently refuse to crank over, and the spark plugs were always fouling. The boys were supposed to undergo fifty hours of flight training, but because of these mechanical failures, few even made it past twenty-five.
Chase Nielsen, a 25 year-old from Hyrum, Utah, worked as navigator on The Green Hornet. He would spend the next three years being tortured and starved, but Chase had no idea in Florida of what would be his future:
Most of us thought it was a lot of fun, this secret, important mission, and all the weird training we had to go through: Flying down a road so low, we had to raise up to keep from hitting the cars!
It was like we were getting ready to put on a stunt show or something for the top brass. Nobody could figure it out, so we just had fun with it, and did what we were told.
One-hundred and forty volunteers learned a whole new way of flying, in bizarrely-modified planes that seemed cursed for trouble, on a ridiculously speeded-up schedule . . . and still, no one knew what they were doing or where they were going. Rumors swept from plane to plane. They were off to the Panama Canal, some insisted. No, it’s the South Seas; nothing else makes sense. One looked at the wing and tail de-icers and was sure they’d end up on patrol in the Aleutians. To top it all off, the Army doctors insisted everyone be fully immunized for pneumonia, tetanus, yellow fever, smallpox, typhus and bubonic plague. For most, that meant a course of eleven shots.
As the paranoia and second-guessing built into a storm of fear and gossip, the more experienced crewmen just couldn’t help starting to believe that this was some higher-up’s hare-brained scheme, someone who obviously knew nothing about piloting bombers. In fact, the command that led to this moment had come from the ultimate higher-up, and their assignment was considered so crucial that American military chiefs referred to it only as Special Project #1.
Four weeks after they’d arrived, on Tuesday, March 3rd, all 140 volunteers were called to attend a meeting where they’d first hear from their mission commander. In fact, it’d be the first time they’d find out who, exactly, their mission commander was. To a man, they were shocked speechless when, exactly on time, the doors opened, and in walked one of aviation’s greatest heroes - none other than the world-famous, legendary and notorious daredevil, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle.
For Chase Nielsen, the fun stopped then and there. If any of the other men hadn’t yet figured out that the Armed Forces considered their mission vitally important, now they knew it for sure.
Straight from the era of Lindbergh, Rickenbacker and Earhart, James Harold Doolittle was an ace pilot, a hero of the skies. Raised in Nome, Alaska, where his father scurried after Gold Rush dreams, Jimmy grew up in a barren, lichen-covered boomtown filled with plywood shacks, transient prospectors, always-open saloons, lawyer con men and noisy whores; a Wild West ’showdown’ burg covered much of the year in slush. Street brawls were common, even among the kids; when Jimmy popped his first schoolmate in a fight and the boy’s nose started bleeding, “he thought he was dying, and I thought I had killed an Eskimo,” Doolittle remembered. “We both ran home to our mothers.” Even so, that he grew up to become one of the world’s great aerial cowboys isn’t too surprising.
Jimmy left Nome to study mine engineering at UC Berkeley, even spending a few weeks working deep down the Comstock Lode, when World War I was declared, and he signed up with the aviation department of the U.S. Signal Corps. It was an era when aeroplanes were first being put to military use - Germany’s “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen was just starting to get his worldwide fame as an ace pilot and marksman - and for those who wanted in on the cutting edge, it was the most glamorous and exciting area of the service . . . as well as the most death-defying. The state-of-the-art craft were made from flimsy wood and easily-ripped canvas; the pilot and passenger sat, with goggles, leather helmet and seat belt, out in the open air; there were few instruments, and the engines were about as powerful as a lawnmower. One of the key attractions of the many air shows of that time was the very real possibility of watching someone die.
On Jimmy’s first day of Corps school, in fact, just as he was taxiing to take off, two Curtiss Jennys collided in midair, killing one pilot and seriously injuring a student and instructor. Still, he was smitten: “A poor pilot is not necessarily a dangerous pilot as long as he remains within his limitations. And you find your limits in the air by getting closer and closer and closer and sometimes going beyond them and still getting out of it. If you go beyond and don’t get out of it, you haven’t learned your limitations, because you are dead.”
Pilots in those days saw airlines as the future itself; they wanted to convince American business, society and the military to start taking their dangerous obsession seriously. In 1922, Doolittle knew that transcontinental flights would one day unite the nation with cargo and passengers, and he wanted to show the American public exactly what it was missing. He took a DeHavilland 4 (a plane so notoriously fussy and difficult to handle that pilots nicknamed it ‘the flaming coffin’), removed all its excess weight, replaced the passenger seat with an extra gas tank, and installed a state-of-the-art coffee thermos, with straw. On September 4, 1922, he flew from Pablo Beach, Florida to San Diego, California in 22.5 hours, breaking the transcontinental speed record. After Babe Ruth, American’s greatest heroes in that era were its daredevil aviators and overnight, Doolittle became known throughout the country when the tabloids dubbed him ‘The Lone Pilot.’
Jimmy went on to break record after record in speed, endurance and maneuvers, regularly getting front-page coverage across the United States. He won the ‘Big Three’ (Schneider Cup, Bendix Trophy and Thompson Trophy), and even earned an aeronautical doctorate from MIT. “The thing I’m most proud of,” Doolittle said, however, “was being the first person to fly a plane without looking out the window, using just the ol’ instrumentation. I even designed a couple of instruments myself. Can you imagine flying without looking out the window? Pretty radical at the time! Most pilots today can fly using only instruments if they have to, like at night or in a storm. You can thank Jimmy next time you fly to Grandma’s house!”
In the service, Lt. Col. Doolittle inspired a tremendous following with his commanding presence, even though he stood a mere five feet, six inches tall. He reminded some of a powerful, charismatic bulldog; an unremittingly loyal and fearless bantam chief who’d never ask a subordinate to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. One of his Florida crew said, “We met Jimmy Doolittle, and within five minutes, we were his . . . we’d have followed him anywhere.”
Jimmy strode to the front of the room, faced the 140 volunteers, and began immediately: “The most important thing I have to tell you men is that the lives of many are going to depend on how well you keep this project to yourselves. Not only your lives, but the lives of others will be endangered because there are a lot of people working on this thing. Don’t talk about it with your wives, don’t even discuss it among yourselves. If you think you’ve guessed this mission, you’re wrong, but even so, don’t share your guesses. Don’t start any rumors and don’t pass any along. If anybody outside this project gets nosy, get his name and give it to me. The FBI will find out all about him.
