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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS Feed Warrior and Witness: Doolittle Raiders Honored by Crowd; Japanese Visitor Saw Them Over Homeland
Lt. Col. Dick Cole David Thatcher
Lt. Col. Dick Cole was Jimmy Doolittle's copilot for the Tokyo raid. He described Doolittle as 'one of my childhood idols.' (photo by Frederick A. Johnsen) Doolittle Raider David Thatcher told an AirVenture crowd Saturday how he punctured both ends of emptied gasoline cans used to replenish his B-25 en route. This made the jettisoned cans sink before they could create a floating trail back to the aircraft carrier that launched the B-25s. (photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)
B-25 Mitchell with Doolittle's Raiders
Two of Doolittle's raiders in white shirts and caps gathered beside a gleaming B-25 Mitchell bomber similar to those they flew on the first mission over Tokyo in April 1942. (photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)

By Frederick A. Johnsen

The crowded Warbirds in Review bleachers were filled with AirVenture visitors Friday who repeatedly gave two members of the Doolittle Raid standing ovations.

For one visitor in the audience, the event was a reunion of sorts. The crowd got a surprise when 91-year-old M. Kawamoto of Tokyo stood up and said he was cutting wood when he saw "two or three of these (Doolittle Raider) planes were flying very low."

"We saw the markings but couldn't believe they were American planes," Kawamoto said later. He said it was important for him to make it to AirVenture this year.

The Doolittle Raid used 16 B-25s, unconventionally launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, to strike the first blow against Japan early in the war, providing Americans a needed morale boost at a time when the Pacific war had been going badly since Pearl Harbor.

Even more than that, the raid caused Japanese planners to acknowledge Japanese airspace was not inviolate. As a result they allocated precious additional resources to home defense instead of forces in the field.

Saturday, enlisted engineer-gunner David Thatcher described his takeoff from the pitching deck of the Hornet in B-25 No. 7, piloted by Ted Lawson: "I guess we did take off without our flaps," Thatcher recalled. "That's why we disappeared over the end of the carrier." Thatcher's bomber came perilously close to hitting the water on takeoff, yet it and the other 15 bombers made the leap into the sky with a run of only 449 feet.

That short takeoff run was mandated by the intrusion of the carrier's superstructure onto the flight deck. The big bombers needed to start from ahead of the superstructure to ensure they would not collide with it and block the flight deck for the remaining B-25s.

Gunner Thatcher was the only member of his crew aft of the bomb bay on the mission. That is where the only power gun turret on the modified Doolittle B-25s was located. He said a special bladder fuel tank in the crawl space over the bomb bay precluded travel to the front of the aircraft until after the bombing when it was depleted and stowed.

Thatcher also used small gasoline cans to replenish his B-25's tanks in flight, tossing the empty cans overboard. But first he opened both ends of the discarded tins to ensure they would sink quickly and not leave a shiny floating trail leading back to the American aircraft carrier.

Once Thatcher's bomber crossed the Japanese coast at about 50 feet altitude, he said he could see people waving.

Thatcher said his pilot climbed to 1,000 feet bombing altitude to use a cheap mechanical bombsight, the brainchild of Doolittle Raider Ross Greening.

The makeshift sight used a simple protractor to describe an angle, along which the bombardier could line up the target based on known altitude, speed, and bomb load and ensured none of the top-secret Norden bombsights could fall into enemy hands.

Lt. Col. Richard "Dick" Cole was asked how he was chosen to be Col. Doolittle's copilot in the lead aircraft. "It wasn't a matter of selection - it was just a matter of incidents happening," he said. When Cole's original pilot fell ill, Cole said he "didn't feel confident enough to go as a first pilot." The group's operations officer then told Cole, "I'll crew you with the Old Man," meaning Col. Doolittle.

Cole was a childhood fan of Jimmy Doolittle, already a famous test pilot and air racer. "I had a scrapbook with all his flying experiences," Cole remembered. As soon as Doolittle arrived, he began flying with Cole and the rest of the crew. "He didn't fire us so we turned out to be his crew."

Cole said when his crew arrived over Japan, they were perhaps the unwitting beneficiaries of a just-concluded air raid exercise. Observers were presumably lulled by the exercise and not expecting real American bombers then.

When the B-25s finished bombing, they deliberately flew south instead of directly to China in an effort to throw the Japanese off the trail, Cole recalled. About 70 to 100 miles out to sea, the B-25 crews turned southwest toward China.

Plans called for them to land at friendly Chinese airfields, but an unforeseen need to launch earlier than planned, among other things, made the likelihood of reaching the safe haven airfields less likely.

The B-25s crash-landed or the crews bailed out. One crew elected to land in the Soviet Far East. Some died or were captured; most were courageously conducted to safety by the Chinese.

Tales of the Doolittle Raiders have thrilled Americans ever since the raid happened 70 years ago. Yesterday at AirVenture, the amazing story came to life when told by men who were there.

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