Doolittle Raider looks back on turning point in U.S. history

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Alyson Smith
  • 96th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
It was early 1942, and it hadn't been long since Japan threw the United States into the vortex of World War II with their attack on Pearl Harbor -- or the day when 2nd Lt. Thomas Griffin stood up at the University of Alabama and swore to defend his country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

As an Army Air Corps 17th Bomb Group navigator in Oregon, he was trying to make good on that promise when he volunteered for Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold's "Special Mission No. 1."

It would have been presumptuous, at that point, to imagine all the books, movies, fame and accolades that would emerge from that mission; the crews were still unsure if they would emerge themselves. But this was the greatest generation, and -- as the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington, D.C., declares - "uncommon valor was a common virtue."

They set out to even the score.

The 20 crews that volunteered for Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle's secret mission traveled here, to what was Eglin Field, to begin training.

"It was a field way out in the boondocks," said retired Maj. Thomas Griffin 64 years after his adventure began here. "We had a strip out there where nobody could see what we were doing. It was all very secretive back then, you see."

If anyone had seen the massive B-25 Mitchells, which normally needed 1,200 to 1,500 feet of runway, lifting off the ground after only 450 feet, they might have been able to figure out they were up to something. Shrouded by secrecy and fueled by urgency, the crews trained here for three weeks. Lines painted on the runway marked the exact length of the flight deck of the U.S.S. Hornet, the carrier they would take off from, and they conducted bombing and navigational training over the Gulf of Mexico.

While they were here, the crews performed crucial modifications to the aircraft. The traditional Norden bombsight was replaced with a simpler, manual sight developed here. Knowing that this mission would likely only be one-way, they didn't want the Norden bombsight to fall into enemy hands.

All non-essential equipment was removed in order to reduce the plane's weight. Maintenance troops tuned up the engines and carburetors in order to increase power for the short takeoff and fuel efficiency for the long flight. Broomsticks, painted black, extended from the tail to simulate guns.

After training was complete, they traveled to Alameda Naval Air Station on the San Francisco Bay. The planes were loaded onto the carrier the afternoon of April 1, and they took the carrier further out into the bay. The crews were given the night off.

Major Griffin remembers sitting in the bar, "Top of the Mark," on the top floor of their hotel. The outline of the aircraft carrier, which was blacked out in the bay, was obvious to him. The men had some drinks, presumably for their nerves, but there were no loud declarations of the heroic acts they would soon perform.

After two weeks at sea, a Japanese patrol spotted the U.S.S Hornet, laden with bombers -- the secret was out. The planes had to take off immediately. Ten hours ahead of schedule, 200 miles outside the expected fuel range and one full day before the Chinese airfields (where the men were to land) expected them, the 16 planes prepared for departure. The mission was supposed to be a night raid, but now the crews would be blasting Japan in broad daylight.

Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle sat in the first plane. The crews in the 15 planes behind him held a collective breath as his B-25 blazed down the deck and finally lifted into the air April 18, 1942.

"We were fortunate to have a great leader in Jimmy Doolittle," Major Griffin said. "He was quite a man. First he convinced us it could be done and then he convinced us in the best way, by flying the first over-loaded airplane off the deck. That's what a great leader does -- he leads."

When the time came for the No. 9 plane, the "Whirling Dervish," to take off, Major Griffin said he and the rest of the crew were feeling pretty good.

"We had seen eight planes take off successfully in front of us," he said.

An hour after Colonel Doolittle's plane launched, all 16 were in the air, destined for destruction. The Raiders bombed military installations, factories, oil stores, gas and electric companies and other military assets.

They flew for more than 15 hours. Because of the early takeoff, none had the fuel to make it to their landing destination. They flew till they ran out of gas. Ten planes were abandoned after crews bailed out, five crash-landed and one flew to Russia because they knew early on they'd never make it to China.

Fifty men jumped out of their planes into a stormy night over China. Major Griffin said the wind flung his parachute about so that he wasn't sure it would work. Although the Whirling Dervish made it to China further inland than any other plane, the crews really didn't know where they would eventually land because of the storm.

Most of the men eventually made it back home safely. Some were executed, some drowned and some were taken prisoner. Major Griffin would spend 15 months as a German prisoner later in the war.

It's been many years since that long mission over Japan, but the men who lived to talk about it still do. In Dayton, Ohio, earlier this week, the surviving Raiders commemorated the 64th anniversary of the boost they provided to American morale and their famous "30 seconds over Tokyo."

(Courtesy of Air Force Materiel Command News Service)