70th Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Anniversary Reunion
Dayton Ohio's National Museum of the U.S Air Force was home for the official ceremonies that marked the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raiders' World War II bombing mission against Tokyo. On April 18, 1942, sixteen North American B-25 Mitchell bombers led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, and crewed by seventy nine other airmen, launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet; their destination was Japan. Seven decades later, a series of events feted the reunion of the surviving crew members; four out of five were able to attend. Twenty B-25 bombers assembled at nearby Urbana Ohio and flew onto the Air Force Museum's grounds for the reunion. Besides the four Raiders, there were a number of people with ties to the mission in attendance. A wonderful opportunity to relive history unfolded, with a few unexpected twists added.
A pair of Navy veterans present for the mission's launch off of the U.S.S. Hornet (CV-8) told their stories. Retired Navy Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Allen Josey, an electrician, is a "plank owner" or original crewmember of the Hornet when it was launched. CPO Josey was aboard when one of the first things the Hornet did after its' launch was to receive two B-25 bombers at Norfolk VA and secretly proved the feasibility of their flight operations off of the carrier. He couldn't imagine where those tests off of the Virginia coast would lead them to at the time. Retired Aviation Machinist's Mate (AD) Elmo Wojahn joined the Hornet's crew shortly after the secret tests, and both men talked about the mission, though both were below decks when the B-25s launched. AD Wojahn worked on Grumman aircraft during his Navy career, from the F3F biplane fighter to the F9F Panther jet. Their stories of the sinking of the Hornet some months later were riveting; CPO Josey said that the first torpedo hit on the ship sounded more like "breaking glass" than an explosion - but that's another story.
It is well documented that Doolittle's 16 bombers never made their planned destination in China because of an earlier than expected launch. All but one did manage to reach the Japanese-occupied country though, and the aviators were assisted by many local Chinese in their bid to return to friendly territory. During the Raiders' sole press briefing, a Chinese delegation offered some startling links to the past. Three Chinese citizens who were alive when the raid occurred travelled to the reunion; their families helped various Raiders evade the Japanese and escape from China. Hu Daxian is the wife of Li Senlin, a Chinese resistance fighter who assisted some of the crew's evasion and escape. He Shaoying brought a Chinese book containing a photograph of herself (a young child) and her family together with Lt. Col. Doolittle's crew; she shared this picture with retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole, who was Doolittle's copilot, and who was standing with her in the picture! Mr. Mingfa He produced two photos: one of his father who helped other crewmembers survive, the other a picture of a 1937 Wheat Cent that one of the aviators gave his dad as a token of his appreciation. The penny is a family heirloom today, and was kept well hidden until the war was over as the Japanese occupiers killed many Chinese that they felt may have assisted the Raiders escape the country. Mr. Weiyong Zheng was another delegate, though not connected with the raid through his family. He announced that he has visited seven of the crash sites of the raid's B-25 bombers in China. He unfolded a piece of bright orange cloth and produced a small piece of metal he said came from one of the planes. An excited Air Force Museum official remarked that the piece still had paint on it from 70 years ago. Mr. Zheng told those gathered that he has recovered more small fragments and four larger pieces too. Not surprisingly, Museum officials were keen to hear more from him.
The twenty B-25 bombers that flew into the private airstrip behind the Museum drew thousands of spectators. Arriving from Urbana on Tuesday morning shortly after sunrise, a bomber touched down close to every three minutes. Later, when the aircraft display were open to the public, I heard a great story from a crewmember of the dark blue-painted "Devil Dog", representing a Marine PBJ version of the B-25. At another air show, an older man was spotted hurrying along the best he could towards the bomber that was parked on static display. The crewman saw that this wasn't an easy task, and wondered what was going to happen next. The older man finally made it to the plane, and touched his hand to the metal skin of the plane, while smiling. Of course, they talked, and in a heavily accented voice the story was told. The man was of Philippine descent, and was interned with his family in a Japanese camp during World War II. As a very young boy, he remembered that every once in a while his father told him to go outside and arrange a pile of rocks and stones in a specific way. Although not a fun task, he obeyed his father and did what he was told. The elderly man also remembered the dark blue planes that flew over and bombed Japanese positions during the war too. Those planes helped defeat the enemy. After the war, the young man put two and two together, and realized that his father had the boy arrange the stones in a specific pattern to communicate to the planes where their target was. And many years after unwittingly helping Marine bombers find their targets, the now elderly man finally saw one of those blue planes close up and could touch one. To my amazement, there were a number of World War II veterans in attendance, and very happy to be around the airplanes. A couple even went up and touched an airplane, too.
The four Doolittle Tokyo Raiders in attendance; Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole (Co-pilot of No. 1), Maj. Thomas C. Griffin (Navigator on No. 9), Lt. Col. Edward J. Saylor (Engineer-Gunner of No. 15), and Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher (Engineer-Gunner of No. 7) are at least 90 years old, and accepted the attention from the media and spectators with patience and grace. At the time of their famous mission, they were unaware of the impact it would be in America. After the fact, they accepted their place in history with aplomb. As the 20 B-25 bombers roared overhead preceding the memorial service on Wednesday, they looked skyward in admiration of the airplanes as they thundered by. Most of us in the crowd were applauding their feat 70 years earlier; I wish I knew what each of them was thinking.
Story and Photos By Ken Kula