Bomber pilots look back 50 years to raid over Tokyo Dangerous mission chronicled in book

April 18, 1992|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,Orange County Register

Early April 1942. A dark time for the United States. Pearl Harbor bombed. Wake Island fallen. The valiant defense of the Philippines crumbled.

Day after day, Americans awoke to news of disaster befalling U.S. troops in the Pacific.

Then came the morning of April 19. "TOKYO BOMBED" the headlines screamed. The previous day, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle and his squadron of B-25 Mitchells had bombed the Japanese capital.

Recalled Dick Cole, Colonel Doolittle's co-pilot: "The country's esteem was lower than a frog's posterior. We showed people back home that the Japanese could be beaten. America wasn't dead. We were a sleeping giant awakened."

Recently, Mr. Cole and a small group of others who took part in the famous raid gathered at the King's Crown Gallery in Tustin, Calif., to sign autographs, shake hands and recall their "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," as a book about their exploits later dubbed the mission.

Now living with his son in Carmel, Calif., General Doolittle, who was promoted after the raid, is 95 and unable to travel.

William Birch of Santa Ana, Calif., was a young man tired of working in his father's market in Laguna Beach, Calif., who joined the Army in 1939 to see the world. By early 1942, he had gotten as far as a tent at an airfield in Columbia, S.C., trying hard to keep the freezing winter rain out of his boots.

"It was disgusting, so I figured whatever came up, I'd volunteer for it," he said.

Little did Mr. Birch know that when he raised his hand he was volunteering to serve as a bombardier on the first mission against the Japanese mainland.

"At first they got us all together and announced that from there on everything was secret and hush-hush and it would be a dangerous mission and if we wanted to back out we could," he recalled. "Nobody did."

Hank Potter of Austin, Texas, was another volunteer.

No one speculated out loud about the mission, he said, but everyone had a guess. The crews were trained to get their bombers aloft in 450 feet -- not the usual 1,200.

"That's what you would have to do on a carrier," said Mr. Potter, navigator with Colonel Doolittle's crew.

But it was only after the bombers had been loaded on the USS Hornet and had passed under the Golden Gate Bridge on their way to the Pacific that the official announcement was made.

Target: Japan. Bombers would hit Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya and Yokohama.

"We thought it was great -- that we would be the first to be able to retaliate for all our guys had taken up to then," Mr. Potter said.

The bombers were supposed to be launched about 400 miles east of Japan, close enough to easily fly on to bases in China held by Nationalist troops fighting the Japanese.

But on the morning of April 18, a Japanese picket ship spotted the ships. Before the Japanese ship could be sunk, it radioed a message to its fleet.

Suddenly, 800 miles from their target, the planes were ordered to be launched. Fuel would run preciously low. "We were asleep when they began shooting at the picket ship," said Mr. Cole, who now lives in San Antonio. "We had to get going."

Travis Hoover of Joplin, Mo., remembered the deck pitching as he revved the engines to his bomber.

"All hell broke loose when we thought we were sighted," he said. "We went to the planes. The deck was pitching. It was a rough day at sea."

Mr. Hoover's plane was the second of 16 to lift off from the deck. Flying low over the ocean surface, the plane met little resistance from the Japanese.

The bombers dropped their loads and headed for home.

Only a strong tail wind enabled them to make it as far as China. Mr. Hoover's plane belly-landed into a rice field. They were "captured" by 30 anti-Japanese guerrillas, who treated them well.

In China, Tung-sheng Liu, an English-speaking engineering student, was asked by Nationalist leaders to help the raiders.

Disguised as a merchant, he traveled through Japanese lines to rescue the Americans. Traveling by rickshaw, bus, train and foot, they made it to safety in Chuhsien.

Of the 16 bombers launched, 15 crashed in China. One landed in the Soviet Union, which was neutral in the war against Japan. Of the 75 men who left the Hornet, three died in crash landings. Eight were captured by the Japanese, who executed three. Another man died in prison.

The survivors eventually made it back to the United States for a hero's welcome. The other four men captured by the Japanese were returned to the United States at the end of the war.

After the war, Mr. Liu moved to the United States, where he earned a doctorate in engineering from the University of Minnesota. A citizen since 1954, Mr. Liu worked for the Air Force for many years. He now lives in Monterey Park, Calif.

Today, Mr. Hoover says the damage his modest payload of bombs did to two factories and a warehouse was less important than the damage it did to the Japanese psyche. "It broke their spirit of invincibility," he said.

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