Air Force legend Col. Chase Nielsen passes away

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Stephen Clutter
  • Air Force Print News
Retired Lt. Col. Chase J. Nielsen, one of the famed "Tokyo Doolittle Raiders" who helped boost American morale in the early days of World War II with a surprise air attack on Japan and spent a lifetime as an advocate for American airpower, died March 23 at his home in Brigham City, Utah. 

Born Jan. 14, 1917 in Hyrum, Utah, Colonel Nielsen attended Utah State University and graduated in 1939 with a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering. In August 1939, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a flying cadet. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in June 1941. 

Colonel Nielsen, a lieutenant at the time, was the navigator of "Crew # 6," one of 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers and 80 Airmen that launched from the deck of the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942. Led by legendary aviation pioneer Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, the raid is one of the most studied and talked about missions in the history of aerial warfare. 

It was personally ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as response to Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor nearly five months earlier. Preparation for the attack was conducted in secrecy at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and was executed by loading 16 of the medium bombers onto the deck of the USS Hornet, which departed from San Francisco, Calif., April 2, 1942. Although Doolittle and his crews had perfected the art of taking off on a short field, returning to carrier was not an option. 

All 16 bombers made it to their targets, however, they were forced to ditch or bail out over or along the Chinese Coast because the U.S. task force had been spotted by Japanese picket boats, and Doolittle had decided to launch early -- more than 600 miles from the Japanese mainland and 200 miles farther out than planned. 

The original plan had called for the Raiders to launch during the night and recover in China at dawn, but due to being spotted by the picket boats, Doolittle's improvised plan had them taking off in the early afternoon and landing in China at night. Further complicating the recovery, an aircraft with a beacon that was supposed to take off over China and guide the crews to friendly airfields wasn't able to get airborne, so the Raiders were not able to avoid areas where Japanese occupation forces were concentrated. 

Most of the aircraft were able to reach land, but two, including Colonel Nielsen's, were forced to ditch off the coast of China. Two men were killed in the ditching. 

The eight men who survived were taken prisoner by the Japanese forces and held in inhumane conditions from which only four of the eight survived. Colonel Nielsen spent the next 40 months as a prisoner of war, most of the time in solitary confinement, before being rescued at the end of the war by an Office of Strategic Services para-rescue team and brought back to the U.S. 

Colonel Nielsen returned to Shanghai, China, in January 1946 to testify in the International War Crimes Trials against his former captors. 

Colonel Nielsen became a member of Strategic Air Command in March 1949 at Roswell AFB, N.M., where he was assigned to the 509th Bombardment Group -- the first group to be organized, equipped and trained for atomic warfare. The assignment was fitting as SAC's mission was to provide the United States with a long-range combat capability.

During his decade with the major command, Colonel Nielsen helped SAC develop key operational innovations, including radar navigation bombardment, air refueling employing the flying boom, and electronic countermeasures. He helped integrate "fail safe" and other emergency war order procedures into SAC's unique set of flight profiles.

Colonel Nielsen returned to the air while assigned to SAC and reached more than 10,000 flying hours mostly in B-29s, B-50s, B-36s and B-52s. His longest flight lasted 26 hours non-stop without refueling from Okinawa, Japan, to Roswell, New Mexico, in a B-36. 

Colonel Nielsen retired from the Air Force in 1961 as a lieutenant colonel and began a career as an industrial engineer at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. He retired in 1981. 

Colonel Nielsen's decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart with Cluster, the Air Force Commendation Medal with Cluster, Outstanding Unit Award, Longevity Ribbon with four Clusters, and the Breast Order of Pao Ting from the People's Republic of China. 

Of the 80 men who took part in the raid with Colonel Nielsen, three were killed during the mission, five were interned in Russia and eight became prisoners of war in Japan. Of those POWs, three were executed by firing squad by the Japanese and another died in captivity. Thirteen others would die later in the war. There are 14 Raiders alive today. 

The Raiders are also famous for their annual reunions, which began as a party hosted by Doolittle, in Miami Beach, Fla., in 1947. The reunions have evolved into a gathering of one of the most elite military fraternities in the world. At each reunion, surviving Raiders meet privately to conduct a solemn "Goblet Ceremony." 

After a roll call followed by a toasting the Raiders who died since their last meeting, they turn the deceased men's goblets upside down. Each goblet has the Raider's name engraved twice -- so that it can be read if the goblet is right side up or upside down. 

When only two Raiders remain alive, they will drink a final toast using a vintage bottle of cognac. 

The 80 goblets, which are normally on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, are accompanied by U.S. Air Force Academy cadets. The Raider reunion will be held this year in San Antonio from April 17 through 21. 

At last year's 64th reunion, Colonel Nielsen said, "I am proud to have been on the Doolittle Raid. I am more proud to have been of service to my country. I hope and I pray that what we Doolittle Raiders have done will be an inspiration to you people.

"I hope and pray that our young men and young women who are serving in the service today will be protected; that they will live their lives in accordance with the military rules and laws of war, that they will do their best and that they will appreciate their country and protect their flag as we tried to do ourselves," Colonel Nielsen said during reunion ceremony April 18. 

Besides Colonel Nielsen, the other Raider who will be toasted this year is former Staff Sergeant William L. Birch, a bombardier on Crew #11, who passed away Nov. 18, 2006, in Santa Anna, Calif.
Funeral services will be 11 a.m. Wednesday at Allen-Hall Mortuary in Logan, Utah.

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