The nation was in shock and chafing for revenge after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Morale was at an all time low as they rampaged through the South Pacific, occupying Bataan, Singapore, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines. Admiral Yamamoto, who led the Pearl Harbor raid, was right when he said, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.”
Meanwhile Tokyo Rose taunted us daily while assuring the citizens of Japan they were safe from reprisal. She didn’t know Lt. Col. James Doolittle, a hotshot pilot in our air force, who went to the president with a daring plan. He proposed stripping B-25 bombers so they could take off the deck of a moving aircraft carrier and bomb Tokyo. The planes would have to fly on to China, so it would be a suicide mission and require volunteers.
Four months after Pearl Harbor on April 18, 1942, we bombed Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Hagaya and Yokohama. In 1944, a movie was released about this raid based on a book by one of the pilots, Lieutenant Ted Lawson, called, “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.”
At this time, I worked as a secretary in the public relations office at Hammer Field, the local air base. One of my jobs was to book speakers from the base into the service clubs, like Kiwanis, Lions, etc. One day, I was pleasantly surprised when a tall ruggedly handsome officer limped into my office and introduced himself. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Ted Lawson.”
He was on a speaking tour of the United States and came into my office several times during the next few weeks. I kept asking him about the Doolittle Raid. He told me it was so top secret, they didn’t know where they were going until half way to Japan.
“All the guys were yelling and screaming, they were so excited, but I went to my quarters and wrote a letter to my wife. I didn’t think any of us would make it back. The plan was to get within 400 miles of Japan and take off about dusk on a Sunday evening, but a fishing boat sighted the aircraft carrier on the Hornet, Saturday morning, so we took off early. This meant we would probably run out of gas before reaching the China coast.”
A captain at that time, Lawson, was in much demand as a speaker. He was fascinating, and each time he came in, I peppered him with questions. Once he talked about the actual raid. “We really were only over Tokyo about thirty seconds, but it seemed hours. Nobody shot at us. We took them by surprise. They claimed we didn’t do any damage, but we sure did hurt their morale. We were laughing and yelling, feeling pretty good, until we hit a fierce storm. The sky got dark, and we ran out of gas. We were about a quarter of a mile off the Chinese coast when we slammed into the water.”
I wanted to hear more, but he had to leave for a speaking engagement. It was a week later when he came into my office with another officer. “Jerry, meet Captain White. He’s the doc that cut off my leg. Saved my life.”
Captain White was rather short, might be called pleasingly plump, with black hair, what there was of it, and didn’t look anything like the tall, handsome Stephen McNally who played him in the movie.
Lawson continued, “I was a mess. Most of my teeth had been knocked out, my face was like raw hamburger, and my left leg was almost severed. The Chinese who drug us out of the water carried us on stretchers for days evading the Japanese patrols looking for us. We finally reached a small village in the middle of that vast country, but they didn’t have any medical facilities or anything for my pain. I figured I was a goner until one night another crew stumbled into the village. The only flight surgeon on the raid was with them.”
Captain White chimed in, “Yeah, and lucky for old Ted here, I had managed to grab two vials of morphine when my plane ditched. It helped when we had to amputate his leg.”
“He couldn’t do anything about my teeth or face,” Lawson went on, “But he saved my life. Gangrene had set in.”
I asked them what happened to the other crews, and they both broke out laughing. “Well, Doolittle bailed out in a rice paddy,” White said. “That wouldn’t have been so bad, but they had just fertilized it—with human excrement. He wasn’t too happy.” Then seriously, “the Japs captured and executed two crews, one landed intact in Russia and was interned for the duration. It was a miracle that 15 of the 16 crews managed to reach China.”
When they were flown out of China on June 3, a second amputation was performed on Lawson’s leg because of an infection, and he underwent plastic surgery on his face. I thought they did a wonderful job—he didn’t have hardly any scars.
The Japanese went after the Hornet with a fury, and she went down fighting the following fall. The United States broke their code, and one year later to the day, April 18, 1943, we found out where Admiral Yomamoto would be and assassinated him. Captain Lawson died in 1992, and General Doolittle in 1993. As of this date, there are 23 of the original 80 on the raid still alive who attend a reunion every year.