A Pilot from the Greatest Generation

It was arguably one of the biggest gambles of the Second World War: Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing raid on Tokyo gave America the morale boost it needed in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Long odds for success with a short time to prepare. To do this, Doolittle trained a band of 80 airmen who volunteered for a top-secret, one-way mission. It required the launch of 16 fully loaded bombers (flying gas cans really) from an aircraft carrier. The men had to learn to take off with only 500 ft. of runway and then drop bombs without the use of Norden bomb sites. It was a crucial mission that resulted in the redeployment of Japanese fighter units to defend the home islands, thus weakening Japan’s air capabilities in the South Pacific campaigns.SP32-20091021-222345

I’m reminded of the men who defined the “Greatest Generation” and manned these planes. They endured privations of the Great Depression only to find their young adult years would be devoted to fighting a war. They took personal responsibility without regarding themselves as victims. They were humble; doing what was expected of them. But they never talked about it as this was part of the Code. They believed in commitment. It was the last generation in which, broadly speaking, marriage was a life long devotion. There was a belief in hard work. The Depression taught them this, to not give up until the objective was accomplished. Today some shirk challenge and difficult pursuits, believing the easier it is, the happier they’ll be. Lastly, they didn’t think about how to get things done, they just did it. When Joe Foss, one of the most celebrated fighter pilots of WWII  and governor of South Dakota was asked if he missed his younger days, he said, “Oh no. I’m not a guy who missed anything from anywhere. I’ve always been a guy who just gets up and goes!”

My Dad fought with the First Marines in some of the bloodiest battles of the South Pacific: Peleliu, with 80% casualties and Okinawa. He embodied these virtues as much as anyone I’ve ever known. “Mac” McElroy  is one of many who capture the spirit of this great generation also.

This is an excellent first hand account by the pilot of aircraft #13 on the Doolittle Raid off the USS Hornet in 1942.  It’s a long read but if you like aviation history, you will like this narrative. .

My name is Edgar McElroy. My friends call me ‘Mac’. I was born and raised in Ennis, Texas the youngest of five children, son of Harry and Jennie McElroy. Folks  say that I was the quiet one. We lived at 609 North Dallas Street and attended the Presbyterian Church.

My dad had an auto mechanic’s shop downtown close to  the main fire
station. My family was a hard working bunch, and I was expected to work at
dad’s garage after school and on Saturdays, so I grew up in an  atmosphere
of machinery, oil and grease. Occasionally I would hear a lone plane  fly
over, and would run out in the street and strain my eyes against the sun to
watch it. Someday, that would be me up there!

I really like cars, and I was  always busy on some project, and it wasn’t long before I decided to build my  very own Model-T out of spare parts. I got an engine from over here, a frame  from over there, and wheels from someplace else, using only the good parts from  old cars that were otherwise shot. It wasn’t very pretty, but it was all mine. I enjoyed driving on the dirt roads around town and the feeling of freedom and speed. That car of mine could really go fast, 40 miles per hour!

In high school I played football and tennis, and was good enough at football to receive an  athletic scholarship from Trinity University in Waxahachie. I have to admit that  sometimes I daydreamed in class, and often times I thought about flying my very  own airplane and being up there in the clouds. That is when I even decided to  take a correspondence course in aircraft engines.

Whenever I got the chance, I  would take my girl on a date up to Love Field in Dallas. We would watch the  airplanes and listen to those mighty piston engines roar. I just loved it and if she didn’t, well that was just too bad.

After my schooling, I operated a filling station with my brother, then drove a bus, and later had a job as a  machinist in Longview. but I never lost my love of airplanes and my dream of flying. With what was going on in Europe and in Asia, I figured that our country  would be drawn into war someday, so I decided to join the Army Air Corps in November of 1940. This way I could finally follow my dream.

I reported for primary training in California. The training was rigorous and frustrating at  times. We trained at airfields all over California. It was tough going, and many of the guys washed out. When I finally saw that I was going to make it, I wrote  to my girl back in Longview, Texas. Her name is Agnes Gill. I asked her to  come out to California for my graduation. And oh yeah, also to marry me.

I  graduated on July 11, 1941. I was now a real, honest-to-goodness Army Air Corps pilot. Two days later, I married ‘Aggie’ in Reno, Nevada. We were starting a new  life together and were very happy. I received my orders to report to Pendleton,  Oregon and join the 17th Bomb Group. Neither of us had traveled much before, and  the drive north through the Cascade Range of the Sierra Nevada’s was interesting  and beautiful.

