First Strike, Revisited: Elder Voices From the Doolittle Raid

By Kyle Nappi

By April 18, 1942, the United States and its allies had suffered repeated setbacks in the war against Imperial Japan, to include the attack on Pearl Harbor, the capture of Wake Island, and the fall of Hong Kong and Singapore. Just nine days earlier, on April 9, the half-starving ammunition-depleted Bataan Peninsula garrison of over 76,000 U.S. and Filipino combatants surrendered – the largest capitulation in American history. As the nation desperately sought a victory, eighty brave airmen were about to answer her siren call and bring the war to Japan.

The brainchild of a U.S. Navy submariner, the Doolittle Raid (as it became known) was the nation’s first joint action of the war. Conceived in January 1942, the plan called for a U.S. Navy carrier to transport U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) bombers to a point near Japan where the aircraft would launch, strike key industrial centers in the enemy’s homeland, and land safely in China. Aviation pioneer and USAAF Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle was selected to lead this inaugural raid over Japan. The USAAF airmen who volunteered for the secret mission underwent three weeks of intensive training, which included short runway takeoffs designed to simulate a carrier deck. Sixteen modified twin-engine B-25s, each manned by a five-person crew, were loaded onto the carrier USS Hornet at Naval Air Station Alameda, California. Joined by her sister carrier, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers, and two fleet oilers, the Hornet proceeded towards Japan in radio silence.

L-R: The raiders’ B-25s atop the USS Hornet’s crowded flight deck; Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle (left front) and his raiders (background) with Captain Marc Mitscher, Commanding Officer of USS Hornet, en route to Japan (Naval History and Heritage Command)

On the morning of April 18, 1942, as the U.S. Navy Task Force reached a distance some 650 nautical miles of Japan, the Hornet “sighted [a] strange ship apparently enemy gunboat of about 300 tons bearing 216 true distant about 15000 yards” This radio-equipped Japanese fishing trawler – one of many early warning boats reconnoitering offshore – spotted the American armada and radioed its position to the mainland shortly before the U.S. Navy’s light cruiser USS Nashville dispatched her to the deep. With the secrecy of Doolittle’s mission potentially compromised, the order was given to immediately launch the B-25s some 250 miles shy of their prescribed departure point.

“Army pilot, man your planes!” blared over Hornet’s loudspeaker as the raiders hurried to their bombers. Crew #15 engineer Edward Saylor discussed the math required for takeoff from the Hornet’s 467-foot flight deck as the carrier pitched in the cold, rainy, and wind-swept heavy seas. “We had about a twenty-five knot headwind, then the carrier speed was about twenty-five so that’s about fifty and we were looking for seventy. So, with the acceleration of the airplane, we had plenty of lift for takeoff.” Each launch required great skill and timing from the Hornet’s flight deck crew to prevent the B-25s from plowing into the sea, especially as heavy swells poured over the flattop’s bow.

The raiders’ B-25s launching from the USS Hornet (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Naval History and Heritage Command)

Crew #7 pilot Ted Lawson recounted his harrowing takeoff in his iconic wartime novel, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo: “Our wheels blocks were jerked out, and when I released the breaks, we quivered forward, the wind grabbing at the wings…The Hornet’s deck bucked wildly. A sheet of spray rushed back at us…One moment, the end of the Hornet’s flight deck was rushing at us alarmingly fast; the next split-second I glanced down hurriedly at what had been a white line, and it was water.” Over the span of an hour, the sixteen B-25s shuddered forward across the deluged flight deck, ascended through the low-overcast grey morning clouds, and staggered single-file towards Japan. Once the last aircraft crossed the Hornet’s flight deck, the U.S. Navy Task Force reversed course and sailed full-bore to Hawaii.

Hovering above the ocean between twenty and two hundred feet avoid detection, the B-25s reached the Japanese mainland without incident and proceeded to their assigned targets. “Nippon Steel Factory in Tokyo,” wrote crew #7 engineer-gunner David Thatcher. “Warehouse area in Yokohama,” added crew #11 navigator Frank Kappeler. “Yokosuka naval shipyards,” shared crew #12 pilot William Bower. “[Nagoya] aircraft factories and oil storage,” noted crew #16 co-pilot Robert Hite. 

The raiders marveled at the surprise they achieved as their B-25s skimmed over buildings and treetops. Some residents mistook them as Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) aircraft and greeted them with cheerful waves instead of bullets. Earlier that morning, Tokyo conducted a rare air-raid drill which many residents ignored given the perception of invincibility from enemy attacks. Author Craig Nelson highlights an amusing anecdote in his monograph, The First Heroes: “One businessman, waiting at a railway platform in central Tokyo, watched the American planes arrive, their bellies almost brushing the leaves from the trees. He turned to a fellow commuter and said, ‘It looks real, doesn’t it? Just like a foreign aircraft breaking through Japanese air defenses. I guess the Imperial forces want to impress the people that they are fully prepared.’”

