TO THE DANGER"
by Stan Griffin
In a crowd, Tom Griffin wouldn’t stand out. When you look at him, you see a quiet, unassuming octogenarian with glasses and thinning hair. Of course, you would have no way of knowing that 61 years ago he was part of an important mission that gave a needed boost to a nation stunned and reeling from an attack by the forces of Japan.
Tom Griffin was one of 80 airmen, all volunteers, who flew 16 warplanes from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific to Japan where they dropped their loads of bombs on military targets in the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagoya. This was just four months after the assault on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
After the war ended, Griffin left the Air Force with the rank of major and returned to civilian life. He worked as an accountant until his retirement. He married Esther, and they raised a family: two sons–Gary and John. Now, at the age of 86, he lives in a condo in a Cincinnati, Ohio suburb. Each day he visits his wife at a nearby nursing home which is caring for her. He washes her clothes in their apartment and returns them the next day.
On December 7, 1941 the U. S. suffered a severe blow at Pearl Harbor. Eighteen Navy ships, including seven battleships, were sunk or severely damaged. Over 210 planes were completely destroyed or put out of action. Nearly 2,500 military personnel were killed. It was a precarious situation in which the nation found itself.
Among many Americans, including President Roosevelt, there was a desire for quick retaliation. Army and Navy leaders, working separately, completed plans to bomb Japan. Once the two groups got together for a conference, their ideas were strikingly similar:
It would involve a joint mission of the two branches, the very first of its kind. Our Navy would provide an aircraft carrier. The Army Air Force’s contribution would be a group of medium bombers and trained crews. (U. S. Navy carrier planes didn’t have the necessary range.) The carrier would take the bombers close enough (400-500 miles) to Japan for their strike. The bombers would then take off to attack Japanese cities. Afterwards, they would fly into China, refuel at designated sites, and go on to Chungking.
Named to lead the Army Air Corps attackers was Colonel James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle. He was a daredevil flier, a celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s "Golden Age of Aviation," a true hero, and a natural leader. Only Charles Lindberg was more popular.
Doolittle chose as his aircraft the B-25 (Mitchell), a land-based bomber. It had two engines and a wingspan of 67 feet (necessary for the available carrier deck space). The Seventeenth Bombardment Group based in Pendleton, Oregon had planes and crews. When asked, all fliers on the B-25s there agreed to volunteer without knowing exactly what the mission was. (Secrecy was a paramount concern.) One of those men was Tom Griffin who said "most of us volunteered simply because they were asking for trained personnel for an important mission and they felt we were qualified. It just seemed that our reason for being in the air force was to take part in such an operation."
In early March, 1942, men and planes flew to Eglin Field near Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida. They spent three weeks practicing short takeoffs on runways because only 500 feet of deck space was available on an aircraft carrier, much less than the B-25 pilots had used before. (No time was left to train on a real, ocean-going vessel.) They also spent some time practicing low-level flying, necessary on the mission to conserve fuel as well as to escape detection, avoid anti-aircraft fire, and increase bombing accuracy.
In the third week of March, 22 planes left Eglin (two had been damaged during time spent in Florida) and flew to California, stopping first at McClellan Field and finally on to Alameda Air Station near San Francisco. The aircraft carrier "U. S. S. Hornet" arrived there at the end of the month. By April 1, Doolittle’s bombers had been loaded onto the ship. Of the 22 planes making the trip from Eglin, only the first 16 which checked out as air-worthy were taken. There wasn’t enough room for the others. All of the fliers were taken in case of illness or injuries among the 16 crews scheduled to fly the mission.
The men got a "surprise" shore leave on April Fool’s night. Tom Griffin and three buddies went to a famous San Francisco restaurant, "Top of the Mark." Looking out an observation window, they could see in the moonlight their planes clearly outlined on the "Hornet’s " flight deck. Griffin said, "We were sure that every spy in San Francisco was making copious notes to forward to Tokyo."
The "Hornet" left on the morning of April 2 accompanied by the other ships of their force: two cruisers, four destroyers, and one oiler. On April 13 they rendezvoused with another carrier, the "U.S.S. Enterprise," along with a like number of escort vessels. The task force formed headed for a point 400 miles from Japan where Doolittle and his bombers would take off.