It was an exciting time for us. My unit was the first to receive  the new B-25 medium bomber. When I saw it for the first time I was in awe. It looked so huge. It was so sleek and powerful. The guys started calling it the ‘rocket plane’, and I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. I told Aggie that  it was really something! Reminded me of a big old scorpion, just ready to sting!  Man, I could barely wait!

We were transferred to an other airfield in Washington State, where we spent a lot a time flying practice missions and attacking imaginary targets. Then, there were other assignments in Mississippi and Georgia, for more maneuvers and more practice.

We were on our way back to California on December 7th when we got word
of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We listened with mixed emotions to
the announcements on the radio, and the next day to the declaration of war.
What the  President said, it just rang over and over in my head, “With
confidence in our  armed forces, with the un-bounding determination of our
people, we will gain the  inevitable triumph. So help us God.” By gosh, I
felt as though he was talking straight to me! I didn’t know what would
happen to us, but we all knew that we  would be going somewhere now.

The first weeks of the war, we were back in Oregon flying patrols at sea looking for possible Japanese submarines. We had to be up at 0330 hours to warm  up the engines of our planes. There was 18 inches of snow on the ground, and it  was so cold that our engine oil congealed overnight. We placed big tarps over  the engines that reached down to the ground. Inside this tent we used plumbers  blow torches to thaw out the engines. I figured that my dad would be proud of  me, if he could see me inside this tent with all this machinery, oil and grease.  After about an hour of this, the engines were warm enough to start.

We flew patrols over the coasts of Oregon and Washington from dawn until  dusk. Once I thought I spotted a sub, and started my bomb run, even had my bomb doors open, but I pulled out of it when I realized that it was
just a big whale.

 Lucky for me, I would have never heard the end of that! Actually it was lucky  for us that the Japanese didn’t attack the west coast, because we just didn’t  have a strong enough force to beat them off. Our country was in a real fix now,  and overall things looked pretty bleak to most folks. In early February, we were  ordered to report to Columbus, South Carolina. Man, this Air Corps sure moves a  fellow around a lot! Little did I know what was coming next!  

After we got settled in Columbus, my squadron commander called us all together. He told us that an awfully hazardous mission was being planned, and  then he asked for  volunteers. There were some of the guys that did not step  forward, but I was one of the ones that did. My co-pilot was shocked. He said,  “You can’t volunteer, Mac! You’re married, and you and Aggie are expecting a  baby soon. Don’t do it!” I told him, “I got into the Air Force to do what I  can, and Aggie understands how I feel. The war won’t be easy for any of us.”

We  that volunteered were transferred to Eglin Field near Valparaiso,
Florida in  late February. When we all got together, there were about 140 of
us volunteers,  and we were told that we were now part of the ‘Special B-25
Project’.

We set about our training, but none of us knew what it was all about. We
were ordered not to talk about it, not even to our wives.

In early March, we  were all called in for a briefing, and gathered
together in a big building there  on the base. Somebody said that the fellow
who’s head of this thing is coming to  talk to us, and in walks Lieutenant
Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. He was already an  aviation legend, and there he
stood right in front of us. I was truly amazed  just to meet him.

Colonel Doolittle explained that this mission would be extremely
dangerous,  and that only volunteers could take part. He said that he could
not tell us  where we were going, but he could say that some of us would not
be coming back.

There was a silent pause; you could have heard a pin drop. Then Doolittle
said  that anyone of us could withdraw now, and that no one would criticize
us for  this decision. No one backed out! From the outset, all volunteers
worked from  the early morning hours until well after sunset. All excess
weight was stripped  from the planes and extra gas tanks were added. The
lower gun turret was  removed, the heavy liaison radio was removed, and then
the tail guns were taken out and more gas tanks were put aboard. We extended the range of that plane from  1000 miles out to 2500 miles.

Then I was assigned my crew. There was Richard Knobloch the co-pilot,
Clayton Campbell the navigator, Robert Bourgeous the bombardier, Adam
Williams  the flight engineer and gunner, and me, Mac McElroy the pilot.
Over the coming  days, I came to respect them a lot. They were a swell bunch
of guys, just  regular All-American boys.

