05 August 2011

Last Surviving Pilot of 1942's Astonishing 'Doolittle Raid' Col William Bower; a Brief History and Memorial Service in Pictures

A great and genuine American hero

Col William Bower

The audacious US Army air attack upon the Japanese home islands in April of 1942 that came to be known as the Doolittle Raid was the very first American offensive inflicted upon the Japanese motherland in WWII. As intended, it came as a hideous shock to both the military regime and Japanese people...

In the event, actual military and economic damage was unsubstantial- but by exposing 'invincible' Japan as vulnerable, the heroic bombing run brought us a much-needed morale boost... Americans got their first taste of vengeance in the wake of the sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor just the previous year.

In a daring and well-orchestrated raid designed and conducted by Lt Col "Jimmy" Doolittle, 16 specially-equipped (U.S. Army Air Forces) B-25 Mitchell medium bombers were launched from the Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet deep in the Western Pacific Ocean. The plan was to bomb industrial and military targets in Japan and even Tokyo itself, then land the planes at friendly bases in China once the one-way mission was complete. No such bomber mission -launched from a carrier deck- had ever been attempted previously... and it's never a been repeated since.

After an unfortunate early spotting by Imperial Japanese forces 
-who were promptly sunk- the plan was moved up 10 hours and the birds put in the air immediately. All 16 bombers launched successfully, eventually approaching Japan proper in a long, single-file formation at wave-top altitude to avoid detection.

The Doolittle Raid accomplished most primary and secondary objectives, none of the B25s where shot-down, and only one was even nicked by the Japanese. But due to the early launch, the planes ran low on fuel as darkness fell, and all of the US aircraft involved in the bombing were lost in crash landings and bail-outs over China and the Soviet Union. Sadly, 11 crewmen were either killed or captured, with three of the captured men brutally tortured and executed by the Japanese Army in China.... not to mention 250,000 Chinese civilians killed in retaliation.

But the raid also forced Japan to withdraw its powerful aircraft carrier force from the Indian Ocean to defend their Home Islands -taking pressure off the Royal Navy- while rushing Yamamoto's decision to attack Midway Island... a miscalculation which resulted in heavy losses and turned the tide against the Japanese Empire.

The surviving crew members have met each year since the 1940's, and toast from a set of special, engraved goblets... in itself quite a story. When only two are left, they will drink a final toast from a bottle of Hennessy 1896 that's stored in the case with the goblets (honoring the year of Jimmy Doolittle's birth-).

Only five Doolittle Raid crew members are still with us today, as the last veteran pilot passed at 93 earlier this year -Col William Bower.  The photos below show the memorial service that was held in late May. Few of his neighbors in Boulder, CO even knew he was a war hero, but this modest man's final request was indeed fulfilled: a single B-25 Mitchell performed a touching flyover... that's his co-pilot seated in the front row with the family:

On a personal note, my one buddy in college in 1980 who was very pro-Reagan and an enthusiastic conservative -and who had an early influence on my thinking- told me his father was best friends with one of the Doolittle Raiders, and he'd had the opportunity to hear stories first-hand back in Connecticut. That always stuck in my mind over the years as I learned more and more of these hyper-brave patriots, just what they did for us, and the price they paid... may God bless them all.

The Daily Camera   US Reserve Affairs   h/t +pics: Speedunque