Doolittle Raider remembers historic mission over Japan

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Phyllis Duff
  • Air Force Print News
The infamous bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, led a shock wave of other attacks by Japan on Pacific islands. With each of Japan’s successes in the following months, America’s spirit sank lower. 

Like the rest of America, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Cole was angry. At the time, the lieutenant was assigned to the 17th Bombardment Group, 34th Squadron, in Pendleton, Ore.

“When Japan attacked, I was TDY to the southern states learning maneuvers with the Army,” Colonel Cole said in a recent interview. “When war was declared Sunday, we flew back to Pendleton and went on sub patrol duty for three weeks."

The squadron then transferred to Columbia, S.C., where Colonel Cole received an upgrade to first pilot and was promoted to first lieutenant.

Little did he know he’d soon get a chance to retaliate -- as a member of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. 

“As a country, we had had so many defeats since Pearl Harbor. The Philippines were lost. The Japanese were moving into southeastern China,” Colonel Cole said. “President Roosevelt wanted to make sure we made some kind of a retaliation.”

He didn’t know that a plan to attack the Japanese homeland -- led by his hero, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle -- was brewing. It wouldn’t be too long before the attack on Japan would launch from the deck of the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet.

By mid-January, the carrier had two B-25s -- barely off the assembly line -- on its deck in Norfolk, Va. The two test aircraft carried a pair of crewmembers, the fuel tanks were light and it had no weapons or bombs.

In the months to come, Colonel Doolittle had to prove that B-25s, packed with a ton of bombs, five crewmembers and full fuel tanks, could take off from the Hornet’s deck in less than 500 feet -- a feat never before accomplished.

To fly the twin-tailed bombers, the Army needed crews. When the call for volunteers went out for the secret mission, Colonel Cole jumped at the chance.

“Now was our chance to do what we’d been training for,” he said. “I guess I didn’t hear the old adage ‘Don’t ever volunteer for nothing.’”

He, Hank Potter, Fred Braemer and Paul Leonard signed up as a crew. A few days later they had orders to Eglin Field, Fla., to get carrier-qualified and train in low-level navigation and bombing.

Some said the mission was impossible -- that the bombers would never get off the deck. But what seemed to be a mismatched pair of plane and carrier soon proved to be a matched set.

Navy carrier pilot Lt. Hank Miller taught the Army pilots how to take off from a 350-foot runway -- about a quarter of what the Army pilots were used to when they took off in bomb-laden B-25s. Pilots practiced and perfected short take-offs on runways in South Carolina and later at Eglin.

“Once we heard about the expectations, we just had to learn it,” said Colonel Cole, who became Colonel Doolittle’s copilot. “I was pretty confident that it could be done. Colonel Doolittle was a very persuasive man. You just believed in him.

“He not only told you how to do something and how it would be done, but he would show you by leading the way,” said Colonel Cole, who retired from the Air Force in 1967 and now lives in Comfort, Texas. “He would never have you do what he wouldn’t do himself.”

While the Army Air Force pilots trained in Florida, the raid was being devised by Vice Adm. William Halsey, the Navy's senior carrier force commander, and Adm. Chester Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet commander. The retaliation was meticulously planned.

By April, Colonel Doolittle’s drive and the pilots’ passions proved the B-25 could take off within -- and even under -- 500 feet. After four months of intense training, the crews were ready.

“’Ready for what?’” was the question in many of the crewmembers’ minds, Colonel Cole said.

“We all had our ideas of where we were going and what we’d be doing,” he said. “But, none of us really knew.”

The proposed Tokyo Raid was still unknown to the crews. Anticipation and curiosity were growing, Colonel Cole said.

“We had markings on the runway. It was pretty obvious we’d be taking off a carrier," he said. "I thought maybe we were going to be delivering airplanes.”

Secret orders led Doolittle's bombers to McClellan Field in Sacramento, Calif. After a series of checks, the B-25 flock flew to Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco. Just below them lay their destiny -- the sprawling deck of the Hornet, a 20,000-ton carrier just commissioned in late December 1941.

The planes were hoisted onto the deck via crane. The “pilots cringed” watching their birds being lifted high above the steel and concrete below, Mr. Cole said.

On that day, the Army Air Force crewmembers became one with the Navy. The carrier, 16 B-25 bombers, the USS Enterprise and a task force of four cruisers, eight destroyers and two oilers pushed through rough Pacific seas toward Japan.

Arriving west of Hawaii on April 13, key players aboard the Enterprise and Hornet met to finalize the raid. Until 24 hours before the attack, only that handful of key planners and players knew the fate of the soon-to-be attacked Tokyo and Japanese mainland.

The announcement was made 24 hours before the intended show of force. Some of the more seasoned pilots got to pick their own targets from a list of potential war-making plants, oil centers, factories and military installations around Tokyo. Ten B-25s would bomb there, three planes would aim for Nagoya and Osaka, two crews planned an attack on Yokahama and one bomber would hit Yokosuka.

As co-pilot, Lieutenant Cole's task was to help Colonel Doolittle “light up Tokyo” for the 15 other bombers to follow.