We got a few ideas from the training as to what type of mission that we
had  signed on for. A Navy pilot had joined our group to coach us at short
takeoffs  and also in shipboard etiquette. We began our short takeoff
practice. Taking off  with first a light load, then a normal load, and
finally overloaded up to 31,000 lbs. The shortest possible take-off was
obtained with flaps full down,  stabilizer set three-fourths, tail heavy,
full power against the brakes and  releasing the brakes simultaneously as
the engine revved up to max power. We  pulled back gradually on the stick
and the airplane left the ground with the  tail skid about one foot from the
runway. It was a very unnatural and scary way  to get airborne! I could
hardly believe it myself, the first time as I took off  with a full gas load
and dummy bombs within just 700 feet of runway in a near  stall condition.
We were, for all practical purposes, a slow flying gasoline bomb!

In addition to take-off practice, we refined our skills in day and
night  navigation, gunnery, bombing, and low level flying. We made cross
country  flights at tree-top level, night flights and navigational flights
over the Gulf  of Mexico without the use of a radio. After we started that
short-field takeoff  routine, we had some pretty fancy competition between
the crews. I think that  one crew got it down to about 300 feet on a hot
day. We were told that only the  best crews would actually go on the
mission, and the rest would be held in  reserve. One crew did stall on
takeoff, slipped back to the ground, busting up  their landing gear. They
were eliminated from the mission. Doolittle emphasized  again and again the
extreme danger of this operation, and made it clear that  anyone of us who
so desired could drop out with no questions asked. No one did.

On one of our cross country flights, we landed at Barksdale Field in
Shreveport, and I was able to catch a bus over to Longview to see Aggie. We
had  a few hours together, and then we had to say our goodbyes. I told her I
hoped to  be back in time for the baby’s birth, but I couldn’t tell her
where I was going.  As I walked away, I turned and walked backwards for a
ways, taking one last look  at my beautiful pregnant Aggie. 

Within a few days of returning to our base in Florida we were abruptly
told to pack our things. After just three weeks of practice, we were on our
way.  This was it. It was time to go. It was the middle of March 1942, and I
was  30 years old. Our orders were to fly to McClelland Air Base in
Sacramento,  California on our own, at the lowest possible level. So here we
went on our way  west, scraping the tree tops at 160 miles per hour, and
skimming along just 50  feet above plowed fields. We crossed North Texas and
then the panhandle,  scaring the dickens out of livestock, buzzing farm
houses and a many a barn  along the way. Over the Rocky Mountains and across the Mojave Desert dodging  thunderstorms, we enjoyed the flight immensely and although tempted, I didn’t do  too much dare-devil stuff. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was good  practice for what lay ahead of us.

Itproved to be our last fling. Once we  arrived in Sacramento, the mechanics
went over our plane with a fine-toothed  comb. Of the twenty-two planes that
made it, only those whose pilots reported no  mechanical problems were
allowed to go on. The others were shunted aside.

After having our plane serviced, we flew on to Alameda Naval Air
Station in  Oakland. As I came in for final approach, we saw it! I excitedly
called the rest  of the crew to take a look. There below us was a huge
aircraft carrier. It was  the USS Hornet, and it looked so gigantic! Man, I
had never even seen a carrier  until this moment. There were already two
B-25s parked on the flight deck. Now  we knew! My heart was racing, and I
thought about how puny my plane would look  on board this mighty ship. As
soon as we landed and taxied off the runway, a  jeep pulled in front of me
with a big “Follow Me” sign on the back. We followed  it straight up to the
wharf, alongside the towering Hornet. All five of us were  looking up and
just in awe, scarcely believing the size of this thing. As we  left the
plane, there was already a Navy work crew swarming around attaching  cables to the lifting rings on top of the wings and the fuselage. As we walked
towards our quarters, I looked back and saw them lifting my plane up into
the  air and swing it over the ship’s deck. It looked so small and lonely.

Later that  afternoon, all crews met with Colonel Doolittle and he gave
last minute  assignments. He told me to go to the Presidio and pick up two
hundred extra ‘C’  rations. I saluted, turned, and left, not having any idea
where the Presidio was, and not exactly sure what a ‘C’ ration was. I
commandeered a Navy staff car  and told the driver to take me to the
Presidio, and he did. On the way over, I  realized that I had no written
signed orders and that this might get a little  sticky. So in I walked into
the Army supply depot and made my request, trying to  look poised and
confident. The supply officer asked, “What is your authorization for this
request, sir?” I told him that I could not give him one. “And what is  the
destination?” he asked. I answered, “The aircraft carrier, Hornet, docked
at Alameda.” He said, “Can you tell me who ordered the rations, sir?” And I
replied with a smile, “No, I cannot.” The supply officers huddled together,
talking and glanced back over towards me. Then he walked back over and
assured  me that the rations would be delivered that afternoon. Guess they
figured that  something big was up. They were right. The next morning we all
boarded the ship.

