Saturday, May 24, 2014

A toast to The Doolittle Raiders

Happy Memorial Day weekend y'all! I hope it is being spent with loved ones soaking up America's freedoms!

Who are you thinking about over the weekend? For me it's Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle of the US Army Air Forces, as well as the other architects and pilots that carried out the "Doolittle Raid". Mac reminded me of these men a couple weeks ago. I remembered the term from history books and lecture halls from long ago. And the more I read up on them to remind myself of their bravery the more I began to appreciate their service to our great nation.

In early 1942 the US was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan had demonstrated that they could do something the Americans could not - drop munitions on US soil. While the nation mourned the loss of 2,403 lives, tended to the 1,178 wounded, and repaired/tended to the crippled naval base, Doolittle planned a way for his bombers to reach Japan, make a statement of their presence, and then land safely in China.

The plan wasn't without complications, by any means. First and foremost, the B-25 bombers were larger than the USS Hornet was built for and as a consequence they couldn't be stored below deck. Instead they waited at the end of the runway, making their takeoff a shortened exercise...especially considering their full payload needed to carry out the mission.

Additionally, Doolittle feared that word would leak out of his secret mission:

About 600 miles from Japan mainland a small fishing boat was spotted and destroyed and General Doolittle felt that this small boat may have warned Japan that there is a big ass US Aircraft Carrier just outside of town...  So Jimmy Doolittle ordered the raid to proceed immediately.  As a result of the early take-off the planes would be short on fuel to reach the "Safe Zones" in nearby China despite desperate measures taken to prepare the planes in advance by engineers to give them the maximum amount of fuel storage space available including removing the tail gunner section and installing broomsticks painted like machine guns and placing a rubber fuel tank in the tail section, carrying ten 5 gallon gas cans for manual fuel addition during flight to a tank installed where the lower gun turret was, and a larger tank located in the bomb bay.  Total fuel payload was 1,141 Gallons for a 2000 mile range. (via The Doolittle Tokyo Raiders)

In short, they really didn't have enough fuel to carry out the mission. There may have been enough fuel to get them straight to their destinations in prime flying conditions, but they were sure to be engaged by enemy fighters and therefore be forced to perform evasive measures. All of which would burn much needed fuel and increased the risk of of navigational errors. Not mention the fact that bombers and aircraft carriers were not equipped for each other. The bottomline was they were being asked to perform a dangerous mission, one in which they may not live to see the conclusion.

Yet they went anyway.

It was Doolittle's plan, from beginning to end, and he lead the attack. All of the modified sixteen B-25's carried out their mission despite the Japanese fighters that tied to deter it. They dropped their bombs in and around Tokyo. There were no Japanese casualties.

But the Raiders were not all so lucky. Most either crash landed or bailed out. And they were the lucky ones. The mission's success reached the USA and the uptick in morale was palpable. Imperial Japan was not invincible; 80 US Army Airmen had risked their lives to prove that. The Battle of Midway resulted and it turned the tide of WWII in the Pacific Theater. For his efforts, James Doolittle went from thinking he'd surely face a court martial to being presented the Medal of Honor.

Since 1946 the survivors have gathered together and shared their stories in various cities across the nation. In 1959 the city of Tucson AZ presented the Doolittle Raiders with 80 silver goblets, each engraved with the name of a Raider. A wooden case containing each goblet follows them around to each reunion. In the case as well is a bottle of 1896 Hennessy Very Special. The idea was that once there were only two remaining of the 80 that performed the mission, they would open the bottle, pour a glass and raise a toast the other 78 goblets turned over on the case.

Last year Tom Griffin passed away, leaving just four remaining members. They are all in their 90s and decided at the last reunion that it would be their final formal gathering. Except for one last time, informally, when they would reunite, share their toast, and remember a day when they did something no one else had ever done.

And so it seems to me, that this weekend would be a good time for us to do the same. As we gather together, on lakes, porch swings, patios, church pews, swimming pools, parades...wherever you may find yourself, remember men like these that made it all possible.