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Jimmy Doolittle raiders: From one generation to another

DC World War II memorial

The World War II memorial in Washington, DC. Image courtesy of kconnors, Morguefile.

It’s an interesting thing to analyze, how action by someone can be a crucial turning point in history. Sometimes it’s about a person just being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the right time, or coming up with an idea that initially seems so improbable that it couldn’t possibly work, but it does.

The airborne raid led by pilot Jimmy Doolittle against Japan after Pearl Harbor was one of those seemingly improbable ideas. I’ve been reading James M. Scott’s Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle And The Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor. The raid had many effects. It restored morale to the United States, destroyed Japan’s belief that they were invulnerable, and led to Japan’s decision to attack Midway, which would eventually create the circumstances for Japan’s defeat.

The movie “Pearl Harbor” touches on Doolittle’s raid near the end, but Scott’s book makes it a lot more clear exactly how dangerous and difficult it was to get these planes over Japan at all. The pilots were flying a heavier load than usual because the 16 B-25 bombers needed extra fuel to get past the barrier created by Japanese patrols and reach their destinations, and the bombers were huge (about 67 1/2 feet by 57 feet) and had to be launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.  (Imagine trying to land 16 tanks on something the size of a postage stamp, and you get the general idea.) The bombers are so heavy that they can barely lift off the flight deck.

And to make things even more interesting, the Hornet is spotted early, forcing a launch ahead of schedule. So that’s a few hundred more miles for the bombers to fly.

Scott’s book covers three sections: what happened before the raid, during the raid and after the raid. Sadly, most of the raiders crash-landed and suffered injury; others were executed or spent time in Japanese prison camps. Others made it through China while being chased by the Japanese army.

The book is also a well-drawn portrait of Jimmy Doolittle and the various men who participated in the attack. You get a lot of insight about who Doolittle was as a person and what he was like as a leader. His men were not only a team, they were a brotherhood.

Since that time, the surviving raiders have held reunions. The reunions featured a ceremony to toast their fellow pilots, the ones who didn’t survive after the initial raid or who passed away later in life.

In 2013, there were just a few of the raiders left and they decided to hold a final toast at the National Museum of the Air Force (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base), in Dayton, Ohio. (If you want to see it, check out “Doolittle Raiders Final Toast” from Air Force TV on YouTube. It’s about an hour long.)

There’s a scene near the end of the video where raiders Dick Cole, Edward Saylor and Dave Thatcher are sitting on the platform, being applauded by the audience. It’s hard to tell from their faces what they’re thinking. Their goblets are taken away by Air Force Academy cadets, who salute them and the men return the salute.

You get a sense of the torch being passed from the older generation to the younger. Brotherhood, indeed.

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