Trying to remember my naval etiquette, I saluted the Officer of the Deck
and  said, “Lt. McElroy, requesting permission to come aboard.” The officer
returned  the salute and said, “Permission granted.” Then I turned aft and
saluted the  flag. I made it, without messing up. It was April 2, and in
full sunlight, we  left San Francisco Bay. The whole task force of ships,
two cruises, four  destroyers, and a fleet oiler, moved slowly with us under
the Golden Gate  Bridge. Thousands of people looked on. Many stopped their
cars on the bridge,  and waved to us as we passed underneath. I thought to
myself, I hope there  aren’t any spies up there waving. 

Once at sea, Doolittle called us together. “Only a few of you know our
destination, and you others have guessed about various targets. Gentlemen,
your  target is Japan!” A sudden cheer exploded among the men.
“Specifically,  Yokohama, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, Nagasaki and Osaka. The Navy task force will get  us as close as possible and we’ll launch our planes. We will hit our targets and  proceed to airfields in China.” After the cheering
stopped, he asked again, if  any of us desired to back out, no questions
asked. Not on did, not one. Then  the ship’s Captain then went over the
intercom to the whole ship’s company. The  loudspeaker blared, “The
destination is Tokyo!” A tremendous cheer broke out  from everyone on board. I could hear metal banging together and wild screams  from down below decks. It was quite a rush! I felt relieved actually. We finally  knew where we were going.

I set up quarters with two Navy pilots, putting my cot between their
two  bunks. They couldn’t get out of bed without stepping on me. It was just
fairly cozy in there, yes it was. Those guys were part of the Torpedo
Squadron Eight  and were just swell fellows. The rest of the guys bedded
down in similar fashion  to me, some had to sleep on bedrolls in the
Admiral’s chartroom. As big as this  ship was, there wasn’t any extra room
anywhere. Every square foot had a purpose — A few days later we discovered
where they had an ice cream machine!

There were sixteen B-25s tied down on the flight deck, and I was flying
number 13. All the carrier’s fighter planes were stored away helplessly in
the  hangar deck. They couldn’t move until we were gone. Our Army mechanics were all  on board, as well as our munitions loaders and several back up crews, in case  any of us got sick or backed out. We settled into a daily routine of checking  our planes. The aircraft were grouped so closely
together on deck that it  wouldn0t take much for them to get damaged.
Knowing that my life depended on  this plane, I kept a close eye on her.

Day after day, we met with the intelligence officer and studied our
mission  plan. Our targets were assigned, and maps and objective folders
were furnished  for study. We went over approach routes and our escape route towards China. I  never studied this hard back at Trinity. Every day at dawn and at dusk the ship  was called to general quarters and we practiced
finding the quickest way to our  planes. If at any point along the way, we
were discovered by the enemy fleet, we  were to launch our bombers
immediately so the Hornet could bring up its fighter  planes. We would then
be on our own, and try to make it to the nearest land,  either Hawaii or
Midway Island.

Dr. Thomas White, a volunteer member of plane number 15, went over our
medical records and gave us inoculations for a whole bunch of diseases that
hopefully I wouldn’t catch. He gave us training sessions in emergency first
aid,  and lectured us at length about water purification and such. Tom, a
medical  doctor, had learned how to be a gunner just so he could go on this
mission. We  put some new tail guns in place of the ones that had been taken
out to save  weight. Not exactly functional, they were two broom handles,
painted black. The  thinking was they might help scare any Jap fighter
planes. Maybe, maybe not.

On Sunday, April 14, we met up with Admiral Bull Halsey’s task force
just  out of Hawaii and joined into one big force. The carrier Enterprise
was now with  us, another two heavy cruisers, four more destroyers an
another oiler. We were   designated as Task Force 16. It was quite an impressive sight to see, and represented the bulk of what was left of the U.S. Navy after the devastation of  Pearl Harbor. There were over 10,000 Navy personnel sailing into harm’s way,  just to deliver us sixteen Army planes to the Japs, orders of the President.

As we steamed further west, tension was rising as we drew nearer and
nearer  to Japan. Someone thought of arming us with some old .45 pistols
that they had  on board. I went through that box of 1911 pistols, they were
in such bad condition that I took several of them apart, using the good
parts from several  useless guns until I built a serviceable weapon. Several
of the other pilots did the same. Admiring my ‘new’ pistol, I held it up,
and thought about my old Model-T.