The original plan was for the planes to take off 250 miles away from the Japanese coast. But Japanese patrol boats spotted the Hornet. Soon after, those boats were destroyed. Five of the survivors were picked up and sent to POW camps in California, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

So 12 hours ahead of schedule, the crews, flight bags in hand, climbed under the bellies of their aircraft to begin pre-flight checks. Each plane was loaded down with fuel, a ton of bombs and other explosives.

The planes, engines rumbling, waited their turn to fly off the 500-foot deck. Had any plane’s engine failed to turn over or shown any signs of trouble, it would have been towed out of the way and “tossed” off the ship, Colonel Cole said. Luckily, that wasn’t the case on that spring morning of April 18, 1942, as waves crashed against the side of the 20,000-ton vessel carrying 16 bombers ready for take-off.

The Sailors watched as the 16 planes soared off the deck one by one, five minutes apart. Seventy-nine men led by Colonel Doolittle would now have to fly nearly 800 miles to the shores of Japan -- 400 miles farther than planned.

It was noon as the planes approached Japan. Flying at such low altitude, people "could see us plain as day,” Colonel Cole said. The Japanese showed little interest as they went about their daily lives. There were many fishing boats and farmers, baseball games were going on and fliers were doing practice missions, he said.

Upon seeing the targets, the lead plane climbed to 1,500 feet in a matter of seconds and situated itself for the first attack. Bombardiers on the ready made their marks and let the bombs drop.

With desperately low fuel because of 400 added miles, all the crewmembers were aware of the chance they would have to “bale out into enemy waters,” Colonel Cole said.

The raid, while it caused only minor damage, let the Japanese know America had just begun to fight.

The intended destination for the bombers was to land in China where the crews would gather and be assisted and protected by the Chinese.

“The Chinese were so very helpful, but the Japanese killed 250,000 of them for having helped us,” Colonel Cole said.

Colonel Doolittle and his crew bailed out into the dark, storm-blowing night. All survived.

“Fortunately my chute drifted over a pine tree and I ended up about 12 feet off the ground. I felt relieved because I thought for sure I was going to break my legs because you couldn’t see the ground,” Colonel Cole said.

“I pulled the rip cord so hard I gave myself a black eye. I was able to make a little hammock with my parachute to sit on,” he said. Staying awake all night as rain and winds raged on, he wondered where he was and how everyone else was faring.

The next morning, Lieutenant Cole climbed down the tree fairly easily.

“I was a lot more agile back then,” the 90-year old Cole joked. With compass in hand, he headed eastward, walking all day. By dusk, he had only run into a few Chinese.

At Chu Chow, he was handed a sketch of a B-25 and five parachutes. 

“Drawn by Doolittle himself,” Colonel Cole said.

Doolittle’s crew found each other and eventually met up with other crews from most of the 16 planes.

“Doolittle would not leave until he had heard reports on every crew. That took about 10 days,” Colonel Cole said.

One plane was able to divert to Russia where its crew was captured by the Russians. The five escaped to Iran 14 months later. Another plane’s crew was badly wounded, but all were rescued by the Chinese and survived.

Crews from the No. 6 and No. 16 aircraft crash-landed off Japan’s shores. Two crewmembers drowned while swimming to shore. The eight survivors fell into the clutches of the enemy. They faced months of imprisonment and torture. They contracted dysentery and beriberi.

Six months after capture in Japanese-controlled territory in China, three of the prisoners, pilots Lt. William Farrow and Lt. D.E. Hallmark and Sgt. Harold Spatz, an engineer gunner, were put on trial by Japanese officers. The next day they were loaded onto a truck and driven to Public Cemetery No. 1 outside Shanghai. Kneeling on the ground blindfolded, hands tightly bound behind their backs, they were then shot simultaneously by Japanese soldiers. They were never told what their charges were. After the killings on Oct. 15, 1942, the bodies were immediately cremated.

The five remaining captives were kept on starvation diets. On Dec. 1, 1943, they were moved to Nanking. There, Lt. R.J. Meder, co-pilot of plane No. 6, died.

Receiving slightly better treatment at Nanking, the four remaining POWs’ health and strength began to improve. Their determination and the blessings shared from a single copy of the Bible kept them well. They were freed in August 1945.

Later in the war, the Hornet and souls aboard her would meet their demise at the battle of Santa Cruz on Oct. 27, 1942, when torpedoes, bombs and two kamikazes sunk her.

The raid came from an idea spawned by Capt. Francis "Frog" Low and told to Capt. Donald Duncan. A 30-page handwritten proposal was presented to Lt. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, who in turn appointed Colonel Doolittle to assemble a group of volunteer pilots and planes for the raid.

The Tokyo Raid -- commonly known as the Doolittle Raid -- came to fruition with Colonel Doolittle’s leadership, plans and execution of the surprise attack, Colonel Cole said. That led Americans out of what seemed to be an abyss of defeat and on the road to a brighter future.

The Doolittle Raiders are celebrating their 64th annual reunion at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, from April 17 through 21. Sixteen of the original 80 Doolittle Raiders are alive today. Much of the Raiders’ memorabilia is kept at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

(Additional information provided by the official site of the Doolittle Raiders: