Story by JO1 Barbara J. Lawless, Naval Reserve Public Affairs Center, Det. 220, San Francisco
Photos by JO1(SW) Joe Gawlowicz, Public Affairs Center San Diego
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in the July 1992 issue of All Hands Magazine
The American B-25 Mitchell bombers revved up on the carrier deck. As their crews conducted preflight checks, they were too busy to consider the risks.
On the bridge, Quartermaster 2nd Class Carl Nelson turned the carrier into the wind.
Aware of the mission’s historical importance, photographer Bill Gibson intently filmed the action.
The distinctive sound of the B-25 held everyone’s attention. The Navy flight officer signaled the launch was a go. Awkwardly beautiful with its 67.5-foot wingspan, the plane steadily headed toward the bow. The B-25 was airborne! A few minutes later, another roared into the morning sky.
Sound like an old black-and-white movie you once saw? If this scenario reminds you of the 1944 movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” you’re right – but not entirely.
On April 18, 1942, then-Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle of the U.S. Army Air Corps led a secret mission from USS Hornet (CV 8) to bomb Japan – four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the controls of plane No. 1, Doolittle had only 467 feet between him and the bow but confirmed his reputation as a crack pilot. Fifteen other crews took their cue from him.
After dropping their bombs on Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya, 15 of the planes crash-landed in China or the China Sea. Of the 80 crew members, three died, eight were captured by the Japanese and five were interned when they landed in Russia. Most crew members escaped, many after harrowing experiences, and returned to the United States. Others went on to fight in air battles over Europe.
The dramatic attack boosted American morale during the desperate days following Pearl Harbor, proving Japan was vulnerable. When news of the raid broke, an ecstatic President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the press the bombers had taken off from the mythical Shangri-la, a remark that mystified the Japanese.
A half-century later, April 21, 1992, the Doolittle Raid was re-enacted when two privately-owned B-25s took off from USS Ranger (CV 61). Participating in ceremonies before the launch were the original Hornet helmsman Carl Nelson, photographer Bill Gibson, three of Doolittle’s “Raiders” and a Chinese interpreter who led many of the downed crewmen to safety.
The launch took place off the coast of San Diego, and no enemy planes or ships lurked nearby.
For Nelson, the re-enactment was more than déjà vu. For the second time in 50 years he stood at the helm when Army bombers were launched from a Navy carrier.
“Our speed was about 25 knots and I think the wind was about the same,” said Nelson of the original launch. “That gave us about 50 knots of wind across the deck, which the pilots needed because it was a short take off. We didn’t really know how important the raid was going to be.
“I was a 23-year-old quartermaster second in 1942,” said Nelson. “The captain [Capt. Marc Mitscher] asked the navigator to make sure I had the wheel for the launch because I knew how to steer the ship real well.”
Nelson survived Hornet’s sinking six months later. He spent 30 years in the Navy, retiring as a chief warrant officer 4, and now lives near Seattle.
Capt. Dennis McGinn, Ranger’s commanding officer, was more than happy to let Nelson repeat his role in the historic event. “Fifty years later, Warrant Officer Nelson hasn’t lost his touch,” McGinn said.
Bill Gibson was a photographer’s mate second class assigned to Hornet. A half-century later, he also recreated his original role, shooting movie film of the B-25 launchings for a documentary.
Like Nelson, Gibson survived Hornet’s sinking by the Japanese Oct. 26, 1942, during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
Gibson rose to chief petty officer during his six-year Navy enlistment and went on to run his own production company in Montana. Of the re-enactment, he commented in film lingo, “It was a slow dissolve from 50 years ago.”
In the original operation Adm. William “Bull” Halsey, in charge of the joint operation from aboard USS Enterprise (CV 6), made the decision to launch the planes early after Task Force 16 was sighted by Japanese picket boats. Hornet was 150 miles from the planned launch point. The crews took off in the morning, rather than when they would have the cover of darkness to protect them.
After the Army crews took off in their B-25s the task force quickly returned to Pearl Harbor, reserving what was left of the Pacific Fleet to fight again another day. How did the historic re-enactment come about?
“I’m interested in preserving American air power history,” said Bradley Grose, son of a retired Air Force captain. “I got this wild idea, a pipe dream really, to launch the B-25s from an aircraft carrier again.’’
At the time, Grose was a director of the Eagle Field Museum, site of an Army Air Corps World War II training site in Southern California. He proposed the re-enactment to Doolittle in 1989 and was referred to the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Association, Inc.
With help from people like retired-Vice Adm. William Houser, who was a member of Task Force 16, Pentagon wheels began turning. In January, Grose received word the re-enactment had been approved by DoD.
The assignment was turned over to Naval Air Force U.S. Pacific Fleet, in San Diego. Navy and civilian personnel had three short months to pull the event together – about the same amount of time as the original raiders.
The re-enactment reminded participants that the Navy cooperated with other services long before joint duty became a popular concept.
“The Army had bombers, the Navy had a carrier and together they did what neither could do alone,” said Rear Adm. Richard A. Wilson, commander of Carrier Group 7.
Doolittle was the ceremony’s absentee guest of honor. Peter Doolittle, a quality engineer in the aerospace industry, read his grandfather’s regrets: “Unfortunately, at 95 I am no longer able to travel and regret not being able to be with you and the fine men and women of the Pacific Fleet.”
Since Doolittle couldn’t participate, a small squadron of historic B-25 Mitchells and P-51 Mustangs flew 500 miles north to the general’s home on the Monterey Peninsula. They dipped their wings in salute, releasing a cascade of red, white and blue carnations into the Pacific Ocean. Doolittle gazed skyward as the planes thundered overhead.
Back on Ranger, the civilian crews of the restored B-25s Heavenly Body and In the Mood were enthusiastic about reenacting the historic takeoff. Modeled after a B-25 that flew 38 missions in the South Pacific, Heavenly Body has appeared in movies such as “Catch-22” and “For the Boys.” In the Mood began life as an Air Force trainer and was later rescued from forest fire-fighting duty.
“When I asked my crew if they’d like to do this, they said, ‘hell yes!”’ said Mike Pupich, owner of Heavenly Body, the first plane off Ranger. “I never in my wildest imagination ever figured this would come to be.”
Bob Lumbard, co-owner of In the Mood, didn’t mind being in the backup plane. “I’ll be the last man to get off a carrier in a B-25,” he said. “It’ll never happen again.”