Renewed interest in World War II has inspired a long list of new books and films in the United States. Many focus on combat stories that have been overlooked or begun to fade from public memory. Author and journalist Craig Nelson recounts one of those stories in his new book, "The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid, America's First World War II Victory."
It seemed to many like a suicide mission: On April 18, 1942, 80 U.S. airmen took off from a naval carrier in the Pacific Ocean. Their assignment was to bomb Japan. They were commanded by Colonel James Doolittle, a daredevil pilot who'd set impressive flight records for speed and skill. They completed their mission against huge odds, and it would be celebrated in everything from Doolittle comic books to a classic 1944 film called Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
Craig Nelson says he calls his book The First Heroes, not because the Doolittle Raiders were the first to act heroically in World War II, but because of their impact on American morale.
"They had the first triumph of World War II, in a period when the Allies lost every single engagement for 6 months," he said. "It's an amazing story of boys in their early twenties who really have no experience of anything, who are still living in their parents' homes when the army took them in. They came from every part of the United States. What they really had in common was they all wanted to fly. So you took these very young, very naďve boys and threw them into this terrifying situation. And in fact they took off on this mission assuming they were going to die."
To tell their story, Craig Nelson drew on interviews with 20 surviving veterans of the raid, as well as historical documents previously unavailable to the public. He says the mission was aimed at retaliating against Japan for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But America was not well prepared for war. As of 1940, it ranked fourteenth in global military power. The raid became even riskier when Japanese intelligence got advance word of it:
"They were supposed to take off from their aircraft carrier 450 miles [more than 700 kilometers] away from Japan, bomb Japan at dusk and at nighttime and then land in Allied-controlled airfields in China," said Craig Nelson. "None of this would happen. Instead, 700 miles [1,100 kilometers] away they were detected by a Japanese spy boat. They sink that boat, but they're able to pick up on the radio that it's telegraphed their position. So they can either take off and go on their mission or give up. And even though they don't have enough gas to make it, they take off anyway. They take off at high noon. But because the Japanese are so surprised, the bombing goes off without a hitch, and then when they get to China, they start running out of gas."
While the airmen had trained in other ways for their mission, Craig Nelson says they hadn't practiced using parachutes. "I don't know if you've interviewed World War II veterans but they're incredibly tight lipped," he recalled. "When I asked them was it scary taking off from the boat, they said, 'Oh, no, that wasn't scary.' So I said, 'Was it scary bombing Japan?' 'Oh no, that wasn't scary.' 'Well, how about when you're falling out of the plane, and it's in the middle of the night in the middle of a thunderstorm on the other side of the world, and you've never used a parachute before and you don't know if you're going to land on the mountains or a village or the ocean or on a Japanese bayonet, what about that?' 'Oh yes,' they said, 'that was pretty scary.' They finally admitted it."
The men landed inside Chinese territory that was occupied by the Japanese. Most of the raiders successfully traveled 1000 kilometers across China to safety in the Nationalist capital of Chungking. Chinese peasants risked their lives to help them.
"And in fact the raiders I interviewed wanted this book published so that people would know what the Chinese had done for them," said Craig Nelson. "One group of men came across a town, and the Chinese tell them to wait. And they start thinking maybe the Chinese are going to turn them over to the Japanese, and then after a number of hours they hear off in the distance a noise, like, [hums part of Star Spangled Banner]. And the reason they'd been waiting was so the local band could learn how to play 'The Star Spangled Banner' to lead them on a parade through this town of a hundred thousand people where the residents had spent all night making banners in English saying, 'Welcome, brave American fliers.' "
Eight of the Doolittle Raiders were captured by the Japanese. Three were executed in a prison camp. One starved to death. Some survived but later battled drinking problems and mental illness. Another went on to be imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. And another had a religious conversion during his Japanese captivity.
"He decides that the answer to human suffering is to forgive, and that he's going to become a missionary preaching forgiveness, which he does for the next 30 years in Japan," said Craig Nelson. "And in Japan he converts to his religion the lead pilot in the attack on Pearl Harbor. So that to me is the extraordinary ending to one part of this story."
Craig Nelson says the actual damage done by the Doolittle Raid was small. But in addition to boosting America's spirits, it triggered the Japanese attack on the Midway Islands, the site of a U.S. military base.
"They'd been having a huge argument over whether they should go forward with further expansion and take over Midway, which would allow them to either blockade or invade Australia and Hawaii, or if they should retrench and consolidate their position," said Craig Nelson. "The Doolittle Raid convinced them to attack Midway, and we were able to win that battle decisively. It's one of the greatest moments in the history of the United States Navy. So you can really see the first years of the Pacific War as being Pearl Harbor, Doolittle Raid, Midway."
Craig Nelson says the Doolittle Raiders have remained close friends over the years. Next April they will have their sixty first reunion at Travis Air Force Base in California, where they'll dedicate a Jimmy Doolittle Air and Space Museum. They've also stayed in touch with some of their Chinese rescuers. One man later came to the United States, got in touch with some of the Doolittle Raiders, and was made an honorary Raider himself.