On April 17 all 16 of the B-25s were lined up on the "Hornet’s" deck with bombs and ammunition loaded. Early the next morning two fishing boats were spotted near the carrier and sunk by fighter planes. Fearful the Japanese air force now knew of their approach, it was decided to send the bombers even though they were still about 640 miles from their targets , 200-300 miles farther than the original plan.
Crews hurried to their ships. They all knew their supply of fuel probably wouldn’t get them as far as the refueling stations in China. Tom Griffin was in the wardroom when the order came. After packing his equipment, he and the other members of Plane 9 ("Whirling Dervish") went out on deck headed for their aircraft. He recalls lying prone on the deck "holding on for dear life" to keep from being blown overboard as the first few planes were taking off. Doolittle in Plane 1 lifted off at 9 a.m. When Number 9 was scheduled to go, everyone was ready.
The crewmen of "Whirling Dervish" were: Pilot:-- Lt. Harold F. "Doc" Watson; Co-Pilot–Lt,. James N. Parker; Bombadier–Sgt. Wayne M. Bissell; Engineer-Gunner–Sgt. Eldred V. Scott; and Navigator–Thomas C. Griffin.
The "Dervish" got away from the carrier deck in good fashion. Griffin gave Watson a course to take them to Tokyo where their assigned target was located. As they flew toward Japan, Griffin recalled: "I thought it was much too beautiful a day to be flying on a mission of destruction such as ours."
All the way to the mainland they flew close to the water. Their target was the Tokyo Gas and Electric Company in the southern part of the city. Eight bombers had already made their appearance over Japan so the air defenses had plenty of time to prepare. " ... (Our) path was covered in exploding shells." Griffin remembered, "We were surprised and shocked to realize that those small black clouds we were seeing were flack. (anti-aircraft fire) They were shooting at US!"
The "Dervish" made its run, and bombs were dropped. Crewmen reported direct hits. Watson turned southwest toward China. As they flew, several Japanese planes appeared, but the B-25's speed soon left them behind.
It wasn’t long before the weather began to deteriorate. They flew over the coast of China through thick clouds, fog, and rain. Griffin: "With no visibility downward or upward, we had to trust entirely on our watches and our compass to guess at our approximate position. As navigator, I felt like excess baggage ...All hope of reaching our airfield destination was now lost because of the rough terrain, and lack of radio contact ... Our plane flew inland approximately 300 miles before we ran out of gas." (As they learned later, the "Whirling Dervish" got farther into China than any of the other 15 Raiders.)
After 15 ½ hours in the air, remembered Griffin, "They heard the spluttering sound we had long been waiting for ... One by one we eased down (the bottom hatch) ... into nothing. ... Jumping at night and in a storm is an experience one will never forget. There were times during that descent from 10,000 feet when I thought I had missed the earth. The wind currents at the time must have been violent because I remember first being able to see my chute. It would be level with me and sort of fold up. Then it would swing up over my head, fill up, and come down on the other side once again spilling its air. However, it hung up on the tops of some bamboo trees, and I was lowered to earth with the greatest of ease ... I unbuckled my harness and moved off, leaving my chute ... above."
The next morning Griffin met up with Gunner Scott and Co-Pilot Parker, and the three of them struggled westward in a driving rain through rice paddy after rice paddy. They encountered a farmer and talked him into allowing them to dry their clothes at a fire in his home. While so occupied, the house was surrounded by Chinese soldiers. Griffin repeated in Chinese a phrase they had been taught–"I am an American"–but it was in a different dialect and the soldiers couldn’t understand him. They took the three men to the walled city of Ihwang where two American Catholic priests identified them as Americans who’d bombed the "land of the dwarfs." They were freed and welcomed as heroes by Chinese people in the area. Bombadier Wayne Bissell, had been captured by bandits, but he managed to escape and came into Ihwang also.
"Dervish" pilot Watson had broken his shoulder when he landed, the only one of the five crewmen injured. He was in considerable pain when he was rescued by some peasants who dried his clothes, gave him hot water and rice, and wrapped him in a blanket. Later (April 20) he was taken to Ihwang to join up with the others.
