This is a non-fictional account of Doolittles Raid, and a flight of a scale model B25
The B25 – A Tale of Two Scales
Invasion – Japanese submarines off the California coast – carriers to follow – devastation – troop transports – Japanese martial law in our homeland. A Japanese strike force may be approaching at this very moment; the Golden Gate may soon become the gateway to Hell.
The Pacific fleet now comprises just a few carriers and their escorts. What good is the Enterprise or Hornet compared to those mighty dreadnoughts now bemired at battleship row?
Following Pearl Harbor Japanese forces sweep through the Pacific like a typhoon. It appears only a miracle can stop them. American morale has never been so low. Fear and hatred of this enemy is so overwhelming that Japanese Americans are stripped of their property and possessions and placed in what are essentially prison camps.
A great warrior is needed to save us and lead us to victory. Such a man always has many others behind him – many other bright and brave Americans – and so it was in the dismal spring of 1942.
On March 1, 1942 140 very young men sat around on benches and window sills in the Operations Office at Eglin Air Force Base In the pan handle of Florida. All eyes were turned to the man they all knew and admired as a famous racer and barnstormer; he was now Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle of the US Army Air Force. He was there to lead them on a mission of the utmost importance to the nation – they knew not where but they would follow him to Hell and back.
You could hear a pin drop when he said, “If you men have any idea this isn’t the most dangerous thing you’ve ever been on, don’t even start … drop out now.” No one twitched a muscle; no one dropped out then or at any point on the long and deadly road to Tokyo.
How did this begin? President Roosevelt pressured the Joint Chiefs to hit back at the Japanese homeland. A Navy Captain, Francis Lowe on CNO Admiral King’s staff thought a bomber could be launched from a carrier deck. Captain Donald B “Wu” Duncan, King’s staff Air Ops officer concluded that the B25 might be the one to use.
General Henry (Hap) Arnold was enthusiastic and asked Colonel Doolittle to review Duncan’s findings. The B18 couldn’t’ carry the bomb load, the B23’s wingspan was too great and the B26’s take off roll was too long. In contradistinction, the B25 could carry 2000 pounds, its inboard wing would just miss the carrier island, but its take off roll would have to be reduced from about 1400 to 500 feet. By Feb 2, 1942 Lts James McCarthy and John Fitzgerald flew two B25’s from the deck of the newly commissioned Hornet. The mission was on!!
The story is pretty well known from there on. There was a vigorous and exhausting training period learning to fly the airplane as no one had ever intended. The brakes were set, flaps were dropped and the engines wound up till they screamed past the red arc. When the brakes were released the lightened B25’s with full flaps fairly leapt into the air in less than 500 feet.
The airplane was altered. A ‘20cent’ bombsight replaced the highly secret Norden. A piece of secret armament specially designed for this mission had to be added – broomsticks painted black and stuck out the tail to scare off attack from that quarter. The 600-pound ventral turret had been discarded; They’d be flying 20 feet off the water where it was useless.
The aircraft linked up with Hornet, commanded by Captain Mitscher, at Alameda Naval Air Station. They sailed when Captain Duncan in Washington sent a signal through channels “Tell Jimmy to get on his horse.” At sea they joined Enterprise and Admiral Halsey who was in overall command.
Sailing was smooth in the first days out but as the task force penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of hostile waters, weather deteriorated. At the time of launch a gale of more than 40 knots churned the sea; heavy swells with 30-foot crests tossed Hornet causing her to pitch violently. Waves crashed against her bows, breaking over her deck, driving sea and spray down its length smashing onto aircraft and deck crew.
A patrol boat sighted the task force and was sunk, but not before it signaled the mainland. Launch was ordered immediately and occurred about 650 miles from the target rather than the originally planned 400 miles.
Wind and spray drives across the pitching deck as the launching officer winds his checkered flag ever faster and faster – seemingly eternally. Will he ever release the aircraft or will it redline until it overheats and explodes? Finally he whips down his arm and falls to the deck – the B25 waddles forward – much too slowly despite its wildly spinning powerful propellers. Faster – faster, little by little – not nearly fast enough to get into the air – right down to the end of the deck – it’s going to go in - -- or not. Somehow – I don’t know how, it manages to lumber off the carrier and lunge into the air - hanging on its propellers in so steep a climb that pilot Ted Lawson says he can see it’s entire back.
