Bomber Stories From the 70th Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Anniversary Reunion
Dayton Ohio’s National Museum of the U.S Air Force was home to the official ceremony that marked the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raiders’ World War II bombing mission against Tokyo. On April 18, 1942, sixteen North American B-25 Mitchell bombers led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle and crewed by seventy nine other airmen, launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet; their destination was Japan. From Tuesday April 17th through Friday April 20th, 2012, a series of events feted the reunion of the surviving crew members, four out of five were able to attend. Twenty B-25 bombers assembled at nearby Urbana Ohio and flew onto the Air Force Museum’s grounds for the first day and a half of the reunion. The four attending Raiders attracted loads of attention with their recollections about the raid, but there were other people present at the ceremonies that offered their stories too. Somehow, every story contained a common thread to the North American B-25 Mitchell bomber. Here are a few of my favorites.
It is well documented that the 16 bombers never made their planned destination in China because of an earlier than expected launch. All but one did manage to reach the Japanese-occupied country though, and the aviators were assisted by many local Chinese in their bid to return to friendly territory. During the Raiders’ sole press briefing, a Chinese delegation offered some startling links to the past. Three Chinese citizens who were young children when the raid occurred travelled to the reunion; their families helped various Raiders evade the Japanese and escape from China. One, Hu Daxian is the wife of Li Senlin, a Chinese resistance fighter who assisted some of the crew’s evasion and escape. A woman named He Shaoying brought a Chinese book containing a photograph of herself (a young child) and her family together with Lt. Col. Doolittle’s crew; she shared this picture with retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole, who was Doolittle’s copilot, and who was standing with her in the picture! Mr. Mingfa He produced two photos: one of his father who helped other crewmembers survive, the other a picture of a 1937 Wheat Cent that one of the aviators gave his dad as a token of his appreciation. The penny is a family heirloom today, and was kept well hidden until the war was over as the Japanese occupiers killed many Chinese that they felt may have assisted the Raiders escape the country. Mr. Weiyong Zheng was another delegate, though not connected with the raid through his family. He announced that he has visited seven of the crash sites of the raid’s B-25 bombers in China. He unfolded a piece of bright orange cloth and produced a small piece of metal he said came from one of the planes. An excited Air Force Museum official remarked that the piece still had paint on it from 70 years ago. Mr. Zheng told those gathered that he has recovered more small fragments and four larger pieces too. Not surprisingly, Museum officials were keen to hear more from him.
A pair of Navy veterans from the U.S.S. Hornet (CV-8) were present, and added their own stories. Retired Navy Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Allen Josey, an electrician, is a “plank owner” or original crewmember of the Hornet when it was launched. CPO Josey was aboard when one of the first things the Hornet did after its’ launch was to receive two B-25 bombers at Norfolk VA and secretly proved the feasibility of their flight operations off of the carrier. He couldn’t imagine where those tests off of the Virginia coast would lead to at the time. Retired Aviation Machinist’s Mate (AD) Elmo Wojahn joined the Hornet’s crew shortly after the secret tests, and both men talked about the mission, though both were below decks when the B-25s launched. AD Wojahn worked on Grumman aircraft during his Navy career, from the F3F biplane fighter to the F9F Panther jet. Their stories of the sinking of the Hornet some months later were riveting; CPO Josey said that the first torpedo hit on the ship sounded more like “breaking glass” than an explosion.
The twenty B-25 bombers that flew into the privately airstrip behind the Museum drew thousands of spectators. Arriving from Urbana on Tuesday morning shortly after sunrise, a bomber touched down close to every three minutes. Later, a viewing opportunity was open to the public, drawing thousands of spectators. Not only was this a chance to talk to the crews that flew the bombers onto the field, but a time to catch a couple of “war stories” too. Knots of people gathered around to hear tales from the Second World War veterans that made it out to the flight line. I walked into the midst of one such conversation under the wing of a B-25 that went like this: “we’d start our dive bombing from 8,000 feet… some guys liked to push the nose over, but I liked to roll onto a wing and put the target in the gun sight. We had it all worked out that at 2,500 feet you’d begin to pull up, and the instant the nose obscured the target, we’d hit the release and were really accurate with the bomb.” Intrigued, I said that I didn’t think the B-25 could do a wing-over like that, and the veteran exclaimed “B-25? I didn’t fly that truck! I flew P-40s in the China-Burma Theatre…” and drew chuckles from the bystanders.
Another story began with a conversation with a crewmember from the dark blue-painted “Devil Dog”, representing a Marine PBJ version of the B-25. At another air show, an older man was spotted hurrying along the best he could towards the bomber that was parked on static display. The crewman saw that this wasn’t an easy task, and wondered what was going to happen next. The older man finally made it to the plane, and touched his hand to the metal skin of the plane, while smiling. Of course, they talked, and in a heavily accented voice the story was told. The man was of Philippine descent, and was interned with his family in a Japanese camp during World War II. As a very young boy, he remembered that every once in a while his father told him to go outside and arrange a pile of rocks and stones in a specific way. Although not a fun task, he obeyed his father and did what he was told. The elderly man also remembered the dark blue planes that flew over and bombed Japanese positions during the war too. Those planes helped defeat the enemy. After the war, the young man put two and two together, and realized that his father had the boy arrange the stones in a specific pattern to communicate to the planes where their target was. And many years after unwittingly helping Marine bombers find their targets, the now elderly man finally saw one of those blue planes close up and could touch one!
Wednesday around noon, the bombers departed the Museum’s runway at 30 second intervals to join together for their fly-bys during the afternoon’s memorial service. I had befriended some fellow photographers awaiting the B-25 launch, and listened to one, Bob Burns, talking about a specific B-25 with another photographer. Bob had much experience, through his NASA career, with propeller-driven test and tracking aircraft. The other photographer knew the history of the certain B-25 well. The Bendix Radio Company used B-25s to assist with tests around the Baltimore area some decades ago. During the conversation, one man asked the other if he knew this person or that person… and you guessed it, they were soon discussing mutual acquaintances and experiences around specific aircraft and programs, although it seemed that they had never met before that day of the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raiders’ reunion. Although aviation is a wide-ranging endeavor, its’ membership always seems to be a close-knit fraternity.
No, this isn’t a story about the history of the Doolittle Raiders and their reunion, but about people connected with the raid through personal circumstances, places, and the North American B-25 bomber. Their stories piqued my imagination; I wonder what others are out there waiting to be told.