“This is the toughest training you’ll ever have. You’ll be made to do things with a B-25 you never thought possible. It is inevitable that some of your planes will fall into the hands of the enemy. If you have any doubts, drop out now. In fact, if there’s any worry at all, if you’ve got a wife, or some kids, it would be your duty to drop out. No one will ask any questions; no one will think less of you for it.”
None of the volunteers took Doolittle up on his offer.
At 3 o’clock in the morning on Monday, March 23rd, telephones rang out across the base. The men were told to immediately get their gear, load their planes, and fly to Alameda Fields, just outside of San Francisco. They were also ordered to keep practicing their hedge-hopping along the way, so when he got to San Francisco, Ted Lawson flew under the Bay Bridge.
It turned out that Alameda was a Navy airstrip, and the Army crews landed only to have know-nothing sailors take control of their precious bombers. Every gas tank was drained, and the Mitchells were winched aboard the Navy’s brand-new carrier, the USS Hornet, where they were tied down to the decks and had their wheels chocked. The airmen were then shown to quarters inside this behemoth (which was 800 feet long, housing 2,200 sailors and 600 fighter crew), only to discover that, regardless of rank, they’d be sleeping on rickety cots while the sailors had berths. A spacious cabin, originally designed for the Admiral’s use, had even been turned into an Army dormitory. Green Hornet’s 28 year-old pilot Dean Hallmark, who would be executed by firing squad for taking part in this assignment, said:
We found out soon enough that you had to remember exactly what you did to get to where you were, or you’d get lost in the halls. There was absolutely no privacy, and everything was done in whistle codes - when to get up, when to eat, when to not smoke because of refueling, when to bring bedding out to air - and it took us more than a few days to get used to it. We could never get used to the smell below, though, which was a mix of bilge water and unwashed sailors, Bay Rum and Witch Hazel, which the Navy used for heat rash and fungus.
So if the weather was OK, we slept on deck, next to the Island, every chance we could.
Still, no one below the rank of Ski York knew a thing about where they were going or what they were doing. The level of secrecy remained extraordinary, as it had to be. The mission would require the carrier Hornet, the cruisers Nashville and Vincennes, the oiler Cimarron, and the destroyers Gwin, Meredith, Monssen and Grayson, all traveling from San Francisco, to meet in the middle of the Pacific with the carrier Enterprise, cruisers Northampton and Salt Lake City, oiler Sabine and destroyers Balch, Benham, Ellet and Fanning. As Doolittle had told the volunteers in his introduction, the lives of thousands of men depended on the enemy not having a clue about this armada and its only task: Ferrying the bombers to their launch site. With its cargo of Army planes, the Hornet couldn’t defend itself, and in an ocean teeming with Japanese cruisers, destroyers, carriers and submarines, it would need these fifteen other ships for refueling and protection.
It was the first time in American history that the Army and the Navy had coordinated a joint mission together, and within minutes of leaving the shore on April 2nd, tensions ran high. The two forces were long-standing rivals, as anyone who’s ever served in either (or just attended an Army/Navy game) well knows. The pilots thought they were surrounded by lazy, know-nothing swabbies, while the sailors thought they’d been invaded by arrogant mama’s boys. Fights and bickering broke out from every quarter - that is, until the Hornet cleared the Golden Gate Bridge, the boson’s whistle sounded, and Captain Mitscher announced: “The target of this task force is Tokyo. The Army is going to bomb Japan, and we’re going to get them as close to the enemy as we can. This is a chance for all of us to give the Japs a dose of their own medicine.”
Cheers and screams of excitement broke out across the decks of every ship, and both services united, at every level, to strike a blow of revenge - using the same attack strategy that Japan had used against America just four months before at Pearl Harbor. The sailors so admired the flight crews for what they were about to do, in fact, that they even insisted on switching cabins; the Army fliers could now have the cushy bunks instead of the stiff, squealing cots.
The bomber crews were allowed to pick their targets, and what everyone first wanted was to take out Emperor Hirohito and the Imperial Palace. Doolittle, though, had seen first-hand how, when the Luftwaffe had struck Buckingham Palace in the Blitz, all of England had united in common cause against the Germans. He immediately and strongly vetoed that idea, and later in life, he’d consider this one of the best and most important decisions he’d ever made.
As the days passed, the thrill of their mission’s landmark importance wore off, and thoughts of what they were really heading into grew in the airmen’s minds. They knew Japan was the world’s greatest military power. They’d be striking at the very heart of its territory, and they’d be met with a barrage of instantly-launched fighters on their tails and antiaircraft fire at their nose. No one could imagine a more dangerous assignment. One other thing Doolittle hadn’t told anybody was his professional estimation of their chances: Fifty-fifty.
Harold Spatz thought about all the training that had led up to this - shooting skeet from the back of a pickup in Pendleton, targeting floating balloons from the Bat’s turret in Florida. It was all like a game, like going to the county fair every spring growing up. Now, he’d be shooting at men, and they’d be shooting back at him.
This voyage was the first time most of the Army crew had ever even been at sea, and they spent many days green-gill sick. Mechanical troubles with the B-25s were endless: Spark plugs failed, hydraulic lines clogged, fuel tanks leaked, an entire engine had to be overhauled. Under the Golden Gate, these boys had thought themselves sailing into history. Now, in the middle of the Pacific, those hopes sank into a grim determination.
At a briefing, one of the men had asked Jimmy what he’d do if they crash-landed in Japan. His reply: “Each pilot is in command of his own plane when we leave the carrier. He is responsible for the decision he makes for his own plane and his own crew. If you’re separated, each one of you will have to decide for yourself what you will do. Personally, I know exactly what I’m going to do. I don’t intend to be taken prisoner. If my plane is crippled beyond any possibility of fighting or escaping, I’m going to bail my crew out and then drive it, full throttle, into any target I can find where the crash will do the most damage.”
If anyone hadn’t yet understood that this was a suicide mission, now they knew it all too well.
It’s hard to imagine that there was once a time when the United States was not the world’s dominant superpower. 1942, however, was a year when the nation was just emerging from the worst economic crisis in its history, and Americans were beaten-down, even timid, especially when it came to events on the world stage. The U.S. had recently joined Britain and Russia in the fight against Germany and Italy, but the Allied news, so far, was bleak. They had lost every single battle. Hitler now had pretty much all of Europe under his dominion, and was storming through Russia; Rommel, with incredible speed, had become the overlord of North Africa. The Axis seemed headed for unparalleled victory.
The most powerful nation of that time, indisputably, was Japan. After a string of lightening-fire conquests in the space of a little over four months, the Land of the Rising Sun extended across much of China, from Burma through Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines, all the way to Polynesia . . . with no end in sight. The week of the Hornet’s departure from San Francisco, in fact, was the same week that the last American forces in the Philippines were captured and sent on the Bataan death march. Japan had become the ruler of all Asia, and its leader, Hirohito, descended directly from God, seemed unstoppable, invincible.
The only time anyone had ever even tried to attack Japan itself, in fact, was 700 years earlier, when warlord Kublai Khan had sent an armada from China. That great Mongol fleet was destroyed by a typhoon, and ever since, the Japanese believed their homelands were protected by a supernatural force, a kamikaze, a ‘divine wind.’ By the will of Heaven itself, Nippon was blessed, and its manifest destiny was to send its God-given culture across the globe, civilizing the barbarians to Japanese ways.
Pearl Harbor, Japan’s greatest 20th century military achievement was, oddly enough, inspired by a novel, The Great Pacific War, written in 1925 by Hector E. Bywater, ‘Far East Correspondent’ for The London Daily Telegraph. Translated into Japanese, Bywater’s tale of simultaneous attacks became extremely popular with the cadets at Tokyo’s Naval War College, notably Isoroku Yamamato - who, in 1939, became the Admiral in charge of the entire Japanese fleet. Within two years, Japan’s dream of empire had become all too real; its ferocious military was now moving to inexorably broaden the nation’s territory across the entire Pacific. The only nation powerful enough to stand in its way was the United States. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Admiral Yamamoto gave the orders for “Operation Z” - a bombardment of Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong and Hawaii - that would bring The Great Pacific War, his literary inspiration, to life. Commandeered by Mitsuo Fuchida, 135 dive bombers, 40 torpedo bombers, 104 high-level bombers and 81 fighters took 1 hour and 45 minutes to destroy 7 battleships, 11 support vessels and 227 planes at Pearl Harbor, killing over 2,400 Americans.
Immediately after this historic declaration of war, Franklin Delano Roosevelt called Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Army Air Force Chief of Staff Henry Arnold, and Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King to a meeting at the White House. What the President wanted, straight away, was a retaliatory strike against the Japanese - a bombing of Tokyo itself. American military power at the time, however, was nowhere near the force of Japan’s, and to the chiefs, a raid on the home islands was just inconceivable. The Army didn’t have airfields close enough to use land-based bombers, and the Navy couldn’t get carriers near enough to the islands to launch their fighters before being detected and attacked. Roosevelt insisted it must happen - for the sake of the United States and for the sake of the entire Allied cause, there had to be a stirring victory, now - and he hounded the chiefs with this demand week after week.
Reluctantly, they began to discuss strategy with their staffs.
It was the captain of a submarine, unbelievably enough, who came up with the answer. On January 10th, Francis Low timidly approached Admiral King, his notoriously impatient and tight-lipped boss. Low had been watching naval exercises in Norfolk, where the outlines of a carrier flight deck had been drawn across the airfields; would-be fighter pilots were practicing take-offs and landings within its lines. At one point, the shadow of a passing Army bomber fell across the phantom stripes, and Low wondered: Why couldn’t the Army Air Force design long-range bombers that could take off from the Navy’s carriers and attack Japan? King sent Low on to Donald Duncan, the Navy’s air operations officer, and after making some inquiries with Army techs and doing some calculations, Duncan realized that a North American B-25 Mitchell, modified with extra gas tanks, could theoretically take off from a carrier and make a 2,000 mile flight.
There was no way, however, that those sixteen-ton bombers could return to land on any carrier in the American fleet.
Low and Duncan met with Army Air Force Chief Henry Arnold, and it turned out that Hap (his nickname since he never went anywhere without a grin on his face) had been thinking along exactly the same lines. Arnold was tremendously excited about this state-of-the-art plan of attack, but he knew that it would require an unusually talented, brilliant and brave-to-the-point-of-insane pilot to engineer such a mission. Hap never thought for a moment, however, that Jimmy Doolittle, a 45 year-old family man long past his glory days, would ever want to take part in the actual combat itself.
Doolittle, still bitter about never being called to action in World War I, had his own ideas.
While twenty-four Mitchells were being modified to Duncan’s spec, Doolittle had target sites mapped, the local Tokyo weather monitored, and a corps of 140 men assembled (pilots, navigators, bombardiers, engineer-gunners, armorers, radio operators, mechanics and support personnel) at Eglin Field, Florida, to produce twenty-four crew, of which sixteen - eighty men - would actually fly.
That corps of 140 volunteers was now heading straight towards Japan.
Task Force 16, the giant armada of carriers, cruisers, oilers and destroyers, sped rapidly across the Pacific, hoping to get to a launch site within four hundred miles of Tokyo. Any hint of their presence would mean an immediate Japanese attack - and the destruction of much of what was left of the United States fleet in the wake of Pearl Harbor. In spite of all of the Americans’ secrecy, though, the Japanese were in fact able to intercept radio messages between two of the ships. They knew U.S. Navy fighters were of small range, and so calculated when the fleet would arrive within 300 miles of their homelands, and made ready their defense. To avoid detection by Japanese subs, however, Task Force 16 took a zigzag course across the Pacific. With the armada observing strict radio silence, no more messages were intercepted, and the estimated arrival date came and went. The Japanese decided the Americans must have other targets in mind.
In turn, what U.S. military intelligence hadn’t uncovered was that Japan had stationed a flotilla of fishing barges 600 miles off its coastline, radio-equipped picket boats that were always on the lookout for enemy forces. The Japanese knew that the Americans were ignorant of this line of defense, and it would be Task Force 16, unfortunately, that discovered it.
Hubert B. Gibbons, a Yoeman First Class in charge of the lookout station on the USS Vincennes, reported what happened on April 18, 1942 at 0300:
Practically all the lookouts were youngsters, seamen second class, and our ship never having experienced actual combat action, it was difficult for them to conceive the gravity of our present situation. One lad, only a few months in service, was more prone to want to rest his eyes than the others. He had been warned twice for taking his eyes from his binoculars to rest, and upon the third occasion when he backed away and dropped his head down to rest his eyes, I became much concerned. I grasped him by the collar and belt, lifted him from his stool and shoved him back across the station and assumed his place.
The first thing I saw, looking across to the port and across the bow of the Hornet and ahead of the cruiser stationed on her port bow, was the masthead and cross arm of a vessel, not a part of our task force. I immediately opened the circuit of my telephone, and started talking, giving the sighting with relative bearing and approximate range. The flag bridge talker started repeating the alarm, and signalmen started running up a flag signal to our task force, giving the message. Almost immediately the cruiser on the Hornet’s port bow directed her guns on the bearing given and opened fire. The target just exploded.
The fleet veered an immediate 90 degrees to avoid detection from any other enemy craft - but just as suddenly, the weather turned against them. Thick clouds kept the Navy scout planes from being able to seek ahead for Japanese boats and subs. The seasick Army engineers and mechanics worked overtime against violent wind and churning seas. Rain beat down and the waves rose to thirty feet, soaking the decks. One seamen slipped directly into the line of a propeller; his arm would have to be amputated.
At 0738, lookouts on the Hornet spotted the Nitto Maru, a Japanese picket boat just ten miles away. Cruiser Nashville opened fire, dive bombers from the Enterprise joined in, and finally the Maru was sunk, but not before it could send a radio warning to Japan’s Fifth Fleet.
Seven hundred miles from Tokyo, three hundred miles from the planned launch site, the mission had been spotted by the enemy, and the Japanese knew exactly where they were. Immediately the Mitchell crews pulled themselves and their planes together, and the Hornet turned directly into a 27-knot wind.
The pilots had been told by Bull Halsey that “if there are any problems with your craft, if you have any trouble starting up or revving to full bore, you’re off the mission. To make way for the next crew, the Navy has orders to push your craft overboard.”
They were also told that their bombers could take off from a carrier, but none of them, until that moment, had actually done it. Now, they’d find out if in fact this submariner’s idea would actually work.
At 0815, a Navy flight deck officer whirled a checkered flag. Doolittle turned down his wing flaps and revved his engines to full power. He had five hundred feet of taxi space before him, and only six feet of clearance between his right wing and the island tower. The Hornet was awash in choppy seas, the downpour of rain was relentless, the deck rocked in every direction, and the crosswinds turned bitter. Just as the deck crews pulled the chocks from the wheels, the carrier tilted harshly, and the end of its runway now pointed straight into the sea. Ted Lawson, next in line, said:
We watched Doolittle like hawks, wondering what the wind would do to him, and whether he could take off in the little run toward the bow. If he couldn’t, we couldn’t . . .
Doolittle’s plane took off. He had yards to spare. He hung his ship almost straight up on its props until we could see the whole top of his B-25. Then he leveled off, and I watched him come around in a tight circle and shoot right over our heads.
The entire convoy cheered in relief and immediately, Lawson revved his plane to full bore . . . but his left engine kept cutting out. He kept trying, but nothing seemed to work. The deckhands approached, ready to toss the Duck overboard, when the rotors finally kicked in, and he was good to go. Every four minutes, a plane nosed into position, gunned its engines and peeled from the runway, fourteen B-25s followed Jimmy and Ted’s lead, taking off for the first time from a rocking carrier without even a minor hitch. The moment the last plane was in the air, the armada’s ships reversed course and headed straight back to Hawaii, fleeing what was sure to be an imminent Japanese attack.
As the fleet and bombers sped in opposite directions, what they didn’t know, having maintained strict radio silence, was that Doolittle’s squadron still had no place to land.
Since the B-25s couldn’t return to a carrier deck, George Marshall and Hap Arnold had tried to get permission for them to at least refuel in Russia. Stalin, however, was in the middle of being invaded by Hitler, and so had maintained neutrality with Japan to protect his Pacific flank. Allowing America’s retaliatory forces anything at all would violate that neutrality.
Instead, Marshall and Arnold turned to Vinegar Joe Stilwell, chief of the China-Burma-India command, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese nationalist forces. Knowing of a history of leaks to the Japanese, Marshall and Arnold decided to leave the Generalissimo and his officers in the dark about as much as possible. At first Chiang refused their vague request; Marshall and Arnold threatened; he delayed, but at the very last minute, he finally relented and allowed for refueling stops in Chuchow, 200 miles south of Shanghai.
The Generalissimo’s lack of cooperation was due to his certainty, like Stalin’s, that providing a landing spot for Americans after they’ve bombed the home islands could only lead to a massive Japanese retaliation. He’d already spent five long years battling Tojo alone, and he knew all too well the kind of carnage his enemies could unleash. Even he, however, could not imagine just how vicious the actual Japanese response would be.
After the takeoff, Admiral Halsey was supposed to have routed a message to Kai-shek to turn on the honing beacons for the landing fields. In the skirmish with the Nitto Maru, however, he never did. This oversight may have had little ultimate effect on the mission since, as one airman recalled, “Even before we took off, we knew we had a fuel problem. With the task force spotted, we would have to fly maybe four hundred miles farther than planned. Chances of reaching those airstrips in China were worse than bad.”
To save as much gas as possible, the sixteen-plane squadron flew at 150 mph, expecting to reach the Japanese coastline around noon. Ten would strike the capital, while the other six were targeting war-industry compounds (steel mills, ammo stockades, plane factories, shipyards and petroleum plants) in Kanagaway, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe.
Six hundred miles from shore, they were spotted by a patrol plane who reported back to headquarters. Japanese military intelligence, however, decided that this information couldn’t possibly be accurate.
April 18, 1942 was a bright, hot Saturday across the western Pacific. Much of Tokyo was out enjoying the unseasonably warm sunshine, doing a little cycling, shopping downtown, watching a baseball game in the new stadium, even getting in some sunbathing in the parks and along the coast. The city at that moment hardly seemed a capital of empire; though there were a few grand buildings (such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Palace), most of Tokyo was a sprawling broth of districts lined with small, two-story homes and shops of black wood frames or red brick, dotted with white paper screens. Since the city had just spent eight years rebuilding itself after being completely destroyed by earthquake and fire, the entire metropolis looked new, and fresh, and clean.
