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What airmen should know about the Doolittle Raiders

Apr. 21, 2013 - 11:41AM   |  
Members of Crew No. 1, 34th Bombardment Squadron, Plane 40 who would later be named the Doolittle Raiders: from left, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, pilot; Lt. Richard E. Cole, copilot; Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; Staff Sgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; Staff Sgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner.
Members of Crew No. 1, 34th Bombardment Squadron, Plane 40 who would later be named the Doolittle Raiders: from left, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, pilot; Lt. Richard E. Cole, copilot; Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; Staff Sgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; Staff Sgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner. (Air Force)
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Three of the four surviving Doolittle Raiders met in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., earlier this month to remember the day 71 years ago when they launched an attack on Japan during World War II that would set into motion the strategic scrambling that ended with Japan's naval defeat at Midway.

Conjured up by then-Lt. Col. James Doolittle, it was a think-out-of-the-box mission using Army Air Force planes bombing 10 targets in Japan in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor four months earlier.

It was April 18, 1942, when the 16 B-25 Mitchell pilots and their crew — 80 in all — flew off the aircraft carrier Hornet in the Pacific, carrying the one-ton bombs. Not all returned.

The crew members say this will be their last reunion; they are all in their 90s, and it's getting increasingly difficult to travel. Supporters are asking the mission receive a Congressional Gold Medal, similar to ones given the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers.

Here are five things every airman should know about the Doolittle Raiders:

Short takeoff training

In order to train the B-25 bomber pilots how to take off the deck of the carrier, they practiced on a 500-foot airstrip at Eglin Field, Fla. It was the first time Army Air Force planes, which weren't built for that purpose, would launch off an aircraft carrier. And it would be the first time they would be used in combat.

No need to practice landings

Because the bombers would have only enough fuel to get them to their mission, they needed a place to land and refuel. So the plan was to land in unoccupied areas of China. Then 650 miles from the Japanese coastline, a Japanese patrol boat saw the carrier Hornet and radioed a warning. Rather than scrapping the mission, Doolittle and his crew upped their takeoff by 10 hours and 170 miles farther from their destination.

Doolittle considered the raid a failure

With the loss of all 16 planes and four crew members due to ditching at sea and crash landing, and with another eight crew members captured by the Japanese and five by the Soviets, Doolittle was sure he would face a court-martial upon his return. But instead he was hailed as a hero. Doolittle received the Medal of Honor and was promoted two ranks to brigadier general. The five crew members held by the Soviets escaped to a British consulate in Iran a year later. Of the eight crew members taken prisoner by the Japanese, three were executed and a fourth died from starvation. The remaining four POWs — including Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93, one of four still-living Raiders — were freed by U.S. troops in August 1945.

Strategic scrambling

While the raiders did little damage bombing their 10 military and civilian targets in Japan, the attack on their homeland caused Japan to pull its fleet from the Indian Ocean to defend their home islands. The raid contributed to Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto's decision to attack the Midway Islands in the Central Pacific, which turned into a decisive victory for the Navy.

China suffered the greatest

Chinese civilians and the American missionary John Birch helped rescue and hide the American crew members who parachuted into Japanese-occupied areas of China after crash-landing or ditching their planes at sea. In retaliation for helping the raiders escape, Japanese forces massacred approximately 250,000 civilians in eastern China as part of its Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign.

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