Colonel Doolittle called us together on the flight deck. We all gathered round,as well as many Navy personnel. He pulled out some medals and told us how  these friendship medals from the Japanese government had been givento some of our Navy officers several years back. And now the Secretary of the Navy had  requested for us to return them. Doolittle wired them to a bomb while we all  posed for pictures. Something to cheer up the folks back home!

I began to pack my things for the flight, scheduled for the 19th. I packed someextra clothes and a little brown bag that Aggie had given me, inside were some toilet items and a few candy bars. No letters or identity cards were  allowed,only our dog-tags. I went down to the wardroom to have some ice cream and settle up my mess bill. It only amounted to $5 a day and with my per diem of  $6 per day, I came out a little ahead. By now, my Navy pilot roommates were about ready to get rid of me, but I enjoyed my time with them. They were alright. Later on, I learned that both of them were killed at the Battle of  Midway. Theywere good men. Yes, very good men.

Colonel Doolittle let each crew pick our own target. We chose the YokosukaNaval Base about twenty miles from Tokyo. We loaded 1450 rounds of ammo and four  500-pound bombs — A little payback, direct from Ellis County, Texas! We checked and re-checked our plane several times. Everything was now ready. I felt  relaxed, yet tensed up at the same time. Day after tomorrow, we will launch when  we are 400 miles out. I lay in my cot that night, and rehearsed the mission over  and over in my head. It was hard to sleep as I listened to sounds of the ship.

Early the next morning, I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast, expecting
another full day on board, and I noticed that the ship was pitching and
rolling  quite a bit this morning, more than normal. I was reading through
the April 18th  day plan of the Hornet, and there was a message in it which
said, “From the  Hornet to the Army — Good luck, good hunting, and God bless you.” I still had a  large lump in my throat from reading this, when all of
a sudden, the intercom  blared, “General Quarters, General Quarters, All
hands man your battle stations!  Army pilots, man your planes!” There was
instant reaction from everyone in the  room and food trays went crashing to
the floor. I ran down to my room jumping  through the hatches along the way, grabbed my bag, and ran as fast as I could go  to the flight deck. I met
with my crew at the plane, my heart was pounding.  Someone said, “What’s
going on?” The word was that the Enterprise had spotted an  enemy trawler.
It had been sunk, but it had transmitted radio mes sages. We had  been found
out!   

The weather was crummy, the seas were running heavy, and the ship was
pitching up and down like I had never seen before. Great waves were crashing against the bow and washing over the front of the deck. This wasn’t going to be  easy! Last minute instructions were given. We were reminded to avoid non-military targets, especially the Emperor’s Palace. Do not fly to Russia, but  fly as far west as possible, land on the water and launch our rubber raft. This  was going to be a one-way trip! We were still much too far out and we all knew  that our chances of making land were somewhere between slim and none. Then at  the last minute, each plane loaded an extra ten 5-gallon gas cans to give us a  fighting chance of reaching China. 

We all climbed aboard, started our engines and warmed them up, just feet
away from the plane in front of us and the plane behind us. Knobby,
Campbell,  Bourgeois and me in the front, Williams, the gunner was in the
back, separated  from us by a big rubber gas tank. I called back to Williams
on the intercom and  told him to look sharp and don’t take a nap! He
answered dryly, “Don’t worry  about me, Lieutenant. If they jump us, I’ll
just use my little black broomsticks  to keep the Japs off our tail.”

The ship headed into the wind and picked up speed. There was now a near
gale force wind and water spray coming straight over the deck. I looked down at  my instruments as my engines revved up. My mind was racing. I went over my  mental checklist, and said a prayer? God please, help us! Past the twelve planes  in front of us, I strained to see the flight deck officer as
he leaned into the  wind and signaled with his arms for Colonel Doolittle to
come to full power. I  looked over at Knobby and we looked each other in the
eye. He just nodded to me  and we both understood.  

