Story by JO1 Barbara J. Lawless, Naval Reserve Public Affairs Center, Det. 220, San Francisco
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in the July 1992 issue of All Hands Magazine
“I was eating breakfast aboard USS Hornet (CV 8) when I first heard the guns,” said retired Air Force Col. Henry “Hank” A. Potter. Task Force 16 was firing on Japanese picket boats that, having spotted the ships, were feared to have radioed Tokyo about the top secret mission.
That daring mission was the first bombing of the Japanese mainland April 18, 1942. Potter was the navigator in the lead B-25 Mitchell which was piloted by the mission’s leader, then-Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle.
“When the announcement came to man the planes, what with all the pre-flights, I didn’t really have any time to think further ahead than, ‘Will we get the airplane off the deck?”’ Potter said.
They managed, in a heart-stopping moment, to get airborne. No one was more relieved than Travis Hoover, who piloted the second plane. “Doolittle set a good example. Thank God he was up front!
“I don’t want to sound heroic or dramatic about it, but I figured I would fight until the war was over or I was dead,” Hoover said. “Each time I went on a mission I figured it would be my turn later, not this time, so I just kept on. I got in 73 missions before I quit.”
“We finally got the Navy straightened out once we got aboard,” grinned Charles “Chuck” McClure, navigator of the seventh plane.
“The Navy personnel knew nothing about our mission and weren’t very kind to us when we first boarded,” McClure said, referring to the traditional interservice rivalry. But that attitude changed ‘‘after Capt. [Marc] Mitscher came on the bullhorn and said ‘Now hear this. The Army personnel are going to bomb Tokyo.’ So we declassified the mission for the ‘seaweeds,’ as we jokingly called the sailors.
“We hit five cities with 16 airplanes,” McClure added. “The tonnage of bombs was very small, just enough to let them know we could do it.”
Of the 16 airplanes to take off, only one made it back to friendly shores. ”The Japanese found 15 airplane wrecks, but got very few airmen,” said Tung-Sheng Liu who, as a young English-speaking Chinese man, played a critical role as interpreter between surviving raiders and various Chinese factions to help the downed airmen escape.
“Japanese soldiers on horseback searched for them,” Liu said. “They killed anyone who had an American candy bar (an innocent gift left by the raiders).” During a three-month campaign, 250,000 Chinese were slaughtered by vengeful Japanese soldiers. Liu later emigrated to the United States and was designated an honorary “raider” by grateful crew members.
Bill Gibson, who was an 18-year old photographer’s mate second class, knew “something was up” when he saw Doolittle aboard Hornet; by 1942, the 45-year old pioneer aviator was already a legend.
“We were told the first or second day out from Alameda that we were going to launch an attack on Japan,” Gibson said. “The entire crew just cheered like mad.
“My job that morning was to shoot flight deck activity,’’ Gibson said. “Everyone aboard the ship was uptight, believe me.”
In addition to the tension, the weather was also a problem. ”We had green water coming over the flight deck,” Gibson said. “The only ones who would stick their heads above the flight deck were the cameramen, landing signal officer and the flight deck officer.
“I loved newsreels,’’ Gibson said, “and I said ‘One day I’m going to photograph history!”’ On that stormy April morning in 1942, he did just that.
Lawless is assigned to Naval Reserve Public Affairs Center, Det. 220, San Francisco.