Five survivors of Doolittle Tokyo Raiders recall daring sortie

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Edward Saylor still vividly remembers the Chinese boy who helped save his life. In the days after his plane crashed into the waters just off China’s coast, Mr. Saylor, now 92, and four other Doolittle Tokyo Raiders were desperate and hungry — but they had survived a daring mission that was America’s first military strike against the Imperial Japanese homeland, four months after the infamous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

“The thought hits you, where you’re at, what you’ve got to do. … We don’t speak the language, what do we do now? That’s what was going through our heads,” said Mr. Saylor, one of the five survivors of the raid who will mark its 70th anniversary on April 18. The young boy helped Mr. Saylor’s crew navigate the Chinese countryside and helped scrounge up what little food he could find, just enough to keep the exhausted airmen moving.

After a weeks-long journey of more than 100 miles — all the while avoiding Japanese forces who had set up blockades of the Chinese coastline — the crew eventually was picked up by an American plane.

To this day, Mr. Saylor still feels a deep debt of gratitude to the young stranger, whom he never saw again.

“We owed him big time,” he said of the boy. “He was sure good for us.”

80 men who made history

Seven decades later, the five remaining survivors of the raid led by then-Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle recognize their prominent place in history. Nothing like it had ever been done before. But faced with an enemy that already had proved its ability to strike the U.S. homeland, 80 brave men volunteered for what had all the makings of a suicide mission, its main purposes to satisfy a burning desire for revenge, to boost morale in the war’s darkest days and to demonstrate that the nation’s resolve remained as strong as steel.

Planning for the April 18, 1942, raid combined that need for vengeance with raw American ingenuity. It was the first-ever joint operation between the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF), predecessor to today’s Air Force, and the Navy. B-25 bombers had never taken off from a Navy aircraft carrier before, and Doolittle, selected as mission leader, who piloted the first of the squadron’s 16 planes, had less than 400 feet of runway to work with.

Unable to carry enough fuel for a round trip, Doolittle and his men planned to drop their bombs on Tokyo and several other Japanese cities and make a quick escape toward China, a U.S. ally. American political leaders had tried to hammer out an agreement with Josef Stalin to allow the bombers to land in the Soviet Union after the raid, but the Soviet leader refused, leaving China as the only realistic option.

The men were under no illusions about their prospects for survival. Mr. Saylor, who grew up on a Montana cattle ranch and joined the military as a 19-year-old just as World War II began, didn’t think he’d make it out alive. But the fear of death didn’t panic him, he said. He and his comrades knew their mission, even if it turned out to be their final one, was a risk worth taking.

The raid “was the beginning of the end for them,” said Thomas Griffin, now 95, who served as navigator on plane No. 9 and later in the war survived 22 months in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp.

“It gave the initial warning to [the Japanese] that we were coming and they had more than they could handle,” he said.

Rolling the dice

The mission wasn’t just dangerous for the Raiders; it also was a major strategic gamble for U.S. military planners. The Navy had just four carriers in the Pacific Ocean, and two — the USS Hornet, from which the 16 bombers launched, and the USS Enterprise, which sailed alongside the Hornet as a protective escort — were assigned to the Doolittle mission. Already depleted from the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, the Navy was on risky ground. If either carrier was sunk or badly damaged, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for U.S. forces in the Pacific to make up the loss quickly.

“Now you’ve committed 50 percent of your available carrier task force to what amounts to almost a public-relations mission,” said Craig L. Symonds, professor of naval heritage at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

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