The sunbathers on the beach were the first to see the small, snub-nosed planes. Painted OD (olive drab), they soared just above the treetops, seeming to barely miss the power lines and shining new radio towers. Everyone just assumed they were Japan’s famous Navy fighters, showing off their great skill with the latest daredevil stunts. Many, especially the children, looked up, and waved.
One businessman, standing at a railway platform in central Tokyo, turned to a fellow commuter and said, “It looks real, doesn’t it? Just like a foreign aircraft breaking through Japanese air defenses. I guess the Imperial forces want to impress the people that they are fully prepared.”
The planes got in closer, passing right over the Imperial Palace, and that’s when all below could see the gleaming red, white and blue emblem of stars at the wingtips - gleaming white stars, instead of the blood red suns of Japan. Just as the citizens of Tokyo realized that these couldn’t be their nation’s planes, the bombs began to fall.
Cruising above at a mere thirty feet, Doolittle pulled up to 1200 so his bombardier could get to work. Decorated with such messages as “I don’t want to set the world on fire - just Tokyo” and “You’ll get a BANG out of this,” the five-hundred pound bombs and thousand-pound incendiaries struck target after target with tremendous accuracy. Between excellent intelligence gathering, good mapping, clear weather, broad daylight and low altitude, Doolittle’s men couldn’t have hoped for a more successful attack.
Jacob DeShazer, sitting in the Bat’s nose, had a clear view of all Tokyo, even when the plane lifted to bombing altitude. Like just about everyone else on this mission, he hated the Japs for what they’d done at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines. Still, as he clicked his control switches and calmly announced, again and again, “bombs away . . . bombs away . . . bombs away,” he couldn’t help thinking of the people down below, the children, the families. He could see them clearly.
Jacob did his duty.
The planes kept coming in, from every direction. Explosion after explosion rang out across the harbor, through the manufacturing districts, across the fields of power plants. There was silence, and then the unmistakable ack-ack of antiaircraft fire, and the roaring whine of defense fighters taking flight.
The Raiders were such a surprise, however, that not one single American plane was shot down by the Japanese on their own turf. No radar detected them. No fighter could stop them. No gunner could bring them down.
The planes finished with their targets and headed southwest. Crouching in his dorsal bubble, Harold Spatz was the only Bat crewman to notice a squadron of eight Japanese Zeroes right on their tail. He saw the glints of their weapons being fired, and started sighting them in his own .50 caliber machine. But it was too late; the Bat was much faster than the Zeroes, and they soon fell out of visual range.
The air raid sirens began to scream. Black plumes of smoke rose in columns across the city. Fire engines roared through the suburbs, and the deafening explosions from the bombs continued to shake through the streets.
It was just five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the chickens were coming home. Tokyo’s chief of antiaircraft defense would be forced to commit suicide.
Now, however, Doolittle and his men had to reach Allied territory.
The navigators listened intently for their honing beacons, but that side of the plan had completely fallen apart, and they continued heading due west on a course to Chuchow, even though they knew they didn’t have enough gas to make it. Doolittle’s co-pilot, Richard E. Cole, a 27-year old from Dayton, remembered: “After we left the target area we headed for open sea, taking a southwest course to the southernmost tip of Japan. As we headed out over the China Sea, Hank [the navigator] estimated we would run out of gas 135 miles from the Chinese coast. Because of this we began making preparations for ditching. Without our knowledge the good Lord had fixed us with a brisk tailwind. We flew at low level and occasionally could see sharks basking in the sun - which made the ditching very unappealing.”
Prevailing winds in East Asia blow from west to east, but at the exact moment when the American planes had to exit enemy airspace, the air itself reversed course. This time, the ‘divine wind’ was not in Japan’s favor. As Doolittle himself would later say, “Luck is something that comes after you’ve taken every precaution to avoid the necessity for luck.”
As the gas gauges fell to empty and the engines began to sputter, one by one, the pilots pulled their planes up as high as they dared, and the crew bailed out, pulling ripcords into the unknown. Instead of the clear dawn that the mission planners had expected, they were dropping at 180 miles an hour in the middle of the night, through heavy thunderstorms and dense fog. Instead of nationalist territory allied with America, they were now landing into war-zone China, much of it occupied by the Japanese. Navigator Thomas Griffin, a 25 year-old from Green Bay, Wisconsin:
After fifteen and a half hours in the air our motors gave the sputtering sound we had long been waiting for. The bottom hatch was opened and one by one we eased down through the black hole into nothing.
Jumping at night and in a storm is an experience one will never forget. There were times during that descent from ten thousand feet when I thought I had missed the earth. The wind currents at the time must have been violent because I remember just being able to see my chute. It would be level with me and sort of fold up. Then it would swing up over my head, fill up, and come down on the other side, once again spilling its air. However, it hung up on the tops of some bamboo trees and I was lowered to earth with the greatest of ease.
In the middle of a raging thunderstorm, Ted Lawson tried landing the Ruptured Duck on a beach, but suddenly both engines went dead in midair, and the plane crashed into the water at 110 miles an hour. Lawson, the copilot and the navigator were thrown out of the cockpit; the bombardier flew through the plastic nose, and the gunner was knocked unconscious. All five made it ashore, barely alive, only to turn and watch their beloved Duck sinking beneath the waves.
Both of the navigator’s shoulders were broken; Lawson’s left leg had had great patches of flesh torn away, with bone above and below the knee exposed, and most of his teeth were knocked out. Since the only doctor anywhere nearby was Japanese, Chinese villagers secreted them at night to a small, out-of-the-way hospital, which didn’t even have aspirin, much less something that might help the severely damaged leg - though the nurses could offer cigarettes. Fortunately enough, a gunner from another crew - the only Raider trained as a physician - was also brought to that hospital.
Night after night, the Americans listened as the Japanese bombed the neighboring villages, always just a hair’s breadth away from being discovered. Doc White tried to stop the gangrene in Ted’s leg from spreading, but it was too late. “Doc had a silver saw,” Lawson remembered. “It made a strange, faraway, soggy sound as he sawed through the bones of my leg. Except for the tugging fear that I was coming back too soon [from the novocaine], the actual amputation was almost as impersonal to me as watching a log being sawed in half.”
