On April 18, 1942, the United States attacked Tokyo, Japan, and other places on Honshu Island. This attack was the first to strike the Japanese on their Home Islands. This attack is referred to the Doolittle Raid or the Tokyo Raid and was in retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This raid showed that Americans could launch an air attack against Japan itself. It gave an enormous boost to the morale of Americans while at the same time damaging the morale of the Japanese. Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the U.S. Air Force planned and led the attack.
There were sixteen bombers that launched without fighter escort from the USS Hornet, and each aircraft had a crew of five men. This was a very dangerous mission, but all crew members were volunteers.
Doolittle planned for the aircraft to bomb military targets in Japan and then to continue westward to land in China. The medium bomber aircraft could not return to Hornet. Of the sixteen aircraft, fifteen of them landed in China and one landed in the Soviet Union. All the aircraft were lost, but most of the crews survived. Eight men were captured by the Japanese Army in China, and three were executed. The aircraft that landed in the Soviet Union was confiscated and its crew imprisoned for more than a year. “Fourteen crews, except for one crewman, returned either to the United States or to American forces. An estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians were killed by the Japanese during their search for Doolittle’s men.
“The raid caused negligible material damage to Japan, only hitting non-military targets or missing completely – Doolittle thought immediately after the raid that the loss of all his aircraft would lead to his being court-martialed, rather than honored – but it succeeded in its goal of helping American morale and casting doubt in Japan on the ability of its military leaders. It also caused Japan to withdraw its powerful aircraft carrier force from the Indian Ocean to defend their Home Islands, and the raid contributed to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s decision to attack Midway – an attack that turned into a decisive strategic defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) by the U.S Navy near Midway Island in the Central Pacific.”
What do we know of the men who made this raid? Lt. Col. Doolittle was presented the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and given a two grade promotion to brigadier general, skipping the rank of colonel. General Doolittle went on to command the Twelfth Air Force (North Africa), the Fifteenth Air Force (Mediterranean), and the Eighth Air Force (England) over the next three years.
“Corporal David J. Thatcher (a flight engineer/gunner on Lawson’s crew) and 1st Lt. Thomas R. White (flight surgeon/gunner with Smith) each received the Silver Star for helping the wounded crew members of Lt. Lawson’s crew to evade Japanese troops in China. All 80 Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and those who were killed, wounded or injured during the raid also received the Purple Heart. Every Doolittle Raider received a decoration from the Chinese government.
“Twenty-eight of the crewman remained in the China Burma India theater, flying missions, most for more than a year. Five were killed in action. Nineteen crew members flew combat missions from North Africa after returning to the United States, four of whom were killed in action and four becoming prisoners of war. Nine crew members served in the European Theater of Operations; one was killed in action. Altogether 12 of the survivors died in air crashes within 15 months of the raid. Two survivors were separated from the USAAF in 1944 due to the severity of their injuries.”
The eighty men who risked their lives on this bombing mission are known as the Doolittle Raiders. Lt. Gen. Doolittle started a tradition of an annual gathering for the surviving men to “toast” their fellow Raiders with the final two survivors drinking from an 1896 bottle of cognac, passed down from Doolittle and saved for the occasion. The surviving but aging Raiders – fearing they would not make the usual toast - decided to meet for one last time. Three of the four surviving Raiders -- Lt. Col. Richard Cole (age 98), Lt. Col. Edward Saylor (age 93), and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher (age 92) -- attended the toast Saturday, November 9, 2013, at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The fourth Surviving Raider, Lt. Col. Robert Hite (age 93) was prevented from making the trip to Ohio by health problems.
Hundreds of people were invited to the special ceremony, including family members of the deceased Raiders. As a historian read the names of all eighty of the original airmen, the three survivors each called “here” when their name was read. Before the three survivors sipped cognac, Lt. Col. Richard Cole said, “May they rest in peace.”
In 1959, the city of Tucson, Arizona, presented eighty silver goblets to the Raiders to use in their ceremonies. Each goblet has the name of a Raider engraved on it. The names were actually engraved twice with the second engraving being upside-down. All eighty goblets were on display at the recent ceremony with the deceased’s goblets turned upside-down. During the ceremony, white-gloved cadets presented each of the three survivors with their personal goblets and their longtime manager poured the cognac.
Lt. Col. Hite, the missing Raider, made his own salute to the fallen; he wore a Raiders blazer and other traditional reunion garb and toasted his friends with a silver goblet of wine at his home. He is the last survivor of the eight Raiders captured by Japanese soldiers; three of the eight were executed and one died in captivity.
The ceremony was capped by a B-25 bomber flyover during an afternoon memorial tribute in which a wreath was placed at the Doolittle Raider monument outside the museum. Officials at the museum estimated that approximately 10,000 people came to the event honoring the Doolittle Raid.
Today the heroes of World War II are in the 80s and 90s with one dying every two minutes. There were 16,112,566 Americans who risked everything to serve America during that war; there are approximately 1.2 million alive today with a median age of 92. Most, if not all, of these heroes did not share much of what they experienced. They felt it was something they needed to do, and they did it to the best of their ability – without any thought of being honored for their service. This generation is known as the Greatest Generation because they perform a great task. Without their efforts and sacrifices, the United States could have become a German-speaking nation. We should all recognize the achievements of this generation and give them the honor they so richly deserve. In fact, we should give great honor to all current military and all veterans because they stand between our nation and those who desire to destroy our way of life. To all military, military families, and veterans: THANK YOU!