The First Heroes
The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid, America’s First World War II Victory
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.