Three times, White had to transfuse blood from his own veins into Lawson’s, saving his life.
Jimmy Doolittle landed in the middle of a well-fertilized rice paddy, and knocked on a nearby farmhouse, but no one answered. He found a building down the road - which turned out to be the local morgue - and spent the night there, with a corpse.
The next morning, a farmer brought him to the local military station. Jimmy told the local Chinese authorities that he was an American and had parachuted out of a plane, but no one believed him. He took them to where he’d landed, but the parachute was now gone, and they went to the farmhouse, but the farmer and his wife said they heard nothing the night before, not even Doolittle’s pounding. The major was about to have the lying spy taken into custody when a soldier suddenly came running out of the farmhouse . . . the parachute in his arms, proving Doolittle’s story.
Eventually Jimmy was taken to the district capital, where Chekiang province’s governor directed his forces into search-and-rescue operations for the missing Americans. The rest of Doolittle’s own crew arrived at the governor’s that very afternoon. From there, the Chinese (along with Baptist missionary John Birch, namesake for the ultraconservative John Birch Society) secreted them to safety aboard a riverboat, passing right by a Japanese patrol. The search parties were unsuccessful, however, and when Doolittle asked for a status report, he was told that most of his men had died or were captured, and that all but one of his squadron’s planes had been destroyed.
He’d lost all his planes; his men were all dead. Doolittle confided to the rest of his crew that, when he got back to the U.S., the mission’s utter failure could only mean he’d be court-martialed out of the service and into a prison term at Leavenworth.
In fact, his men were alive. All but one of the other B-25s landed in occupied China, and sixty-four crewmen began a trek to Chuchow, and then onto the nationalist capital of Chungking. Navy intelligence officers had taught them to say Lushu hoo megwa fugi, which was supposed to mean “I am an American,” but they’d been taught the wrong dialect, and no one in the province where they landed understood it. The Chinese, however, were thrilled when they finally understood that the Americans had bombed what they called ‘the land of the dwarfs.’ Traveling undercover, evading Japanese patrols by at times just a matter of yards, missionaries, guerillas, and students who could speak a little English ferried the American boys across China on ponies, trucks, rickshaws, and even sedan chairs.
After a well-lubricated dinner with Generalissimo and Madame Chiang, the men were flown back home, where each was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. Doolittle, instead of a court-martial, received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt at the White House; the highest honor America can give. In Alaska, the headlines blared: “Nome Town Boy Makes Good!”
Task Force 16, meanwhile, had returned to Pearl Harbor in seven days after the downing of the Nitto Maru, much of that time running on full speed. “The Japs chased us all the way home, of course,” Halsey remembered. “Whenever we tracked their search planes with our radar, I was tempted to unleash our fighters, but I knew it was more important not to reveal our position than to shoot down a couple of scouts. They sent a task force after us; their submarines tried to intercept us; and even some of their carriers joined the hunt; but with the help of foul weather and a devious course, we eluded them.”
The Hornet went on to fight at the Battle of Midway, but was lost to an overwhelming air attack at the Battle of Santa Cruz. Her successor is today a museum, anchored at Alameda Fields, the jumping-off point for this great moment in history.
While their colleagues were happily celebrating, the planes Green Hornet and Bat Out of Hell, meanwhile, had landed in heavily Japanese-controlled territory. The Hornet’s navigator, 25 year-old Chase Nielsen from Hyrum, Utah, remembered the crash:
It was a fast and very hard landing. As the aircraft hit the water, I heard Dieter scream. I saw the water pour up over the nose and then all went black momentarily. . . . When I came to, I was standing in water up to my waist and was bleeding from gashes on my head and arms. My nose hurt and I knew it was broken. . . . I climbed up through the hole, inflated my Mae West and joined Bob Meder, the co-pilot, on top of the slowly submerging plane. . . . the severity of the situation suddenly came home to me.
Waves twelve to fifteen feet high towered and slapped us viciously; it was dark now and our plane was sinking rapidly. All of us were bleeding and I could see that Dieter and Fitzmaurice were in very bad shape. Dieter was incoherent and evidently had been badly crushed on impact when the brittle Plexiglas nose slammed into the water. Fitzmaurice had a deep hole in his forehead where he must have struck something in the rear compartment. . . .
Dieter slipped off the wing. Dean grabbed for him but missed. At the same moment, a huge wave washed the rest of us off the plane, which was now completely under water. Meder, seeing Fitz’s condition, grabbed him as he was washed away. Each of us yelled to try to locate each other in the dark but in a few minutes the voices of the others were out of range and I was alone.
When Nielsen finally made it to dry land the next morning, he found the bodies of Bill Dieter and Donald Fitzmaurice, Hornet’s 30 year-old bombardier and 23 year-old gunner, washed ashore. He and the other heavily-wounded survivors, along with the five members of Bat Out of Hell, would eventually be captured by the Japanese. One, who wanted anonymity, said:
Everyone going out swore they’d rather die in battle than be taken as a POW. When the Japs got us, I thought we were losers. I thought if I get out of this and get home, everyone will think I’m just a failure.
Emotionally, it was the worst thing that ever happened in my life. For the first time, I was completely out of control. Everybody felt that. Even in solitary, you could hear some of the others crying late at night.
Their ordeal, in fact, was just beginning.
Plane 8, with 32 year-old operations officer Ski York in command, had mechanical troubles and was burning fuel at a tremendous rate. After the incendiaries were dropped, York noted his gauges and knew that if he headed for Chuchow, the plane would go down in the shark-infested waters of the East China Sea. Instead, he ignored orders and turned northwest, to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. He found a small military field, landed, and he and his crew were immediately taken into custody. Due to Stalin’s neutrality with Japan, they were ‘interned,’ and treated like prisoners of war.
Like the crewmen captured by the Japanese, their part of this story was far from over.