Harrowing tension continues throughout the launch. Admiral Halsey later said one pilot hung on the verge of a stall so long “we nearly catalogued his effects.” First of sixteen pilots in command is Jimmy Doolittle, off the deck in 467 feet. Then Hoover, Gray, Holstrom, Jones, Hallmark, Lawson (flying the “Ruptured Duck”,), York, Watson, Joyce, Greening, Bower, McElroy, Ailger, Smith and Farrow. Lawson was fated to crash, and have a leg cut off by a crewmember as they traveled in great peril through China. He later wrote Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. All 16 airplanes (The Ruptured Duck, Hari-Kari-er, whiskey Pete, Anger Angel, Whirling Dervish, Fickle Finger of Fate, TNT) made it safely into the air and on to Japan to complete the mission. No airplane survived. Out of 80 crewmembers 64 returned (an average of 4 out of each crew of 5) to fight again. Much of the information provided here comes from Lawson’s book, which is quite detailed. The movie, which is true to the written account dramatizes, appropriately much of the excitement not found, perhaps, in Lawson’s written account.
Exists there under heaven and earth any aeronautical launch that could elicit the tension, excitement, and suspense like unto that one? Well, perhaps.
The maiden flight of Jerry Pate’s giant scale model B25 was just like that. Well, maybe not the waves, though I do think the grass might have been just a bit damp … perhaps … rising and falling wildly pitching field? Well it certainly does something like that whenever I try to take off and land … it doesn’t hold still for me, that’s for sure. But some would take exception to that and I can see I am digressing wildly. Wind blown spray and spindrift … well … never mind.
One thing was for sure: tension, anticipation and excitement were present in great abundance. We were all on pins and needles – every muscle wound tight – not a twitch when that B25 rolled onto the runway.
It is a beautiful model and looks very impressive sitting on the deck. It appears quite real and deadly. There were a couple of delays for last minute adjustments to engines and landing gear but finally all was in order.
When the moment came the airplane taxied into position in full-scale fashion. It rolled straight and turned smoothly into the wind as if self confident and eager to take to the air. Jerry applied power gradually and both engines revved without skipping a beat. It began its takeoff roll true down the centerline and tracked straight on all the way. The engines were off each other by only perhaps 25 to 50 rpm. How do you describe the powerful full and rich vibrato that produces – it is incomparable and stirring.
The airplane lifted off just like those B25’s from the Hornet footage. You were there … 64 years ago right here at the RAMM field. RAMM stands for Radio AeroModelers of Montgomery.
The climbing turn to the left (east) was accomplished safely and Jerry’s B25 was lookin’ good. The first go round the pattern extended east farther than my comfort level allowed and I began to feel just a bit nervous. I was thinking about all the moving parts that could vibrate loose, and all the hundred little things … an unstuck this or a weakened that or a metal part that fails due to manufacturing error, and so on. In boats they call them “shake down cruises” and the term is an apt one for any device with moving parts. But the plane finally returned from Atlanta or wherever it might have been gadding, and I thought to myself ‘What a relief. Now he’ll bring her down, check her over thoroughly, tighten everything up, give everybody time for a change of underwear and see where to go from there.’
But he didn’t. He descended down to pattern altitude then even lower to turn left into a roaring flyby and climb out again to do the same thing all over again. Now I’m really getting worried. I’m positive that something on that airplane has to be vibrating loose, comin’ apart, shakin’ free, pullin’ out, gettin’ unstuck, comin’ unglued, mashed together or just plain FUBARED.
Bring her down Jerry, please, please, please. He responded to my silent prayer by flying a very low, very fast, very loud, wide open skin to the leather low pass that rattled the shed and almost cracked the windshield of my van.
Other than drop a 500 pounder there wasn’t much more he could do, and after a couple additional, more sedate passes, the airplane finally landed. The approach and landing both went as they should, following the unremarkable function of landing gear and flaps. A perfect ending to a perfect flight.
Not as dramatic a story as crashing in occupied China, getting a leg sawed off and staying one hop ahead of the Japanese, but it was a fine ending anyway.
What about the ending of the Japan mission? News of its success was electrifying and gave American morale an incalculable boost. It proved once again the infallibility of American courage and ingenuity. At the same time a devastating blow was dealt to the Japanese conviction of the invulnerability of their homeland and to the myth of Japanese superiority and invincibility.
Doolittle believed the raid was a failure and told his men he would be court martialed. On his return to the United States he was promoted from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Although little material damage was done, intense fear for the home islands and for the Emperor’s safety was aroused. Assets were retained in Japan rather than being sent to war zones where there presence was critical.
Admiral Yamamoto and others became convinced that a more distant defensive perimeter in the Pacific was needed and decided to implement tentative plans to invade Midway. This was a mistake.
Thanks to Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his band of brave airmen.
Thanks to the B25, a noble airplane and most dangerous machine of war.