Members of the Doolittle Raiders share precious memories with base personnel

  • Published
  • By P.A. Tezuka
  • SMC Public Affairs
Two surviving members of the famed 'Doolittle Tokyo Raiders' of the then United States Army Air Corps visited Los Angeles Air Force Base and held a discussion panel, Feb. 27. Their visit was in conjunction with a leadership program which highlights their raid on Japan during World War II and the successful leadership expertise of Gen. James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle. After the panel, the standing-room-only crowd enjoyed a question-and-answer session. The event was followed by a luncheon held in their honor. 

The 'Doolittle Raiders' were well-known for their one-way, secret mission led by General Doolittle in April of 1942. The crew consisted of 16 B-25 Mitchell medium-sized bombers which took off from the deck of the Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet to bomb Japan in a surprise attack. Their mission was in retaliation against Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which brought the United States full into World War II in the Pacific theatre. It was the first truly joint mission between the Army, Army Air Force and the Navy.
The SMC event was hosted by Brig. Gen. Neil McCasland, Space and Missile Systems Center vice commander and Capt. Ariel Batungbacal, SMC Intelligence, a distant cousin of General Doolittle, served as the master of ceremonies. 

"Here at SMC, we've got a foot in two big chapters of his [General Doolittle's] legacy," said General McCasland. "First of all, is the raid itself." He spoke of the current events which shaped the character of the service and stressed the importance of "the planning that goes into the conduct of such an audacious and effective military operation in the Air Force. All Airmen need to understand and can learn from those who conducted an operation like that," he said. As in those days, "we're sailing into uncharted waters" with the current Global War. 

"General Doolittle left another legacy that matters to today's Air Force," said General McCasland. "He left us technological legacy that we operate on here at SMC," referring to the many accomplishments, positions and involvement General Doolittle had during the birth of National Aeronautics and Space Administration, The Aerospace Corporation and the Air Force's research and development, which later became SMC. 

The moderator for the discussion panel was Ms. Jonna Hoppes, 61st Mission Squadron Educational Office. Ms. Hoppes is the granddaughter of General Doolittle.

Well into their late eighties and nineties, retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole, copilot to Gen. Doolittle's No. 1 aircrew, and retired Maj. Thomas Griffin, navigator in aircrew No. 9, both then lieutenants, reminisced of their experiences as members of the Doolittle Raiders, the planning of the raid, the takeoffs of their land-based aircraft off the carrier, and the leadership of General Doolittle during the bombing of Japan. They spoke with clear minds, spirit and wit as if they just returned from their missions. Joining them on the panel was General Doolittle's son, retired Air Force Col. John Doolittle, an honorary Raider, a pilot who himself saw combat in the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.
Under the lead of Ms. Hoppes's questions, Colonel Doolittle discussed his father's many accomplishments in the aeronautical field. He also talked about what led up to the raid on Japan. "After the attack on Pearl Harbor, we were losing everything in the Pacific (to the Japanese Navy) ... the Pacific was becoming a large Japanese lake," said Colonel Doolittle. "We needed to strike back." 

When asked to explain how the Raiders were put together, the selection of the crew members and the escapades of his mission, Colonel Cole replied, "I'll give it a whirl," bringing smiles and laughter from the audience. He talked about the decision that had to be made into finding the right aircraft that could carry the extra 2,000 pounds of fuel and selection of the newly developed B-25. 

"It was delivered directly to the factory for the U.S. government," he said. Their takeoff practice was done at sea as they headed towards their destination. Lines were drawn on the deck of the carrier as guidelines for their wheels. He talked about the carrier being spotted by a Japanese picket ship, their earlier-than-scheduled takeoff, the bombing of Tokyo and the shortage of fuel for their one-way flight ending in China.
"Unbeknownst to us, there was a warm front over China which created a wind called the "kami-kaze" (God wind), which blew from the East to West," said Colonel Cole. "This gave us a 35-knot tailwind." It safely carried their aircraft into China. 

He went on to talk about the event that took place after their landing. Eventually, they were re-outfitted and sent to another mission in Africa fighting against the Germans in The Desert campaign, even though the crews were supposed to be sent home after the Tokyo raid. "The orders were lost in 'file 13'" he said, bringing more laughter from the audience. (The term 'file 13' jokingly refers to the office trash can.) 

Major Griffin talked about his top-secret trip to Washington D.C. with General Doolittle to work with Air Force intelligence prior to the raid to retrieve topographical maps of China, Japan and all the industrial and military sites in Japanese islands for possible targets. With this information from the maps, the Doolittle crews were assigned their various targets. He also talked about the cloudy, windy-morning takeoff from the deck of the USS Hornet as it rolled in 25-knot wind. 

"We were holding on with our dear life ... or the wind would blow us right off the deck," said Major Griffin. "Plane No. 9 was delighted to see eight planes successfully take off that morning." All planes had only 400 feet to takeoff. He said their plane missed the target, a factory in Tokyo which built tanks. "We flew in at roof-top levels to avoid anti-aircraft attacks," he said. "We flew over [Emperor] Hirotito's house ... but we had strict orders that the Palace was not to be used as a secondary target." What they eventually ended up bombing, as they later found out, was a utility company in Tokyo. "We slammed it and put them out of gas and electric for awhile." They headed towards the southern tip of Japan to China on a 15-and-a-half hour flight. "We took off at 9 o'clock in the morning ... we bailed out at twelve-thirty at night," he said. "That's the time we ran out of all that extra gas." With the tailwind, air crew No. 9 was able to make it to the Chinese shore. "Fifty-five men bailed out of 11 planes, one man was killed, six with non-life-threatening injuries." 

"Up until this time, we've had no success prior to the raid in the Pacific theatre at all," said Colonel Doolittle. That's how we lost all our airplanes and did minimal damage with 32,000 pounds of bomb." He said there were three main things that came out of this raid. "Number one - it boosted the morale of the American people. Number Two - it was a tremendous blow to the morale of the Japanese. Number Three - it changed their philosophy of fighting the war ... to defend the homeland." 

Out of the 80 young men from the Doolittle Raiders, Colonel Cole and Major Griffin are two of the 15 that are still alive. The Raiders meet regularly at their annual reunions. The next one is scheduled in San Antonio, Texas. "These men will still have reunions until there's just two standing," said Ms. Hoppes.