The following is an excerpt from “Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor” (W.W. Norton & Co.), available April 13.
The three living Doolittle Raiders are expected to receive the Congressional Gold Medal this month, on the 73rd anniversary of the mission.
The Hornet swung into the wind at 8:03 a.m. and increased speed to twenty-two knots. The seas crashed against the flattop’s bow, alarming even the most veteran sailors.
“It’s the only time in my life,” Vice Adm. William “Bull” Halsey recalled, “I ever saw green water come over the bow and right onto the flight deck of a carrier.”
Navy handlers positioned the bombers as far back on the flight deck as possible, two abreast and crisscrossed. The near-gale-force winds coupled with the revving engines made it difficult for the flight deck crew to maneuver, each of whom wore a safety line to keep from getting blown into the whirling props. “It sure was windy!” recalled George Bernstein, a flight deck crewman. “We had to literally drop to the deck and hang on with our fingers in the tie-down fittings when the B-25s revved up.”
Over this roar Henry Miller shouted instructions to the pilots: keep the trim tabs in neutral and the flaps down. Any changes he would display on a blackboard. “Look at me,” Miller demanded, “before you let your brakes off!”
Jimmy Doolittle climbed into the lead bomber alongside his copilot, Second Lieutenant Dick Cole. Throughout the plane sat the navigator, Second Lieutenant Hank Potter, the bombardier, Staff Sergeant Fred Braemer, and the gunner and crew chief, Staff Sergeant Paul Leonard. Rain beat down on the cockpit windshield as Doolittle stared down the 467-foot flight deck. The days of practice and the nights of worry had come down to this moment – not just for Doolittle but for all sixteen aircrews. “We all stood around, watching and sweating it out,” recalled Jacob Eierman. “We had done plenty of practicing – on land – but this was going to be the first real takeoff from a carrier with one of our big bombers.”
The loudspeakers crackled on board the other ships in the task force:
“Hornet preparing to launch bombers for attack on Tokyo.”
Troops ranging from cooks and quartermasters to engineers and gunners crowded rain-soaked decks for a chance to witness the historic event – a few even saw an opportunity to profit. “Sailors, like stockbrokers, work everything out by betting, and there was soon heavy money down on both sides: would they make it, would they not?” recalled Alvin Kernan, an Enterprise plane handler. “The odds were that the B-25s wouldn’t have been on the Hornet if there had not been successful tests somewhere, but with all the skepticism of an old salt about anything the services did, I put down ten dollars at even money that less than half of them would get into the air.”
Doolittle revved up the bomber’s twin engines and checked the magnetos.
The carrier’s speed and the furious storm combined to create as much as fifty miles per hour of wind across the Hornet’s deck, perfect conditions for takeoff. He flashed the thumbs up sign to Lieutenant Edgar Osborne, the signal officer who clutched a checkered flag. Sailors pulled the wheel chocks out as Osborne waved his flag in circles, signaling Doolittle to push the throttle all the way forward.
“Everything all right, Paul?” Doolittle asked his crew chief.
“Everything okay, Colonel.”
Osborne watched the Hornet’s bow so as to release Doolittle just as the carrier began to dive down the face of a wave. The time required for a B-25 to traverse the flight deck meant that the bomber would reach the bow on the upswing, catapulting the plane into the air. Osborne dropped the flag and Doolittle released the brakes. The bomber roared down the flight deck at 8:20 a.m. “The scream of those two engines, the excitement and urgency, made an incredible sight. I was lying face down on the wet deck, clutching tiedown plates to keep from being blown back by the terrific wind. When Doolittle’s B-25 began to move, it seemed unreal,” Ross Greening later wrote. “I had chills running up and down my spine from excitement.”
Doolittle’s left wheels hugged the white line that ran down the deck. He passed fifty feet, then one hundred.
Then two hundred.
“He’ll never make it,” someone shouted.
The bomber charged toward the end of the flight deck and then appeared to vanish.
“Doolittle’s gone,” Charles McClure thought to himself. “We’ll have to make it without him.”
The plane then roared up and into the gray skies over the bow.
“Yes!” Richard Knobloch shouted. “Yes!”
Sailors crowded along the flight deck and carrier’s island erupted in cheers. “The shout that went up should have been heard in Tokyo,” Thomas White, the mission’s doctor, remembered. “We were all yelling and pounding each other on the back. I don’t think there was a sound pair of vocal cords in the flotilla.”
On board the cruiser, Salt Lake City journalist Robert Casey captured the moment in his diary. “First bomber off the Hornet. Miraculous,” he wrote. “The carrier is diving, deluging deck with white water. The big plane is just about catapulted as the ship lifts out of the sea.”
In the skies overhead Doolittle instructed Cole to raise the wheels as he circled over the Hornet, where the carrier’s course was displayed in large figures from the gun turret abaft the island. Doolittle paralleled the flight deck, allowing Potter to calculate any error with his magnetic compass before he pressed on toward Tokyo.
James M. Scott is an award-winning writer and former reporter for the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier. His books include “The War Below” and “Attack on the Liberty.” Visit his website online. www.jamesmscott.com