L-R: Two aerial views above the Yokosuka Naval Base, taken by a raider from the window of a B-25; screenshot from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo depicting crew #7 approaching Tokyo at low-altitude (Naval History and Heritage Command, YouTube)

One-by-one, the B-25s ascended to an altitude between 1,200 and 1,500 feet and promptly commenced their bombing runs against rather negligible opposition. “We didn’t have any trouble over Kobe,” Saylor noted. “They shot anti aircraft at us. Took a minute to realize what it was because the black puffs of smoke showed up alongside the airplane…I don’t know whether we ever got hit.” Each of the sixteen aircraft quickly jettisoned their ordnance of four 500-bound bombs with some airmen even taking to the B-25’s nose-mounted .30-caliber nose gun to strafe targets of opportunity.

The hit-and-run attacks by Doolittle’s raiders killed an estimated 50 people and wounded another 500 across their five targeted cities. An article within the evening edition of Tokyo’s Miyako Shinbun newspaper boasted nine aircraft shot down, undoubtedly aimed to placate concerned readers. Similarly, news of the American strike was seemingly suppressed within Japan’s military garrisons overseas. “I was in Hainan Island at that time,” shared IJN marine Hiroyuki Sakamoto. “There was a control over information so that I couldn’t hear the news.”

Though the raid inflicted minimal physical damage, the notion that the United States could attack the mainland delivered a psychological blow to Japan. “It seemed to be a great shock to people,” recalled Mitsuko Takahashi, then a high school student on the main island of Shikoku. “Since then, air defense exercises have been actively carried out. When I think about it now,” she added, “it was all useless.” Incidentally, in late 1944, Takahashi and her classmates were ordered to construct balloon bombs aimed to strike and incite fear on the United States mainland, just as the Doolittle Raid had achieved in Japan. Still, others wondered if their cities might also succumb to attack. Assigned to the port city of Kurihama, IJN sailor Masao Araki recalled the raids from crews #11, #12, and #13 that struck two nearby cities. “I didn’t go to Yokohama or Yokosuka at that time,” Araki remembered. “But I thought that Americans would come to Kurihama sooner or later.”

Following their bombing runs, the raiders began the perilous flight towards an uncertain fate in China. Having launched from the Hornet earlier than expected, the airmen wondered whether their fuel-starved aircraft could safely reach the mainland. William Birch, crew #11 bombardier, remembered he and his crew all bailed out “approximately thirty miles southeast of Chu[h]sien, China.” Crew #11 navigator, and Birch’s crewmate, Frank Kappeler illustrated the conditions before bailing. “Midnight in a rainstorm in the dark at 10,000 ft altitude with no more than five-ten or fifteen minutes [of] gasoline available. [I landed] on a steep mountain hillside.” Crew #12 pilot William Bower pithily mused over the daunting challenge of attempting to locate his aircrew after bailing out. “No lights in China at midnight.”

While most raiders bailed out or crash landed within China, three crews ditched off the coastline and incurred rather disastrous results with two men drowned and the other eight significantly whiplashed and bruised. Crew #7 engineer-gunner David Thatcher remembered his aircraft ditched nearby the “island of Nantien, probably five miles from mainland.” Crew #15, however, fared considerably better after ditching half a mile from a cluster of islands. “The airplane made a good landing,” Saylor remarked. “The plexiglass nose broke in and so the airplane started filling up with water in the fuselage pretty fast.” Thankfully, since the B-25’s now-empty fuel tanks were located within the wings, the crew had some buoyancy. “The airplane stayed up about nine minutes. We were all atop the wing getting in that life raft, the five of us. The airplane went down nose first.” A wave hurled the raiders towards the sinking wreckage, puncturing their life raft, and rendering them with a semi-deflated means of flotation. “I didn’t even know how to swim,” Saylor added.

Perhaps the most unusual of events is the odyssey of crew #8. Unlike the other fifteen raiders bound for China, the crew onboard this chronically fuel-starved B-25 diverted towards the Russian city of Vladivostok after their bombing run over Tokyo. “Our country needed to know how much help we could get from Russia” postulated crew #8 bombardier-navigator Nolan Herndon. However, given the Soviet Union’s neutrality pact with Imperial Japan, these raiders were interned upon arrival and their aircraft impounded. Now detained, Herndon explained he and his four fellow airmen did “everything we could to stay alive. Very little food and thirty degrees below zero. Most of the time we had dysentery. I ended up 100% disabled. All of my crew have had short lives.” In May 1943, after thirteen months of internment, Herndon and his crew managed to escape across the Turkmenistan-Iran border.

Meanwhile, in the days and weeks following the raid, Doolittle’s aircrews received invaluable support from Chinese locals who chose to assist them at great personal risk, especially when evading enemy patrols. “We had some pretty close calls getting through the Japanese held areas,” Saylor recalled. In one instance, upon reaching a hilltop Buddhist temple, Saylor his crew were quickly ushered by the Chinese into a nearby cave. “Japanese soldiers were coming. So we sat in that cave for three of four hours and we could hear commotion outside.” Saylor explained that the Japanese troops “had followed our footprints because we were the only ones with shoes on, everyone else wore sandals with flat bottoms that didn’t leave any heel marks…So they knew we had been there.” Not all were as lucky.

