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Posts Tagged ‘James Doolittle’


A retired pastor lent me his copy of The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid- America’s First World War II Victory by Craig Nelson. I wondered, “how can a book about a single raid be so big?” I put off reading it until vacation.

This is a great book, and I’m very glad I read it. It was about much more than the Doolittle raid as he provided the larger context of the raid and background on some main characters in this event. He also told the story of the men after the raid and the many consequences of the raid.

This means that Nelson spends time talking about the Japanese empire, the rise of ultra-nationalism and the oil embargo that triggered the attack on Pearl Harbor. He spends time describing that attack that triggered the U.S.’s unwilling entrance into World War II. He discusses the aftermath of the Doolittle raid and how the rest of the war played out. As such, this was an extraordinarily interesting book.

It begins with the volunteers for the raid. It was a novel idea, having land-based bombers take off from an aircraft carrier. This required special training that would take place in Elgin, FL. Preparing for this mission was particularly difficult for a country, and military that wasn’t ready for war despite the fact that one had been going on for 3 years. Much of the equipment was outdated and the soldiers unprepared from combat. The nation was still in shock from the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent victories of the Japanese military throughout the Pacific. Much of its navy was sitting at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

For this crazy mission they modified the B-25s to increase fuel capacity (nearly double) and minimize fuel usage. Other “unnecessary” weight would be removed in the hopes that the planes would be able to make to airfields in China, the part not occupied by the Japanese. They learned how to barnstorm in B-25s in order to gain an advantage in their bombing run.

Image result for B-25The book then moves to “The Man Who Can Never Stand Still”, a brief biography of James Doolittle, the record-setting pilot who was tasked with putting together the mission. He wasn’t supposed to actually fly on the mission. At the last minute he finagled his way into flying the mission. He’d missed aerial combat during World War I, and now was his chance.

The next topic is the ship who carried them, the USS Hornet. The pilots trained in Elgin (the Florida panhandle) and then transported their planes to Alameda, CA. The men needed to keep absolute secrecy on their mission. They could never mention it to anyone or on the phone with each other. The mission was not announced to the crew of the Hornet until they had left the harbor. The sailors were excited to learn they would strike the heart of Japan. Unfortunately some mechanics didn’t know that the planes had been modified to make this trip and returned the engines to specs.

Nelson moved to Japan’s increased militarism. The plan to bomb Pearl Harbor was inspired by a novel by Hector Bywater called The Great Pacific War written in 1925. It was translated into Japanese and became popular with cadets in their military academy. The U.S. and Japan were engaged in a trade conflict over oil. America and Britain had begun an embargo against the Japanese. The enraged Japanese leaders decided to initiate the war by attacking Pearl Harbor. What followed was a series of blunders by the U.S. as the Japanese used their embassy in Honolulu to do reconnaissance. Whenever information arose indicating this plot, the U.S. wrote it off as impossible for them to execute. Nelson provides a fairly detailed account of the attack which was planned by Yamamoto, and the led by air chief Fuchida Mitsuo.

The book then shifts to FDR and how the plan for the Doolittle raid came to fruition. It was frustrating to read of the agreements FDR had with the press to keep his polio from the people. It was also frustration to read of the the ineptitude of the administration in missing the signs of the impending attack. It was similar to the years leading up to 9/11.

After all this background, Nelson returns to the mission itself. It already had a high degree of difficulty, but it was going to be made more difficult by two important factors. First, they were spotted by a Japanese boat on civilian patrol. After notifying the mainland it was sunk. But now the planes would have to fly farther than anticipated or put the task force at risk of destruction by the more powerful Japanese navy. Secondly, a storm was tossing up the ocean. The pilots had to time their takeoffs so lift off occurred as the waves pushed the nose of the ship up. Amazingly they all took off without incident to begin the long flight to Tokyo and other targets.

The planes never got into formation since they had to stretch their fuel even farther. They were not sure they’d make it to China. They lost bearings due to the storm. This would work to their advantage since they arrived at different times from different places. The Japanese air defense couldn’t predict anything. While doing some damage to a few airplanes, none of them were shot down over Japan. All but one continued on to China. That one, thinking they wouldn’t make it flew to Russia (though at war with the European Axis, it wasn’t at war with Japan).

While that plane landed safely in Russia, the rest crash landed in the China Sea or in China. After leaving Japan the storm ended and they got a favorable wind extending their fuel range. But they all ran out of fuel before making the appointed airstrip as they encountered another storm over China. Amazingly, only a few men died. Doolittle was the only one who had parachuted before. Some were injured while parachuting, but none of the injuries were life-threatening. The most serious injuries and deaths occurred for the planes that crash landed in the sea. These men, who ended up on an island, would be captured by the Japanese. The others, including a man whose leg would be amputated in China, would get to safety.

All of those who were captured would be tortured. Some would be executed as war criminals, allegedly for strafing schools. The Japanese had their manufacturing surrounded by residential areas. Much of the strafing was likely from the Japanese fighters attacking the bombers whose defenses were greatly limited to make this flight. Another would die of starvation in the POW camp. The others were in solitary confinement for 3 years. One of them would have profound psychological issues as a result. Another would become a Christian after nagging the Japanese guards for a Bible. As the war ended, he believed God was calling him to return to Japan as a missionary.

Nelson discusses the battle of Midway as part of the Japanese retaliation for the Doolittle raid. This was a key naval battle in which they hoped to eliminate the rest of our navy. But we had cracked their code and with an inferior force crippled their navy which turn the tide of the war.

YImage result for fuchida mitsuoou can see why this was an interesting read. He covers plenty of territory in this book. It isn’t just about events, but the people who were a part of them. We see the eventual conversion of Japanese hero Fuchida Mitsuo through the ministry of former POW Jake DeShazer. Some of his former guards also became Christians, as did a woman who initially went to the evangelistic meetings to kill DeShazer. I appreciate Nelson’s willingness to include this part of “the rest of the story”. Many historians would likely eliminate it as non-essential.

The survivors of this raid were a band of brothers. Many of them would attend the reunions. Eventually wives and families were included. Eventually it became a benefit, allowing people to mingle with these men and hearing tales of their unlikely adventure. This is a story, not just of war, but of men, and a very satisfying read.

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