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The Doolittle Raid remembered

  • Published
  • By Col. Robert Rocco
  • 6th Medical Group commander
I'll admit it, I'm a history geek. I enjoy the black and white documentaries on the History Channel. Even as a young boy, I marveled at the accomplishments and bravery of the World War II generation.

In 1972, while living in California, I attended an air show and watched a fly-by of a B-25. The narrator explained that the pilot and crew of the B-25 would recreate the famous Doolittle Raid launched against Japan some 30 years earlier. I thought what those pilots were doing was cool and knew then that it must have taken guts to fly the original raid while enemy gunners had you in their sites.

I also saw the Blue Angels during that air show, but all I talked about for weeks after was that B-25 demonstration. I'm sure my dad, a former Army tank driver, couldn't wait for his then 8-year-old son to switch gears and talk about anything else. Now, as an old colonel, I look back on that day some 41 years ago and still think what that crew did over the skies of California was pretty cool.

What 16 crews did over Japan on April 18, 1942, was more than cool--it was incredible in every sense of the word.

Today, we casually do everything on our smart phones, stand in line for a double latte and more often than not, complain about something meaningless. Think back to what it must have been like 71 years ago! Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle and 79 fellow Airmen were sailing west on a mission to Japan on the aircraft carrier the USS Hornet. As they proceeded, they came across a fishing boat radioing Tokyo that a war ship was sailing west. Doolittle ordered to commence immediately what would become the famous Doolittle Raid.

Since the raid had to launch two hundred miles farther from the island than expected, the B-25s would not have the luxury of a round trip, or for that matter, a guarantee of a safe landing in China, the planned end point. Instead, after dropping their bombs, the pilots were ordered to continue flying west and hoped to "ditch out over China when the fuel tanks ran empty."

Can you imagine that? We spend hours building resiliency in our Airmen so that we can pass a fitness test and THESE Airmen took off from aircraft carriers 600 miles from Japan with orders to drop bombs, fly west and ditch out over China when the fuel ran out! We routinely lay the "hero" tag on people for a tough job under trying circumstances. These 80 Airmen knew what they were doing, volunteered to do it and all 80 of them volunteered expecting to die. Those guys were true heroes!

Thanks to the incredible efforts of Army Air Corps and Navy crew members aboard the Hornet, 16 B-25's successfully took off that day from the deck of the USS Hornet aircraft carrier in less than an hour. They flew low to avoid enemy radar and all bombed their targets in six cities. Most planes encountered anti-aircraft fire and some encountered enemy fighters in the air. All but one of the airplanes crash landed, and 67 of the 80 Airmen who launched from the Hornet escaped capture and death. The plane that didn't crash landed in Russia. It took more than a year after the raid for that crew to make it home. It took two more years for the only four living prisoners-of-war to be repatriated.

The news of 16 B-25s over Japan lifted the spirits of a nation that had known nothing but defeat since the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The raid provided a much needed boost in morale, not only for the Americans, but for our allies around the world as well--especially those in the Pacific.

With a successful raid over six major cities, Japanese leaders were forced to re-think their strategy and pulled many front line forces back to defend their homeland. This act, along with countless others, provided opportunities throughout the Pacific for Marine, Army and Navy Air Forces to exploit Japanese weaknesses and transition from a defensive to offensive strategy.

Even though it took 26 months for the next wave of American bombers to head back to Japan, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders were a much needed spark in bringing the fight to the Japanese, eventually leading to their surrender in September 1945.
As of this writing, only five of the 80 Raiders are still alive. Sadly, few Americans remember the sacrifices made by the Doolittle Raiders and their World War II brothers and sisters in arms.

Today, April 18, on the 71st anniversary of their raid, I encourage you to raise a glass in their honor and make a toast of thanks to 80 brave American Airmen. They did their duty, and we honor them by doing ours. Hear, hear!