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Eglin commemorates 65th Anniversary of Doolittle Raid with historical marker

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Mike Meares
  • 96th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
A top-secret, two-week training initiative at Eglin Field in 1942, set in motion a sequence of events that changed the course of the war in the Pacific during World War II.

To commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Japan and the role played by, then, Eglin Field in that secret mission, U.S. Air Force and Congressional leaders and local Doolittle Raider, retired Master Sgt. Ed Horton, dedicated a historical marker to the Doolittle Raiders on Wagner Field, Auxiliary Field 1 with a three-ship B-25 Mitchell aerial demonstration at the 2007 Eglin Air Force Base Air Show April 15.

The marker reads: The Doolittle Raid, U.S. Army Air Force special order #1 of World War II, was a daring one-way mission of 16 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers with 80 aircrew, commanded by Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle, to carry out America's first offensive attack on Japan

From March 9-25, 1942, the Raiders, assisted by Naval Air Station Pensacola. Secretly trained at Eglin Main and Wagner Field, Eglin Aux Field #1. Personnel at Eglin Field also made extensive modifications to the aircraft.

On April 18, 1942, Doolittle's B-25s took off from the USS Hornet for their long overwater flight to Japan. After the attack, the Japanese captured eight crew members and executed three as was criminals. One died in captivity from sickness. In retaliation for aiding 65 Raiders to safety, the Japanese Army executed up to 250,000 Chinese. The Soviet Union interned one five-man crew after they landed their B-25 in Soviet territory.

The Raid had little tactical impact, but it did significantly raise American morale in the dark days of early 1942 and led directly to the strategic American victory at the Battle of Midway, June 5-7, 1942. It also foreshadowed the Strategic Bombing Campaign of Japan, 1944-45.

This ceremony celebrated America's first offensive action against Japan and Eglin's support for the historic raid sixty-five years ago.

"It's hard to imagine how much America needed a victory in the early days of World War II," said Brig. Gen. David Eidsaune, Program Executive Officer for Weapons and Air Armament Center commander. "Things were not going well."

During the Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack against U.S. Naval and Army Air Force facilities in Hawaii, Japanese naval air forces crippled the U.S. Pacific fleet.

It all comes right back here to the significant achievements of the mechanics and the men at Eglin said U.S. Senator Bill Nelson during the ceremony.

"In April 1942, most of the world was at war, and the news from the war fronts was all doom and gloom," said Dr. Bob Kane, Air Armament Center historian. "Nazi Germany controlled most of Europe and North Africa, and Britain and the Soviet Union were fighting for their lives. German U-boats were sinking Allied ships, many within sight of the U.S. Atlantic coastline, with seeming impunity."

Japan attacked and destroyed the heart of the U.S. Pacific Fleet -- its battleships -- at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. It was the beginning of a series of major losses for the Allies. Japan captured British, Dutch, French and American colonies in Asia and the western Pacific, taking over 150,000 Allied soldiers as prisoners of war; and stood at the doorsteps of India.

"At the time, it seemed that the enemies of democracy were invincible," Dr. Kane said. "Then, literally 'out of the blue,' the news of Doolittle's Raid on Tokyo on April 18 hit American newspapers, giving American morale a desperately needed shot-in-the-arm."

After the "surprise" attack at Pearl Harbor on the U.S., President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to retaliate against the Japanese empire to crack its growing sense of invincibility. General Henry "Hap" Arnold, U.S. Army Air Forces commander, accepted a suggestion from U.S. Navy Captain Francis Low to use Army medium bombers launched from an aircraft carrier for such an attack. General Arnold selected Colonel Doolittle, already a well known civil aviation pioneer and military aviator, to plan and command the mission.

"The idea of having Army medium bomber launching from an aircraft carrier is truly an example of 'out of the box' thinking and a successful joint service operation," Dr. Kane said.

Between March 9 and March 25, 1942, Colonel Doolittle and 79 other crewmembers with 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers trained at Wagner Field (Auxiliary Field 1), Eglin Field, on carrier-style short takeoffs, assisted by U.S. Navy Lt. Henry Miller, Pensacola Naval Air Station.

The Raiders also practiced takeoffs at Eglin main and flew low-level navigation flights over Eglin's land and water ranges. Eglin Field personnel modified the Doolittle B-25s to enable them to fly the long distances to reach Japan and then China, what would become the longest combat mission in the history of the B-25.