L-R: Chinese citizens escorting several raiders to safety; captured crew #16 co-pilot Robert Hite (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

Of the seventy-five raiders to reach China, three were killed in action and eight were captured by the Japanese. Crew #16 co-pilot Robert Hite was seized within twelve hours of touching down in a rice paddy in Japanese occupied China. The eight captured raiders were interrogated, tortured, and subsequently arraigned on alleged war crime charges. “Condemned to death,” Hite mused, “[but] reprieved to life with provision for death if [the U.S.] won.” In October 1942, three of the interned raiders were executed by firing squad; the other five remained confined in small, unheated prison cells in Shanghai and Nanking. “Solitary confinement all time for us,” Hite described. “We had new guards every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day for forty months.” In December 1943, one of the raiders died from beri-beri and dysentery. Despite these hellish conditions, Hite described how he and his remaining raiders overcame adversity. “The reading of the Bible while in prison kept us hoping and alive through much dysentery and fever,” he shared. “We had the Bible for about two weeks for each of us.”

In the immediate aftermath of the raid, Doolittle expected a court-martial for the nascent damage to Japan and loss of sixteen B-25s; instead, he received the Medal of Honor and two rank promotions. The audacious raid galvanized morale and rebounded the nation from defeat. Incensed by Doolittle’s raid, Japan killed an estimated quarter of a million Chinese people in retaliation and hastily expedited their attack of the Midway Islands atoll, which, in June 1942, ended in defeat and turned the tide of the Pacific war. Doolittle continued his service and, by war’s end, was a Lieutenant General and head of the Eight Air Force in Europe. Several raiders gladly offered poignant accolades of their commander. “Doolittle said he received the Medal of Honor for all of us,” shared Herndon of crew #8. “He was the type of man you could follow anywhere.” Likewise, Hite of crew #16 added “Doolittle was a prince, great man and officer.”

L-R: Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle (center) with crew #1 in China after the raid; a headline from the Los Angeles Times; President Franklin Roosevelt awarding the Medal of Honor to Doolittle (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, National Geographic, Naval History and Heritage Command)

Like many, I find myself spellbound by the Doolittle Raid and, during my youth, sought to learn directly from the surviving raiders while time still afforded me the opportunity. In all, I had the good fortune to meet and/or correspond with a dozen raiders and their families – the most visits (five total) with Edward Saylor of crew #15. Perhaps the fondest of memories unfolded at the raider’s seventieth reunion in April 2012, during which time I volunteered as an aid to the four attending raiders and their families. One evening, I observed Dick Cole – Doolittle’s 96-year-old co-pilot of crew #1 – energetically and gregariously treating raider families and other invited guests with generous pours of Hennessy cognac, while working the bar to everyone’s surprise (and delight).

My final encounter with the raiders occurred on November 9, 2013 – courtesy of an invitation from Cole’s family – for, what would become, their last gathering. Hosted at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the elder warriors each raised an engraved silver goblet containing a pour from an 1896 vintage bottle of Hennessy cognac they uncorked for the decades-anticipated final ritual. “Gentleman,” Cole remarked to surviving raiders Saylor and Thatcher, with Hite participating virtually, “I propose a toast to those we lost on the mission and those who have passed away since. Thank you very much, and may they rest in peace.” Following a standing ovation from the crowd, the raiders’ historian momentarily took to the lectern. “This concludes the ceremony and also completes a mission.” Now, eighty years later, may their immortalized service be an inspiration to us all.

L-R: Crew #15 engineer Edward Saylor, crew #1 co-pilot Dick Cole, and crew #7 engineer-gunner David Thatcher gathered for their final toast (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

About the Author:
Kyle Nappi is a national security policy specialist in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and an independent researcher and writer of military history (chiefly the World Wars), having interviewed ~4,500 elder military combatants across nearly two-dozen countries. Since 2020, Mr. Nappi has written four research articles for NHF – “Die letzten Wölfe: Veterans of the Kriegsmarine’s U-Boat Force”, “Divine Wind: Reflections From Two Kamikaze Veterans”, “Target, Hiroshima: Witnesses To The Dawn Of The Nuclear Age” and “A Date Which Will Live In Infamy: Reflections From Ten U.S. Navy Sailors Who Witnessed The Pearl Harbor Attack.” Mr. Nappi is also a recipient of the NHF’s Volunteer of the Year award for efforts to return World War II photographs and memorabilia seized on the island of Saipan to families of fallen Japanese combatants. 


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  1. Darrell B. May


    My Dad was an Aviation Storekeeper First Class (41 years old) “plank owner” aboard the new BB Indiana being finished at Newport News, VA. She would head for the South Pacific upon finishing her sea trials. April 18, 1942 was Mom’s 39th birthday. My brother was 16 and I was 7. The Doolittle Raid cannot be underestimated for it’s heroic effect on the war effort at home and abroad… and on a 7 year old kid who’s Pop was away to war.
    Darrell B. May. Antioch, IL.

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