With the deck heaving up and down, the deck officer had to time this
just  right. Then I saw him wave Doolittle to go, and we watched
breathlessly to see  what happened. When his plane pulled up above the deck, Knobby just let out  with, “Yes! Yes!” The second plane, piloted by Lt.
Hoover, appeared to stall  with its nose up and began falling toward the
waves. We groaned and called out,  “Up! Up! Pull it up!” Finally, he pulled
out of it, staggering back up into the  air, much to our relief!  One by
one, the planes in front of us took off. The deck pitched wildly, 60  feet
or more, it looked like. One plane seemed to drop down into the drink and
disappeared for a moment, then pulled back up into sight. There was sense of
relief with each one that made it. We gunned our engines and started to roll
forward. Off to the right, I saw the men on deck cheering and waving their
covers! We continued inching forward, careful to keep my left main wheel and my  nose wheel on the white guidelines that had been painted on the deck for us. Get  off a little bit too far left and we go off the edge of the deck. A
little too  far to the right and our wing-tip will smack the island of the
ship. With the  best seat on the ship, we watched Lt. Bower take off in
plane number 12, and I  taxied up to the starting line, put on my the brakes
and looked down to my left.  My main wheel was right on the line. Applied
more power to the engines, and I  turned my complete attention to the deck
officer on my left, who was circling  his paddles. Now my adrenaline was
really pumping! We went to full power, and  the noise and vibration inside
the plane went way up. He circled the paddles  furiously while watching
forward for the pitch of the deck. Then he dropped  them, and I said, “Here
We Go!” I released the brakes and we started rolling forward, and as I
looked down the flight-deck you could see straight down into  the angry
churning water. As we slowly gained speed, the deck gradually began to
pitch back up. I pulled up and our plane slowly strained up and away from
the  ship. There was a big cheer and whoops from the crew, but I just felt
relieved  and muttered to myself, “Boy, that was short!”

We made a wide circle above our fleet to check our compass headings and
get  our bearings. I looked down as we passed low over one of our cruisers
and could  see the men on deck waving to us. I dropped down to low level, so
low we could  see the whitecap waves breaking. It was just after 0900, there
were broken  clouds at 5,000 feet and visibility of about thirty miles due
to haze or  something. Up ahead and barely in sight, I could see Captain
Greening, our  flight leader, and Bower on his right wing. Flying at 170
mph, I was able to  catch up to them in about 30 minutes. We were to stay in
this formation until  reaching landfall, and then break on our separate
ways. Now we settled in for  the five hour flight. Tokyo, here we come!

Williams was in the back emptying the extra gas cans into the gas tank
as  fast as we had burned off enough fuel. He then punched holes in the tins
and  pushed then out the hatch against the wind. Some of the fellows ate
sandwiches  and other goodies that the Navy had put aboard for us — I
wasn’t hungry. I held  onto the controls with a firm grip as we raced along
westward just fifty feet  above the cold rolling ocean, as low as I dared to
fly. Being so close to the  choppy waves gave you a true sense of speed.
Occasionally our windshield was  even sprayed with a little saltwater. It
was an exhilarating feeling, and I felt  as though the will and spirit of
our whole country was pushing us along. I  didn’t feel too scared, just
anxious. There was a lot riding on this thing, and  on me.

As we began to near land, we saw an occasional ship here and there.
None of  them close enough to be threatening, but just the same, we were
feeling more  edgy. Then at 1330 we sighted land, the Eastern shore of
Honshu. With Williams  now on his guns in the top turret and Campbell on the nose gun, we came ashore  still flying low as possible, and were surprised
to see people on the ground  waving to us as we flew in over the farmland.
It was beautiful countryside.

Campbell, our navigator, said, “Mac, I think we’re going to be about
sixty  miles too far north. I’m not positive, but pretty sure.” I decided
that he was  absolutely right and turned left ninety degrees, went back just
offshore and  followed the coast line south. When I thought we had gone far
enough, I climbed  up to two thousand feet to find out where we were. We
started getting fire from  anti-aircraft guns. Then we spotted Tokyo Bay,
turned west and put our nose down  diving toward the water. Once over the
bay, I could see our target, Yokosuka  Naval Base. Off to the right there
was already smoke visible over Tokyo. Coming  in low over the water, I
increased speed to 200 mph and told everyone, “Get  Ready!”

When we were close enough, I pulled up to 1300 feet and opened the bomb
doors. There were furious black bursts of anti-aircraft fire all around us,
but  I flew straight on through them, spotting our target, the torpedo works
and the  dry-docks. I saw a big ship in the dry-dock just as we flew over
it. Those flak  bursts were really getting close and bouncing us around,
when I heard Bourgeois  shouting, “Bombs Away!” I couldn’t see it, but
Williams had a bird’s eye view  from the back and he shouted jubilantly, “We
got an aircraft carrier! The whole  dock is burning!” I started turning to
the south and strained my neck to look  back and at that moment saw a large
crane blow up and start falling over! — Take that! There was loud yelling
and clapping each other on the back. We were  all just ecstatic, and still
alive! But there wasn’t much time to celebrate. We  had to get out of here
and fast! When we were some thirty miles out to sea, we  took one last look
back at our target, and could still see huge billows of black  smoke. Up
until now, we had been flying for Uncle Sam, but now we were flying  for
ourselves. 