News of the Tokyo Raid spread rapidly across the country through radio and the tabloids. When asked where the bombers had launched, FDR, not wanting to reveal the Army-planes-on-a-Navy-carrier strategy, said “from our new base in Shangri-La.” This made the whole story even more romantic, exciting and mysterious. It was the first time in many years that America had something to be really proud of, it was the first big American victory of World War II, and many remember to this day the moment they heard that ‘our boys’ had successfully attacked Japan - especially the many Americans who had feared the Allied cause was doomed. Doolittle and his astounding victory gave the nation a new reason to hope.
Within a year’s time, the now world-famous Raiders could read Ted Lawson’s best-selling memoirs, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and see Cary Grant spying from a submarine on behalf of their mission in Paramount’s Destination Tokyo. The following year, they could watch Lawson’s book brought to the screen by MGM, with Van Johnson as Ted and Spencer Tracy as Doolittle. For years, America just couldn’t get enough of the dramatic story brought home by their first World War II heroes; for decades, Lawson’s book was required reading for the nation’s schoolchildren.
The amazing Jimmy Doolittle would finish out his war years as Commanding General of the 12th Air Force in North Africa, Commanding General of the 15th Air Force in Italy, Commanding General of the 8th Air Force in England, and Commanding General of the 8th Air Force in Okinawa. While in Europe, Doolittle did not get along well with his new boss Eisenhower, but he became great friends with the wildly eccentric George Patton. One of Jimmy’s biographers reported that “Georgie would stalk up and down the big living room of Doolittle’s [London] suite entertaining them all with his stories. Patton’s first love was probably his ridiculous pearl-handed revolvers, but his second was the hunting knife he always carried with him. His constant fear was that this knife might somehow become dull. While telling the most outrageous stories of his cavalry days, or what his tanks would do once the Navy put them ashore, he would be constantly sharpening the knife on a whetstone he kept with him. Doolittle liked his exuberant humor, chuckled at his flamboyancy and relaxed under the stream of his colorful invective, delivered in a high, squeaky voice.”
The enraged Japanese military command, meanwhile, took an extraordinary vengeance on the Chinese who’d helped the Raiders. They destroyed the Chuchow airfield, demolished the district’s American church missions, desecrated the Christian graveyards, and for three months, strafed the province with over 600 bombing runs, ultimately slaughtering 250,000 people. Marauding forces pillaged every family with any possible link to Doolittle’s crew; “they killed my three sons,” one remembered. “They killed my wife. They drowned my grandchildren in a well.” Discovering a farmer who’d helped one of the pilots, soldiers wrapped him in a blanket, soaked it in kerosene, and forced his wife to set her husband on fire.
The captured survivors of Green Hornet and Bat Out of Hell were shipped to Tokyo and placed in the hands of Japanese military police, the notorious Kempei Tai. Doolittle assumed the Japanese would treat their prisoners-of-war under Geneva Conventions, but Japan was in fact not a signatory, and co-pilot Bob Hite, a 22 year-old from Odell, Texas, remembered what happened:
We were bothered by bugs, rats and lice which bit us continually until finally our faces and hands swelled out of proportion from the bites. We slept on the floor . . . our only sanitary facility was a small bucket in the corner which was emptied periodically, usually only after we complained because it was overflowing.
For the first 120 days after we were captured none of us was given the opportunity to shave or bathe. We received three meals daily. For breakfast we received about one-half pint of wormy, watery rice. For lunch and dinner we were generally given some bread which usually amounted to about five ounces. We were given one-half cup of water per man per day.
Day after day would go by where, as Nielsen said, “we had nothing to do and nothing is the hardest thing in the world to do.” Each came up with a mental exercise to pass away the hours: Nielsen built a house, from scratch, in his head, while Hite designed a working ranch, navigator George Barr, from Brooklyn, manufactured an elaborate neon sign, and bombardier Jacob DeShazer remembered days from his Oregon childhood and composed poems.
For over three months, the Americans were kept in solitary confinement, starved, dehydrated, and regularly tortured to confess details of their mission. They were strung up on a rack, until they passed out. They were forced to drink gallons of water and then lie on the floor as five guards would jump on their stomachs. Their mouths and noses would be covered in towels and they’d be brought to the point of near-death by being drowned with buckets of pouring water. Navigator Chase Nielsen remembered one long night:
They pushed me over to a wall and raised my arms above my head. There was a stout wooden peg in the wall that I hadn’t noticed before. They boosted me up and hung me on the peg by the chain of the handcuffs. When they let me go my toes just barely touched the floor but not enough to ease the strain on my arms.
In a few minutes, the pain in my wrists was so intense that I was almost sick to my stomach. Then stabs of pain began to shoot in my chest and shoulders and my left arm that had been injured in the airplane crash was swollen and looked like it was getting blood poison in it. I don’t know how long I hung there before I passed out.
Finally, papers from the wreck of one of the bombers were produced, the torture sessions were ended, and the men were made to sign what turned out to be ‘confessions’ (in untranslated Japanese) that they had bombed schools and hospitals instead of military targets. They were transferred to Shanghai, sent to a mock trial, and convicted of war crimes.
Green Hornet pilot Dean Hallmark was a 28 year-old Lieutenant from a small town in Texas; for his husky build, big laugh and in-your-face personality, he was nicknamed “Jungle Jim.” He was so weak and delirious by that time that he had to attend his trial carried in on a stretcher. Bat Out of Hell pilot Lieutenant William Farrow was 23 years-old, from South Carolina; Bat gunner Sergeant Harold Spatz, of Lebo, Kansas, was all of 21.
These three men were allowed to send letters home to their families, which the Japanese promised would be delivered by the Red Cross. Dean Hallmark wrote to his mother in Dallas that “I hardly know what to say. They have just told me that I am liable to execution. I can hardly believe it . . . I am a prisoner of war and I thought I would be taken care of until the end of the war . . . I did everything that the Japanese have asked me to do and tried to cooperate with them because I knew that my part in the war was over.” Harold Spatz wrote his widowed father that “if I have inherited anything since I became of age, I will give it to you, and Dad, I want you to know that I love you and may God bless you. I want you to know that I died fighting for my country like a soldier.”
The men were then marched to three wooden crosses in the First Cemetery of Shanghai. They were forced to kneel; their wrists were tied to the crosses. White cloths were draped over their faces; black marks were etched on the cloth at the center of their foreheads. They were executed by a six-man firing squad.
