The extraordinary service of 80 men was remembered April 18 at the tribute to the Doolittle Raiders on the 71st anniversary of the Army Air Force squadron’s flight from a Navy aircraft carrier to bomb Japan during World War II.
At a luncheon held at the Northwest Florida Fairgrounds in Fort Walton Beach, Rear Adm. Don Quinn, commander, Naval Education and Training Command in Pensacola, Fla., addressed more than 600 people who had come to honor the remaining Raiders.
Of the original 80 members of the Doolittle Raiders, four are still living and three attended the events scheduled over several days in Fort Walton Beach, including luncheons, dinners and a parade. Raiders present included Lt. Col. Richard Cole, co-pilot with Col. Jimmy Doolittle; SSgt. David Thatcher, an engineer and gunner on crew 7; and Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, engineer for crew 15. The fourth Raider who was unable to attend is Lt. Col. Robert Hite, co-pilot of crew 16.
“I couldn’t have picked a better group of people to go into combat with,” said Cole, when asked about his fellow Raiders. “I think the young people today have the same spirit we had. They also have better training and a higher level of technology in their training.”
During his remarks, Quinn said the spirit of the Doolittle Raiders would continue.
“I take exception to the idea that this is the last reunion,” Quinn told the audience. “I expect that in every year of our nation’s existence from this day forward that this event will continue to be celebrated, both in this world and the next. It will be celebrated because of the extraordinary service of 80 ordinary Americans. It will be celebrated because in today’s mind numbing barrage of digital information, we Americans often need to be reminded of who we are.”
Quinn was invited to speak about the Navy’s role in the Doolittle Raid and how it initiated a chain of events that led to the American victory at the Battle of Midway. He began his remarks by explaining how Army General Billy Mitchell was instrumental in creating the realization that military aviation would be crucial in future conflicts. On July 21, 1921 Mitchell’s team used biplanes and 2,000 pound bombs to sink a captured German battleship.
“He proved that battleships were vulnerable to attack from the air,” said Quinn.
The Navy Bureau of Aeronautics was established less than a month later.
“I find it fitting, and more than a little ironic, that the aircraft which were used on the Doolittle Raid were North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, and they launched off a carrier that probably would not have existed had Billy Mitchell not educated us all on the potential of air power,” said Quinn.
In speaking about the Navy’s role in the raid on Japan, he outlined how the idea of launching Army bombers from an aircraft carrier came from Capt. Francis Low, a submariner, and the original feasibility study done by Capt. Donald Duncan, a Navy aviator, was composed of 30 handwritten pages which outlined all the key concepts for the successful bombing raid.
“Eglin Air Field was marked off to represent the length of a carrier flight deck, and Navy Lt. Henry Miller taught the Army crews how to take off in a short distance,” said Quinn.
The crews flew their aircraft to Alameda, Calif. where the planes were craned onto the deck of the new aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8), skippered by Capt. Marc Mitscher. Hornet was escorted by the rest of Task Force 18, which included two cruisers, four destroyers and a fleet oiler for refueling the ships.
Aboard Hornet, the Army crews continued to prepare and train with the Navy.
“Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Jurika, who had served in Tokyo as a Naval Attache, provided intelligence on Japan and potential targets,” Quinn said. “The Hornet’s navigation officer conducted training in celestial navigation, and the Army crews practiced while sitting in their aircraft.”
The admiral also pointed out that weather was a key factor in the military operation, and while planners continued to review historical weather patterns, two submarines, USS Thresher (SS-200) and USS Trout (SS-202), patrolled the coast of Japan gathering intelligence and weather data.
To provide additional protection, Adm. William “Bull” Halsey was ordered to sail from Pearl Harbor with Task Force 16 to rendezvous with Hornet’s group. Along with the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6), the Task Force included two more cruisers, four destroyers and an additional oiler.
As Quinn explained, the carriers were spotted by Japanese picket boats, and the Army Air Force crews were forced to launch earlier than expected, which meant they would have less fuel after their bombing raid, making their escape to China more dangerous. The planes successfully launched off the deck of the USS Hornet and into history.
“While the Japanese Navy high command was focused on spreading the empire into the resource-rich Indian Ocean, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, wanted to eliminate the American Pacific Fleet’s combat power,” explained Quinn. “The direct attack on the homeland gave Yamamoto’s plan (to attack Midway) instant credibility.”
In June 1942, units of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps joined in action against a Japanese invasion fleet at Midway Island. Fighting for three days, the American forces won.
“Admiral Nimitz called Midway ‘a glorious page in our history.’ It was certainly a turning point for Naval Aviation,” said Quinn. “The strategic impact of this relatively insignificant tactical action literally drove the Japanese Navy to the pivotal battle at Midway. And to some degree, we can thank Billy Mitchell for that.”