After completing their training and modifying their B-25s, Colonel Doolittle and his volunteer crews flew to Alameda Naval Air Station, Calif., where the aircraft were loaded onto the deck of the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier selected to ferry the bombers to their planned launch point about 450 miles east of Japan. The USS Enterprise plus escort, supply ships and more than 10,000 sailors accompanied the Hornet on this mission.

During the early hours of April 18, the task force, about 200 miles from the planned launch point, sighted two Japanese picket ships and sank them both with naval gunfire. Concerned the picket ships warned Tokyo of the American task force's approach, both Doolittle and U.S. Navy Capt. Marc Mitscher, the task force commander, agreed to launch the bombers during daylight, instead of the planned launch at dusk.

Sergeant Horton flew on the tenth of the 16 B-25s as a turret gunner and accompanied the Doolittle Raiders as they flew more than 650 miles across the western Pacific to bomb military and industrial targets in and around Tokyo.

After the attack, one aircraft, short on fuel, headed for the nearest landfall -- Vladivostok in the Far Eastern Soviet Union. Since the Soviet Union was not then at war with Japan, the Soviet government interned the crew, but "allowed" them to "escape" to Iran 13 months later. The other 15 headed for Chinese held territory, another 1,200 miles away to the southwest, and either ditched short of the Chinese coast or crash-landed after crossing the coast - outside Japanese held territory.

As a staff sergeant during the mission, Horton's crew prepared to bail out of their aircraft, he turned to his lieutenant and said, "Thanks lieutenant, it was a swell ride," and jumped.

The raid's cost was high. Two crewmembers drowned after their B-25 crashed off the Chinese coast, and one died after bailing out from his aircraft. The Japanese Army captured eight Raiders, tried them as war criminals, and executed three of them. One of the remaining five prisoners of war died from disease in 1944, but the other four were rescued at the end of the war. After the raid, the Japanese army launched a new offensive in China to move their area of control further away from the coast. During that offensive, they massacred more than 250,000 Chinese people for the aid given to the Raiders, including Colonel Doolittle, by Chinese citizens.

The Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek gave Doolittle and the rescued Raiders a hearty welcome in Chungking, China's wartime capital, and presented them with medals. Later, all of the Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"After crash landing his aircraft in China, Colonel Doolittle was concerned he was going to be court-martialed when he returned home because in his mind the mission was a complete failure," said Dr. Kane. "Instead, he received the Medal of Honor and a promotion to brigadier general from President Roosevelt."

Some of the Raiders stayed in China, while others were reassigned to other theaters. By the end of the war, 13 more Raiders had died during combat operations or training accidents. Doolittle retired from Air Force duty as a lieutenant general in 1959 and was subsequently promoted to full general by Congress in 1985.

"Although the raid was a tactical failure because of the minimal damage and the extensive losses, it had, however, major strategic consequences that literally determined the course of the Pacific War," Dr. Kane said. "After the string of allied defeats in early 1942, the news of the raid caused American morale to soar, while the news of the massacres of so many Chinese people further inflamed anti-Japanese feelings."

Knowing the American bombers had come from an aircraft carrier, Japanese leaders decided to extend their defense line in the western Pacific and to destroy the American aircraft carriers, which they missed at Pearl Harbor. The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought May 7-8, 1942, entirely by carrier aircraft, confirmed these objectives for some wavering Japanese leaders. As a result, the Japanese launched a massive attack on Midway, and during the ensuing battle on June 5-7, the outnumbered U.S. forces sank four Japanese aircraft carriers in a resounding American victory. Historians credit this battle with halting the Japanese advance and paving the way for the ultimate American victory in August 1945.

The Raid also foreshadowed the strategic bombing campaign that greatly contributed to the destruction of Japan's war-making capabilities. Between June 1944 and March 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force bombed industrial targets in Japan with the very high-altitude, long-range B-29 Superfortress from forward operating bases in China and throughout the Pacific theater.

In April 1945, the bombers relocated to Guam in the Marianas for a sustained strategic bombing campaign that ended with the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan in early August. As a result of these attacks, the Japanese surrendered August 15, 1945.

(The Air Armament Center history office contributed to this article)