The men were told their ashes would also be sent to their families, but this didn’t happen, and the boxes of remains, deliberately mislabeled to cover up their wrongful deaths, were discovered in Shanghai’s International Funeral Home at the end of the war. Someone, however, was able to figure out that these were the ashes of Tokyo Raiders, and today they are interred at Arlington.
When Ski York and the crew of Plane 8 landed just outside Vladivostok, they expected to be allowed to refuel and then immediately rejoin their fellow Raiders in China. Instead, they were interned by the Red Army and sent by train to Penza, 300 miles due south of Moscow. There they were forbidden to leave the house, always guarded by three Soviet ‘companions.’ In 1942, they were sent to Okhansk, a village outside of Molotov, and were no longer guarded, but were still left in limbo, living the life of forced exiles. The American military attaché made a few visits, and got word back to Washington that the men were bored, and couldn’t the Soviets find them something to do to help the Allied cause?
Nothing came of this request. In desperation, Ski got a Russian-English dictionary from the local elementary school and the men jointly composed a letter . . . to Joseph Stalin. In it, they asked to be secretly released back to the Allied war effort, and if not that, at least moved to a warmer climate than Okhansk (where winters were commonly fifty degrees below zero) and given something useful to do. Amazingly, two months later, officers from the Red Army headquarters in Moscow arrived, told York his letter had been received, and that their second two requests would be fulfilled. They were moved to Ashkabad, near Iran, to live in a mud house with a pit toilet, and given jobs overhauling damaged planes.
Almost immediately on arriving in Ashkabad, Ski met a gregarious neighbor named Kolya, a trader whose business took him across the Middle East (and who was especially generous with his supplies of Maxwell House and Spam). York begged Kolya to help them escape, and he finally agreed he’d try, but insisted they do it on his terms, and not try to cross the heavily-guarded Soviet borders on their own. Kolya put them in touch with a smuggler, Abdul Arram, who, through a series of trucks traveling in the dead of night, spirited the Americans into Iran, where the British consulate transported them to India, and the United States finally brought them back home.
The surviving five captives in Japanese hands were not executed. Their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment by Emperor Hirohito, they were moved to a prison just outside Nanjing, and again kept in solitary confinement. All of them contracted dysentery, beriberi, edema and kwashiorkor, and were plagued by constant diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, fever, and infections that would not heal. The months and months of incarceration, forced starvation, dehydration, and multiple untreated diseases emaciated these men to the level of human skeletons.
The sickest was Hornet co-pilot Robert Meder, a 25 year-old Lieutenant from Cleveland; he died on December 1, 1943. After his funeral, the others’ food was improved, and they were each given an extra blanket and a shared Bible to read. Jacob DeShazer, his skin covered in huge boils (he counted seventy-five of them at one point), his physique destroyed from malnutrition and dysentery, searched through its pages for an answer. “The way the Japanese treated me . . . I had to turn to Christ. No matter what they did to me, I prayed. I prayed for the strength to live. And I prayed for the strength, somehow, to find forgiveness for what they were doing to me.”
DeShazer’s prayers wouldn’t be answered for two years. A few days after Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945, the prisoners were released; ten days later, American paratroopers rescued them, and they were sent home. There they learned that many of their Tokyo comrades had gone on to further combat duty in Europe, North Africa, Asia and the South Pacific. Of the eighty original members of what was considered a suicide mission, sixty-one, by war’s end, were still alive.
DeShazer wrote a pamphlet, “I was a Prisoner of the Japanese,” which ended with his conversion to Christianity and the story of how he learned to forgive his torturers. During reconstruction, American missionaries in Japan distributed thousands of translated copies, and the local people wondered at DeShazer’s saintliness. In 1948, Jacob and his wife returned to Japan to preach, and they were still there a few years later, working as missionaries, when a surprise visitor showed up. It was Mitsuo Fuchida, flight commander of the assault on Pearl Harbor. Fuchida had read DeShazer’s book, and was overcome; he immediately read the Bible, and converted to Christianity.
DeShazer spent some weeks with this one-time great enemy of the American people, and eventually Fuchida himself became a Christian evangelist, traveling the world to teach a message of forgiveness.
The last Tokyo Raider to come home alive was Lieutenant George Barr. He was a tall, pale, 25 year-old redhead, a native of Brooklyn with a New York accent. The Kempei Tai, finding him especially barbarian, treated George even more inhumanely than the others. That he got to the end of the War alive was a miracle, but his years as a POW left Barr physically exhausted and mentally drained. When liberation came, he was too weak to stand, or even eat solid food, and American doctors decided he was far too ill to travel back to the U.S.
Instead, George was hospitalized at the Grand Hotel de Pekin. His mental condition completely deteriorated, and he couldn’t understand that the war was over. He was diagnosed as mentally disturbed and psychotic. When he was physically recovered enough to travel and taken to an airport for the flight home, George thought he was still in Japanese custody, and tried to escape. Flown back to California in a straitjacket, his paranoid fantasies escalated. He tried to commit suicide, first by stabbing himself with a penknife, then by hanging himself from a heat lamp. George was straitjacketed again, and sent to a military hospital in Iowa. There he was lost in the Army’s bureaucracy in the War’s closing days, and appeared utterly lost psychologically as well.
A family friend tried tracking down George’s whereabouts, but couldn’t get an answer out of the Army. She finally had enough of the endless ‘official’ runaround, and wrote an angry letter to Doolittle. When Jimmy discovered that George had essentially become a ‘nonperson,’ without clothes or money or real medical care, he went ballistic. Immediately Barr got a new uniform, a retroactive promotion, $7,000 in back pay, and serious attention from a psychiatrist. Eventually he fully recovered, becoming a management analyst for the Armed Services, but died in 1957, at the mere age of 50.
Every year, on April 18th, the surviving Tokyo Raiders have a reunion. The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is home to a set of eighty silver goblets, with each man’s name inscribed rightside up and upside down. These cups are flown to each reunion, and after the men toast their colleagues, both the living and the dead, the cups of departed Raiders are set down, inverted.
In 1993, Jimmy Doolittle’s own cup was turned over. The daredevil-may-care flying ace, known for his risky, outrageous stunts, a man who called himself ‘a crackpot pilot,’ had lived to the ripe old age of 97.
Of the eighty men who dedicated their lives to this mission, thirty-three are still alive today.