We flew south over open ocean, parallel to the Japanese coast all
afternoon. We saw a large submarine apparently at rest, and then in another
fifteen miles, we spotted three large enemy cruisers headed for Japan. There
were no more bombs, so we just let them be and kept on going. By late
afternoon,  Campbell calculated that it was time to turn and make for China.
Across the East  China Sea, the weather out ahead of us looked bad and
overcast. Up until now we  had not had time to think much about our gasoline supply, but the math did not  look good. We just didn’t have enough fuel to make it!

Each man took turns cranking the little hand radio to see if we could
pick  up the promised radio beacon. There was no signal. This is not good.
The weather  turned bad and it was getting dark, so we climbed up. I was now
flying on  instruments, through a dark misty rain. Just when it really
looked hopeless of  reaching land, we suddenly picked up a strong tailwind.
It was an answer to a  prayer. Maybe just maybe, we can make it! 

In total darkness at 2100 hours, we figured that we must be crossing the
coastline, so I began a slow, slow climb to be sure of not hitting any high
ground or anything. I conserved as much fuel as I could, getting real low on
gas  now. The guys were still cranking on the radio, but after five hours of
hand  cranking with aching hands and backs, there was utter silence. No
radio beacon!  Then the red light started blinking, indicating twenty
minutes of fuel left. We  started getting ready to bail out. I turned the
controls over to Knobby and  crawled to the back of the plane, past the now
collapsed rubber gas tank. I  dumped everything out of my bag and repacked
just what I really needed, my .45  pistol, ammunition, flashlight, compass,
medical kit, fishing tackle, chocolate  bars, peanut butter and crackers. I
told Williams to come forward with me so we  could all be together for this.
There was no other choice. I had to get us as  far west as possible, and
then we had to jump.

At 2230 we were up to sixty-five hundred feet. We were over land but
still  above the Japanese Army in China. We couldn’t see the stars, so
Campbell  couldn’t get a good fix on our position. We were flying on fumes
now and I  didn’t want to run out of gas before we were ready to go. Each
man filled his  canteen, put on his Mae West life jacket and parachute, and
filled his bag with  rations, those ‘C’ rations from the Presidio. I put her
on auto-pilot and we all  gathered in the navigator’s compartment around the
hatch in the floor. We  checked each other’s parachute harness. Everyone was scared, without a doubt.  None of us had ever done this before! I said,
“Williams first, Bourgeois second,  Campbell third, Knobloch fourth, and
I’ll follow you guys! Go fast, two seconds apart! Then count three seconds
off and pull your rip-cord!”

We kicked open the hatch and gathered around the hole looking down into
the  blackness. It did not look very inviting! Then I looked up at Williams
and gave  the order, “JUMP!” Within seconds they were all gone. I turned
and reached back for the auto-pilot, but could not reach it, so I pulled the
throttles back,  then turned and jumped. Counting quickly, thousand one,
thousand two, thousand  three, I pulled my rip-cord and jerked back up with
a terrific shock. At first I  thought that I was hung on the plane, but
after a few agonizing seconds that  seemed like hours, realized that I was
free and drifting down. Being in the  total dark, I was disoriented at first
but figured my feet must be pointed  toward the ground. I looked down
through the black mist to see what was coming  up. I was in a thick mist or
fog, and the silence was so eerie after nearly  thirteen hours inside that
noisy plane. I could only hear the whoosh, whoosh  sound of the wind blowing through my shroud lines, and then I heard a loud crash  and explosion. My plane!

Looking for my flashlight, I groped through my bag with my right hand,
finally pulled it out and shined it down toward the ground, which I still
could  not see. Finally I picked up a glimmer of water and thought I was
landing in a  lake. We’re too far inland for this to be ocean. I hope! I
relaxed my legs a little, thinking I was about to splash into water and
would have to swim out,  and then bang. I jolted suddenly and crashed over
onto my side. Lying there in  just a few inches of water, I raised my head
and put my hands down into thick  mud. It was rice paddy! There was a
burning pain, as if someone had stuck a  knife in my stomach. I must have
torn a muscle or broke something.

