April 19, 2002 -- In Columbia, S.C., the living survivors of the "Doolittle Raiders" gathered Thursday to remember their perilous flight to avenge Pearl Harbor 60 years ago.
During World War II, not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, American morale was at its lowest and the Japanese controlled much of the Pacific. Some 80 young men were given the mission of taking the war to Japan itself. It was almost mission impossible.
The leader of the mission, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle of the Army Air Corps, was one of the country's most accomplished pilots.
"This raid was to retaliate for the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor four months earlier," said Tom Griffin, Doolittle Raider and former B-52 navigator from Westwood, Ohio.
After Pearl Harbor was bombed, America had no forward bases and no long-range bombers capable of attacking Japan. Gen. Doolittle went to the air base at Columbia where they were flying the B-25 bomber.
"'Boys,' he says, "I'm looking for a group of men to go on a mission,'" recalled former Lt. Nolan Herndon, a navigator, bombardier, nose gun operator and all-purpose crew member from Fort Worth, Texas.
Surprise Attack on Tokyo Offered Hope for Americans
The mission was to put Army bombers on to the aircraft carrier Hornet, sail as close to Japan as possible and then launch a surprise attack on the Japanese mainland. It offered Americans the first good news of the war and forced the Japanese to keep fighter planes at home rather than elsewhere in the Pacific. General Doolittle led the raid.
"They told him not to go on the raid himself," said former staff Sgt. Jacob DeShazer of Salem, Ore. "It's too dangerous for a man as important as he was — but he was the first one off the carrier."
Eighty men in 16 B-25s made near-impossible takeoffs from the carrier. They shocked the Japanese by bombing Tokyo. And then just as they were reaching safety on the coast of China, they began to run out of fuel.
"When we ran out of gas, we bailed out," said Griffin.
Two flyers died in crashes and eight were captured and tortured by the Japanese. Three were executed. But the mission to Tokyo did wonders for American morale.
Since WWII, the surviving Raiders have met every year, and in a ceremony kept private until today, toasted their comrades alive and gone. They turn over 58 pewter cups to commemorate their comrades who have died. There are 22 Raiders alive today. Their final toast will be when there are only two.