Remembering the Doolittle Raiders

Attack on Tokyo made an American victory in WWII seem possible

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Did you know?

The top-secret Norden bombsights were removed from the B-25s before Doolittle's Raid so they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. Bombardiers replaced them with 20-cent bombsights built in a machine shop at their training base.

Four surviving members of the Doolittle Raid gathered this week to remember their comrades on the history-making mission, including a Vancouver bomber crewman.

Staff Sgt. Wayne Bissell, who died in 1997, was one of 80 airmen who took part in the secret mission less than five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sixteen bombers, led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, took off from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and bombed Tokyo. By puncturing the myth of an invulnerable Japanese homeland, they helped turn the tide of World War II.

Bissell was the bombardier on one of the B-25 Mitchell bombers; Tom Griffin was his navigator.

Griffin, of Cincinnati, is among five surviving members of the mission, and one of four who attended the 70th anniversary memorial ceremony.

The four-day commemoration drew thousands of people to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.

Before Bissell’s death in 1997, the Vancouver veteran and Griffin -- who’s now 95 -- discussed that mission with The Columbian.

Bissell, a 1937 graduate of Vancouver High School, was just 20 but was already a three-year veteran of the Army Air Corps. He volunteered without knowing what the target was; about all Doolittle told them was: “It’s very dangerous.”

On April 18, 1942, they took off from the USS Hornet on a one-way trip.

Bissell told The Columbian that he could see the Imperial Palace, but Doolittle had given specific orders not to bomb the emperor’s home. Bissell dropped his bombs on the Tokyo Gas & Electric complex.

The first good news

The bombing inflicted only scattered damage but lifted spirits at home.

“Up to that time, all the news had been bad news,” Griffin said.

The bombers didn’t reach their planned landing sites in China, and 15 of the 16 Mitchells ran out of gas over China and crashed. The other bomber landed in Siberia, where its crew was detained by the Soviets for a year.

Bissell’s aircraft, “Whirling Dervish,” made it 300 miles into China before its fuel was gone. The five crew members bailed out into a storm in the middle of the night and came down in the mountains.

“Wayne was captured by what amounted to a robber band,” Griffin told The Columbian in 1995. “They were deserters from the Nationalist Chinese army. He didn’t realize at first he was being held.

“After two or three days, they went off and left one man to watch him. Wayne got away from him, got in with some other Chinese, and they brought him to the town where we were staying.”

The plane’s pilot, Harold Watson, injured a shoulder bailing out and had to be carried out of the hills by Chinese porters.

“We were so far back in the mountains, it took us two days to get to a road,” Griffin said.

Of the 75 fliers who crash-landed or bailed out in China, three died accidentally. Eight Doolittle Raiders were captured by Japanese forces in China: Three of them were executed, one died in prison and the other four were liberated at the end of the war.

The Chinese paid a much heavier toll. According to Doolittle’s autobiography, “Japanese forces killed thousands of Chinese peasants for assisting the Americans.”

That’s why the 70th anniversary reunion also commemorated the role of the Chinese people who assisted the bomber crews.

Not much of a hero

Doolittle received the Medal of Honor, and all 80 Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

But they weren’t feeling like medal-winners after the mission, Griffin said.

“We thought we had really messed it up. When you lose all your planes, you don’t think you’re much of a hero,” Griffin told The Columbian. “We found the American people took it differently.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.