Saturday, March 2, 2013

There Are Now Only Four

Thomas Griffin died Thursday.  He was 96 years old.  A native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, he eventually settled down in the Cincinnati area.  He was an accountant and a father of two sons. His wife preceded him in death. 

If you never heard of him, don't feel bad. I did not know him by name, either.  But I knew of him, and I wish I had met him. 

He was a Doolittle Raider.

There are now only four.  

December 8, 1941 saw America waking up in a new era. It was much like "my" September 12, 2001. The United States had been attacked.  The attack was by surprise. It was unprovoked.

Instead, however, of passenger airplanes striking buildings full of civilians, warplanes from Imperial Japan decimated the US naval fleet at Pearl Harbor on a peaceful Sunday morning.  For the following months, loss after loss was all America knew.  The war in the Pacific was not going well.  

As anyone who understands anything can probably tell you, morale is important.  When it suffers, losses sting worse, performances are compromised,  and soldiers quit emotionally. If that happens, they're done. When they're done emotionally, so are fighting forces as a whole and eventually, the countries they fight for.

In desperate need of a morale boost, 1942 saw plans getting underway for one the most daring assaults in the history of warfare.  

The B-25 Mitchell is a medium-sized twin engine bomber.  With a crew of six, upwards of 3,000 pounds of ordinance could be dropped.  Fuel capacity, depending on the needs of the mission, could easily exceed 1,000 miles and reach almost 2,000.  It was only 52 feet long and 67 feet wide....

That makes it just small enough to launch from an aircraft carrier but big enough to bust your chops....

After just a few tests under a massive cloak of secrecy, 16 B-25 bombers were loaded onto the flight deck of the USS Hornet.  Her escort, the USS Enterprise, joined her with a small escort fleet of destroyers and cruisers (all the battleships were in ruins in Pearl Harbor). By mid-April, the task force was en route to Tokyo.  80 men, all volunteers, including their leader, Jimmy Doolittle, set out for history.  The Doolittle Mission was underway.

The plan called for the fleet to advance to within 500 miles of Japan.  This, unto itself, was a huge risk, as the two carriers were half of the operational carriers in the Pacific Ocean. If the fleet was detected and attacked, and the carriers damaged or lost, the already dire situation in the Pacific would have been infinitely worse. 

When in position, the planes would launch, gather in formation and attack Tokyo itself.  After the bombing run, they would press onto China for a safe landing at an airfield held by Chinese allies.  The fleet, after the final launch, would simply about-face and hustle back to the friendly waters of the eastern Pacific.

April 18th, 1942, was the attack date. Still almost 200 miles from the launch site, a Japanese picket-boat detected the fleet. Radio transmissions from the boat were detected telling the American fleet that the cover was blown. Mainland Japan now knew of the approaching fleet.  (Notes after the war show that the picket boat had indeed sent a message to the mainland. However, the Japanese armed forces had a difficult time believing that the American fleet was in their front yard and had responded with a request for a confirmation. No confirmation was sent as the USS Nashville used the small fishing trawler for target practice.) 

In spite of the now tremendous distances that would need to be covered, Doolittle made the decision to launch anyway - into a headwind.  Instead of "forming up" into a group of 16, each plane was instructed to head to Japan as soon as they cleared the flight deck.  Expecting the lead plane to wait for the final plan would have consumed one hour of fuel (given the four minutes needed to prep the next plane for launch). That precious fuel would be needed to cover the extra 200 miles.  

The photo below is the launch of one of the planes on the morning of April 18, 1942.  To novice military buffs like myself, I can tell you this photo has been reproduced in many books.  I would argue it is one of the most well-known images to emerge from World War II's Pacific Theatre.  (Others include this one, this one, and this one.)

Thomas Griffin, navigator of the Whirling Dervish, likely used his "pre-accounting math skills" to get his plane on target.  They were the ninth plane to launch. 

In small groups of two, three or four, the planes attacked Tokyo (and some other large cities).  In one sense, the damage to Japan was basically insignificant.  An oil field here.  A power plant there.  All damage was easily repaired.  

In another sense, the damage was huge.  Japan was attacked. Their Emperor, Hirohito, still believed to be immortal by his people, had promised them that their homeland could not be attacked.  16 bombers dumping tons of ordinance on Tokyo at lunchtime proved him a liar.

While Japan's morale took a hit, the morale of the United States shot off the charts.  It could be done - Japan can be attacked. It was attacked. 

Mission accomplished.  

Following the successful bombing run, most of the bombers set a course for China.  One bomber went more north for Russia.   In a fickle turn of fate, the winds shifted, providing a tailwind as the planes made adjustments to maximize every drop of fuel.  Every drop of fuel saved bettered the chances of the planes getting to the airfield.

By nightfall, the bomber bound for Russia had landed.  Russia, an "ally" of the United States, had signed a peace agreement with Japan before the war.  A US bomber landing on their soil unannounced was not welcome. The crew were prisoners until they escaped in 1943.

As darkness settled in and the rain commenced, the other 15 planes crashed one by one.  Each pilot made the best decision they could.  Some ditched along the China coast.  Others bailed out over the jungles.  Not one made it to an airfield.  

Of the 80 Raiders who launched that morning,  three were killed that night during the "landings".  Eight were captured by the Japanese (who were occupying parts of China and unleashing a war against civilians, that in some regards, made the Nazis of Germany look tame).  Of the eight, four survived the war as POWs while three were executed. One died of malnutrition.  

All the others were spirited away by friendly Chinese.  They eventually made it back to thier air groups were they resumed combat missions.  Ten were killed in action in various theatres by the war's end.  Four were shot down but survived as German POWs.  Thomas Griffin was one of them.  

All Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Those injured or captured also received Purple Hearts.  The third highest military honor, the Silver Star, was given to two men, one of whom was a doctor who had to perform a field leg amputation on an injured Raider.  Jimmy Doolittle, the mission's planner and leader, received the Congressional Medal of Honor

In remembrance of their courage and sacrifice, 80 silver goblets were secured.  (As I understand the story, this was done by the citizens of Tucson, Arizona.)  Each bares the name of a Raider.  Upon the death of the individual, his goblet is turned upside down. However, he will never be forgotten, as the name is engraved twice.  The name is printed both "rightside-up" as well as "upside down". As such, in life or death, their names are forever readable.  

Upon the passing of the third remaining Raider, the two survivors will meet.  A bottle of 1896 scotch awaits them. They will have a toast to the 78 Raiders who preceded them.  Visitors can see the goblets at Wright-Patterson Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

The story of the Doolittle Raiders is awe-inspiring.  A pummeled nation.  80 volunteers.  16 planes.  Bravery.  Toughness.  Honor.  A bottle of scotch.  It is enough to make a grown man cry just thinking about it.   

On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you, Major Thomas Griffin.

There are now only four.

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