Griffin and his "Dervish" companions stayed in a mountain village about a week. All but Watson visited the remains of their airplane. Peasants were carrying off pieces for souvenirs. Griffin retrieved his musette bag (a small canvas or leather bag with a shoulder strap used especially by soldiers) and his dress uniform. (He still has both to this day.)
All of the crew traveled west for two days. "Doc" Watson was carried by porters on a makeshift litter. They were eventually picked up at Hengyang for transportation to Chungking where they arrived on May 14. Watson was evacuated quickly to the U. S. to be hospitalized. During their stay in Chungking, the others were given a lavish luncheon, Chinese medals, and some scrolls. A plane was sent to take them to India. During the flight, the pilot got lost and almost ran into a mountain; but they eventually got to Calcutta.
In the aftermath of this crew’s escape, Japanese forces killed thousands of Chinese peasants for helping them. Later it was estimated a total of 250,000 innocent Chinese were executed by vengeful Japanese soldiers.
Here are a few statistics on the mission: Eleven crews were forced to bail out (two men died as they did so), and four bombers crash-landed. One of the ships landed in Russia, and the crew was held there for a year. Eight fliers were captured by the Japanese. Of those, three were executed, and five sentenced to life in prison. One of that group died of starvation, and the others suffered through 40 months of mistreatment that didn’t stop until their release at war’s end. Most survivors were sent back into combat; ten were killed in action later.
Tom Griffin: "After the raid, the five of us reported to a B-26 group starting at Harding Field, Louisiana, in July ‘42. By July ‘43 two of the five had been killed and the other three were in Nazi prison camps including myself ... (Griffin was shot down on July 4, ‘43 on a mission over Sicily and spent 22 months in a camp) ... It certainly changed all our lives."
In 1983 Griffin returned to China and visited Chungking. He wanted to see the place where his men had been honored 41 years earlier. However, the Chinese government refused to give him permission to do so.
From the beginning of the postwar period, the Raiders began to organize yearly reunions. In 1945, Doolittle collected all of the men he could find and brought them to Miami for a reunion. He paid the $2,000 cost himself. Since then, each April on the anniversary of their mission (with a few exceptions), they have gathered at such cities as Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Columbia (South Carolina), Dayton (Ohio), Tucson (Arizona), and Fresno (California). At Fresno in 2001, 11 B-25s flew in to join the festivities. They "buzzed" the field twice in formation, thrilling the 10,000 spectators.
Members who attend these reunions wear blue blazers and matching ties embroidered with their insignia containing a soaring B-25, crests of Mercury’s cap, Navajo thunderbirds, roaring tigers, kicking donkeys, and their motto "Toujours au Danger (Always to the Danger)"
Every year the Doolittle Raiders Association presents a scholarship to a deserving young man or woman enrolled at an accredited university in the city where they meet. Each recepient must be an outstanding student and planning to seek a career in aerospace science.
In 1958 North American Aviation presented the Raiders a B-25, and it remains on display at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton Ohio.
The city of Tucson (1959) gave the Raiders 80 silver goblets. Since then, they are taken to the reunion sites and used for toasts to "those who have gone." If a man has died during the previous year, a member of his crew goes to the goblet case and turns his goblet over. In between gatherings, the goblets are on exhibit at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The last two surviving Raiders will open a bottle of cognac, vintage 1896 (the year of Jimmy Doolittle’s birth), and drink a toast to all their departed comrades As of summer 2003, all but 18 of the goblets have been turned over. .
Tom Griffin now spends some of his time speaking to history classes at local schools. The students who are privileged to be present could learn a lot from him: bravery, dignity, dedication, loyalty, and patriotism for starters. He is living history, and we should never forget what he and his fellows did for us.
To learn more details about the events described here, try the following books:
"The Doolittle Raid" by Duane Schultz, St. Martin Press, 1988
"The Doolittle Raid" by Carroll V. Glines, Crown Publishers Inc., 1988
"The First Heroes" by Craig Nelson, Penguin Books, 2002
"I Could Never Be So Lucky Again" by Jimmy Doolittle (with Carroll Glines), Bantam Books, 1991
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