The Doolit­tle Raid: Amer­ica at its finest

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

On May 16, the nation hon­ored Col. Wil­liam M. Bower, the last sur­viv­ing pilot of the April 18, 1942, Doolit­tle Raid, the risky sur­prise at­tack on the Ja­panese home is­lands that bol­stered Amer­i­can morale in the early, tragic months of World War II. Col. Bower died Jan. 10 at age 93 and was laid to rest on May 16 at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery.

The Doolit­tle Raid was one of the gut­si­est calls ever made by a pres­i­dent. Shortly af­ter the Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Har­bor at­tack, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt is­sued a direc­tive that the United States hit the Ja­panese home­land as soon as pos­si­ble. Those were dark days. Amer­ica was in an ex­is­ten­tial fight, not with rag­tag bands of vi­o­lent ex­trem­ists but with the might­i­est armed forces in his­tory, then at the height of their power. Af­ter Pearl Har­bor, the Ja­panese Em­pire en­joyed an un­bro­ken string of vic­to­ries. Bomb­ing Ja­pan was in­tended to de­liver a blow to Im­pe­rial pride.

The raid was planned and led by Lt. Col. (later Gen­eral) James “Jimmy” Doolit­tle. Eighty vol­un­teers were tasked to fly 16 B-25 medium bombers from the air­craft car­rier USS Hor­net to bomb Tokyo and other tar­gets. The plan car­ried in­cred­i­ble risk. The Hor­net could be de­tected by en­emy naval forces and sunk. The weather might force a scrub or cause the bombers to miss their tar­gets. The lightly armed air­craft might be shot down be­fore reach­ing Ja­pan. Even if suc­cess­ful in drop­ping their pay­loads, the crews would have to ditch their air­craft, para­chute to Earth and sur­vive the hunt by the Ja­panese army through Manchuria.

De­spite these chal­lenges, the raid was a suc­cess. The bombers launched from the Hor­net and flew un­de­tected to strike their tar­gets with­out los­ing a sin­gle air­craft. The raiders did min­i­mal dam­age to Ja­pan’s in­dus­trial base, but they in­flicted a telling blow to the Ja­panese sense of se­cu­rity and caused de­ci­sion­mak­ers in Tokyo to rad­i­cally shift strat­egy. Roo­sevelt main­tained the air of mys­tery by shar­ing none of the op­er­a­tional de­tails of the at­tack, and quipped to re­porters that the raid was launched “from our new se­cret base at ShangriLa.”

Most of the crew mem­bers sur­vived the mis­sion. Col. Bower bailed out of his plane in the dark­ness and waited for dawn on a moun­tain­top wrapped in his silk para­chute for warmth. He linked up with other mem­bers of his crew and was smug­gled out of China by Na­tion­al­ist guer­ril­las. Of those who didn’t make it back, two men drowned and an­other was killed while bail­ing out. Eight were cap­tured by the Ja­panese, of whom three were ex­e­cuted and one died of disease. The high­est price was paid by China. An es­ti­mated 250,000 Chinese civil­ians were mur­dered in reprisal ac­tions by Ja­panese forces for the as­sis­tance given to Amer­i­can fly­ers.

Col. Bower showed the typ­i­cal mod­esty of heroes from the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion. “Dad was very hum­ble about what he did,” his daugh­ter Mindy Bower told The Wash­ing­ton Times at his grave­side in Ar­ling­ton’s Sec­tion 54. “He didn’t want any fuss. His attitude was that that was their job.” The Doolit­tle Raiders re­mained close af­ter the war, get­ting to­gether for hunt­ing and fish­ing trips well into old age. Gen. Doolit­tle — or “Dad’s fish­ing buddy,” as Mindy jok­ingly called him — came on the trips into his 90s. He died in 1993 and is buried in Sec­tion 7a, up­hill and to the west of Col. Bower, just be­low the Tomb of the Un­knowns.

A cais­son drawn by a team of white horses stood in the shade of a nearby copse of trees. A 21-gun salute echoed over the Ar­ling­ton Hills. Col. Richard E. Cole, 95, co-pilot of Crew 1 and one of five sur­viv­ing raiders, walked alone to the grave­side and saluted his de­parted friend. The sound of “Taps” melted into the warm spring breeze.

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