I laid there dazed for a few minutes, and after a while struggled up to
my  feet. I dug a hole and buried my parachute in the mud. Then started
trying to  walk, holding my stomach, but every direction I moved the water
got deeper. Then, I saw some lights off in the distance. I fished around
for my flashlight  and signaled one time. Sensing something wrong, I got out
my compass and to my horror saw that those lights were off to my west. That
must be a Jap patrol! How  dumb could I be! Knobby had to be back to my
east, so I sat still and quiet and did not move.

It was a cold dark lonely night. At 0100 hours I saw a single light off
to  the east. I flashed my light in that direction, one time. It had to be
Knobby! I  waited a while, and then called out softly, “Knobby?” And a voice
replied, “Mac, is that you?” Thank goodness, what a relief!  Separated by a
wide stream, we sat on opposite banks of the water communicating in low
voices. After daybreak  Knobby found a small rowboat and came across to get me. We started walking east  toward the rest of the crew and away from that Japanese patrol. Knobby had cut  his hip when he went through the hatch, but it wasn’t too awful bad.

We walked together toward a small village and several Chinese came out
to meet us, they seemed friendly enough. I said, “Luchu hoo megwa fugi!
Luchu hoo  megwa fugi!” meaning, “I am an American! I am an American!” Later that morning  we found the others. Williams had wrenched his knee when he landed in a tree,  but he was limping along just fine. There were hugs all around. I have never  been so happy to see four guys in all my life!

Well, the five of us eventually made it out of China with the help of
the  local Chinese people and the Catholic missions along the way. They were
all very good to us, and later they were made to pay terribly for it, so we
found  out afterwards. For a couple of weeks we traveled across country.
Strafed a  couple of times by enemy planes, we kept on moving, by foot, by
pony, by car, by  train, and by airplane. But we finally made it to India.

I did not make it home for the baby’s birth. I stayed on there flying a
DC-3 ‘Gooney Bird’ in the China-Burma-India Theatre for the next several
months.  I flew supplies over the Himalaya Mountains, or as we called it,
over ‘The Hump’  into China’. When B-25s finally arrived in India, I flew
combat missions over  Burma’, and then later in the war, flew a B-29 out of
the Marianna Islands to  bomb Japan again and again.

After the war, I remained in the Air Force until 1962, when I retired
from  the service as Lt. Colonel, and then came back to Texas, my
beautiful Texas.  First moving to Abilene and then we settled in Lubbock,
where Aggie taught  school at MacKenzie Junior High. I worked at the S & R
Auto Supply, once  again in an atmosphere of machinery, oil and grease.

I lived a good life and raised two wonderful sons that I am very proud
of.  I feel blessed in many ways. We have a great country, better than most
folks  know. It is worth fighting for. Some people call me a hero, but I
have never  thought of myself that way, no. But I did serve in the company
of heroes. What  we did, will never leave me. It will always be there in my
fondest memories. I  will always think of the fine and brave men that I was
privileged to serve  with. Remember us, for we were soldiers once and young. With the loss of  all aircraft, Doolittle believed that the raid had been a failure, and that he  would be court-martialed upon returning to the states.
Quite to the contrary,  the raid proved to be a tremendous boost to American morale, which had plunged  following the Pearl Harbor attack. It also caused serious doubts in the minds of  Japanese war planners. They in turn recalled many seasoned fighter plane units  back to defend the home islands, which resulted in Japan ‘s weakened air  capabilities at the upcoming Battle of Midway and other South Pacific campaigns.<img title=”SP32-20091021-222244″ src=”https://wilko.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/sp32-20091021-222244.gif” alt=”SP32-20091021-222244″ width=”500″ height=”394″ />

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3 responses to “A Pilot from the Greatest Generation

  1. virgil xenophon

    Link is bad–or it’s my computer. One tidbit: I have always thought it HIGHLY significant in terms of “out-side-the-box” type thinking and why most truly innovative ideas come from people not wedded to existing SOPs, systems and the status quo, that the concept of using Army Bombers off a Navy carrier was thought up by a Navy submarine commander–a guy with no vested interests and no service branch axe to grind. A classic example, imho.

  2. virgil xenophon

    PS: That, and submariners have lots of time alone to think. 🙂

  3. You are right: Captain Francis Low. Most of the general public credited Doolittle.
    Perhaps some of the success of those who come up with innovation isn’t just due to”fresh eyes” . It’s also that they have less skin in the game or in some respect aren’t emotionally invested.

    I have corrected the link. I’m not as good at this as I’d like to be.

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