WW II Heroes Recall the Doolittle Raid

Five months after the humiliation of Pearl Harbor, Col. Jimmy Doolittle led a sneak attack to bomb Tokyo. But in order to make it all the way to Tokyo, Doolittle and his 79-man squadron wouldn't have enough fuel to make it back to their base. In San Antonio, survivors of the Doolittle Raid recall the event on its 65th anniversary.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

COHEN: This week in San Antonio it's the 65th reunion of the survivors of the Doolittle Raid. As in Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who, five months after Pearl Harbor, led 16 bombers in a sneak attack on Tokyo. By that time the Japanese had practically captured the entire Pacific.

BRAND: But there was one big problem. Doolittle's squadron had enough fuel to make it all the way to Tokyo, but they didn't have enough to get back. NPR's Wade Goodwyn went to the reunion to get caught up with the guys who are still around.

(Soundbite of music)

WADE GOODWYN: The interior of the massive hangar at Randolph Field in San Antonio looks like the set of a Martin Scorsese picture. Perfectly framed between open hangar doors is a B-25, sunlight streaming down on her gleaming silver skin. Young aviators in battle dress uniform swarm around the bomber with grins on their faces and crawl up into her belly. Children sit in glassed-in gun turrets, imagining what it was like.

Unidentified Man: Today, we honor those warriors that raised the spirit of Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ladies and gentleman please remain standing for the posting of the colors and the singing of the national anthem by Mr. John Fosdick(ph).

Mr. JOHN FOSDICK (Singer): (Singing) O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light.

(Soundbite of planes)

Mr. DICK COLE (Doolittle Raid survivor): Two day out to sea, PA system says, now here this, now here this, this force is bound for Tokyo. There was a lot of jubilation and so forth. After reality set in, why things got kind of quiet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOODWYN: He's 90 years old now, but in April of 1942, Dick Cole was a young lieutenant. A B-25 pilot on a mission so secret not even he knew what it was. Before they steamed away from California, Cole's copilot on his bomber became ill. Dick Cole went to his captain to find out what he and his crew should do.

Mr. COLE: And he said the old man is coming in this afternoon. And I'll crew you up with him, and if you do Ok you've got yourself a pilot. Well, I didn't it was the old man. And truthfully I had second thoughts. Now, we get to fly with an old man, maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

GOODWYN: The old man was Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the most famous American aviator of his time. With most of the Pacific in the hand of the Japanese navy, the Doolittle mission was a big risk. Two aircraft carriers with about a dozen escort ships would skirt the Arctic Circle and come at Japan from the north.

After bombing Tokyo, the plan was to land in China and present the bombers as a gift to our ally Chiang Kai-shek. But when the carriers were still nearly two days away from launching the bombers, they were spotted by the Japanese. So 250 miles short of their scheduled take off, 16 bombers climbed off the deck.

It was a devastating change in plans. It meant that there wouldn't be enough fuel for the bombers to make it to the China mainland. After bombing Tokyo, they'd have to ditch the planes in the South China Sea. It was practically a suicide mission. Nevertheless, off they went.

Mr. COLE: We turned south and took a course that put us east of the Imperial Palace. When the bombardier saw a checkpoint that he had picked up from photographs, the bombardier dropped the bombs and went back down on the deck.

GOODWYN: The bombers came at Tokyo in single file and the attack was a complete surprise, just like Pearl Harbor had been five months before.

Mr. COLE: The Japanese had just had an air raid practice. And they had a bomber called the Betty that had two tails like a B-25. And I think when they looked up they thought it was one of their airplanes.

GOODWYN: There were Japanese planes high over Tokyo, but they paid no attention to the American bombers down below attacking their capital. On the ground, Japanese defenders did manage to get off some anti-aircraft fire, but were wildly off mark.

Thirty seconds over Tokyo and Doolittle's men were heading for the South China Sea. Three hours out it began to storm and the navigator handed Cole a note that read, we're going to be 180 miles short. They went over their ditching procedures and prepared for the worst.

But fate intervened. The rain that had begun to fall signaled the arrival of a low pressure system. The wind shifted 180 degrees, and they began to push the Americans toward China. To their everlasting joy, they spotted the coast and bailed out with parachutes while their B-25 was still flying.

Mr. COLE: I ended in a tree. I was very lucky I didn't hit the ground. Colonel Doolittle landed in a rice patty. The Chinese guerillas got a hold of us and took us to a place where there was a telephone.

GOODWYN: Not all of Doolittle's men were so lucky. Six died, three executed after they were captured by the Japanese. But incredibly, with the help of the Chinese resistance, Doolittle and the remainder of his bombing squadron, including Lieutenant Cole, made it through the Japanese lines to Chungking in 10 days.

Mr. COLE: We walked and we rode on ponies. We rode on (unintelligible) chairs. We rode on buses. We rode in cars, just about every means of transportation.

GOODWYN: For the next year, Lieutenant Dick Cole and many of the other Doolittle raiders helped keep the Chinese army alive by flying transport planes from India to China. Back in America, Doolittle's bombing raid on Tokyo made headlines across the country and boosted the morale of a very frightened nation.

But Cole had no idea of all the hoopla back home, and it would be years before he knew he'd become a hero. In China, the Japanese had cut the Burmese road, and Cole and the other aviators were flying in supplies around the clock, helping Chiang Kai-shek hang on by his fingernails. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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