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Famous “Doolittle Raid” had roots in Pendleton air base

Oregon played a vital role in America's answer to Pearl Harbor — the daring daylight airstrike on Tokyo and other Japanese cities that provided a much-needed morale boost during the dark days of 1942.

One of the Doolittle raiders takes off from the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet on the morning of the raid on Tokyo. Pilots reported they were less worried about the length of the deck than the width — there was just four feet of clearance between the wingtip and the “island,” or superstructure, on the carrier. (Image: U.S. Navy)

When Imperial Japanese aviator Nobuo Fujita hatched his plans to bomb the United States with a submarine-launched seaplane, he had retaliation in mind.

The Americans had just sent 16 twin-engine bombers over the Japanese homeland — the famous Doolittle Raid of early 1942. Fujita burned with desire to return the favor, and he knew just how it could be done.

When he was given the go-ahead to do it, the target he was given seemed like a very odd one: The small, sparsely populated West Coast state of Oregon.

It may have been odd — but it was not entirely inappropriate. Oregon, and Oregonians, had played a really outsize part in the Doolittle Raid.

Nearly 10 percent of the men flying over Japan on that fateful April day were either from Oregon, or had lived there — not counting the time in which their bomber group had been stationed at the Pendleton Army Air Force base. And, to put the icing on the cake, there’s an unconfirmed but persistent account that one of the Doolittle raiders, Oregonian Everett W. Holstrom, bombed and sank a big Japanese sub off the mouth of the Columbia in 1941.

The details of the Doolittle raid have gone down in the rolls of American military legend. Looking for a way to strike back at Japan after the Pearl Harbor raid, President Roosevelt put the word out that he wanted someone to come up with a plan. It was a Navy captain, Francis Low, who hatched the scheme to modify Army bombers so they could take off from an aircraft carrier.

The Doolittle raiders pose for a group picture on the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet, near one of their birds. Seven members of this group of 80 aviators were Oregonians, and all of them had been stationed in Pendleton until just a few months before the raid. (Image: doolittleraider.com)

They soon settled on the North American Aircraft B-25 Mitchell, a new and highly promising design.

Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the big things were loaded onto the U.S.S. Hornet and headed off toward Japan, accompanied by two carrier task forces, observing strict radio silence along the way. The plan was for them to take off about 500 miles off the coast of Japan, fly just above the wavetops to their targets, drop bombs and turn southward, making for friendly airfields in China.

But 200 miles shy of their destination, the carrier group ran across a Japanese picket boat. It was, of course, immediately sunk; but it takes minutes to sink a ship, and only seconds to send out an alarm via ship-to-shore radio. They were busted. They had to assume that the Imperial Japanese Navy was even now sending out the call to move in on them. When it did, it would bring a lot more force than two carrier task forces could handle, especially in those dark days early in the war before the U.S. had developed any fighter planes good enough to fend off the world-class Japanese ones of the day. The longer they lingered, the greater the danger that four or five aircraft carriers stocked with Zeroes would show up and wipe out a quarter of the U.S. carrier fleet.

So the bombers were launched early, their crews knowing full well that they wouldn’t have enough fuel to reach their designated landing fields; and the carrier task forces turned and raced back to safer waters.

The B-25s of the Doolittle raiders as they appeared during the voyage to the launch point. (Image: U.S. Navy)

After bombing their targets in Japan, the planes turned and winged south into China, where one by one they ran out of fuel and their crews bailed out. One flew to Russia, where its crew was interned for a year (Russia was not yet at war with Japan); the rest barely reached China. Two crews were taken as prisoners of war by occupying Japanese troops, and the others (those who survived) managed to make their way south to safety.

The Japanese military government, when it learned the other flight crews had slipped from their grasp, began a series of brutal reprisals against the local Chinese populace. Estimates of the number of civilian deaths range from 10,000 all the way up to the highly unlikely figure of 250,000. They also put the captured flight crew on trial; sentenced all to death for war crimes; shot three; and commuted the sentences of the rest to life in prison, where they slowly starved until the end of the war. (One of these was Jacob DeShazer of Stayton, whom we will hear more about next week.)

The Japanese military government’s fury was certainly understandable. The whole affair had been a near-total humiliation for them. Warned of the presence of aircraft carriers within range of their coastline, they still managed to be caught by surprise when the bombers showed up. Of the few aircraft they managed to scramble, three were shot down, but not one of the marauding bombers was knocked out or even badly damaged. The Imperial Navy, racing to intercept the two American carrier task forces, found only open ocean and some wreckage from their sunken picket boat. Then the bombers all crashed in Japanese-occupied territory, and all but two of their crews got away scot-free.

The wartime enemy had struck in broad daylight and slipped away — all but a tiny handful of men. The Japanese homeland was no longer inviolate, and the people who were supposed to be protecting it had been made to look like bumbling idiots.

Meanwhile, over in the U.S., the news was greeted with wild cheers. Doolittle, who’d been convinced he was going to be court-martialed for losing every single one of his planes, found to his surprise that he was instead on the short list for a (Congressional) Medal of Honor.

Of the 80 aviators who participated in the Doolittle raid, seven were Oregonians or former Oregonians, either by birth or by civilian residence. We’ll talk about their experiences in the Doolittle Raid in next week’s column.

(Sources: Kendall, Mary Claire. “Doolittle’s raiders and the Miracle that Saved Them,” Forbes, 11-11-2012; Cain, Allan. “Pendleton Field,” Oregon History Project, ohs.org, 2005; doolittleraider.com; “Doolittle Raid Fact Sheet,” National Museum of the Air Force, 4-17-2015)

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