Friday, December 1, 2017

What Happened to the Doolittle Raiders? The Continuing Story

by Cindy K. Stewart

I shared the first part of the Doolittle Raiders' story in my November 1st post. If you missed the story and would like to read it, here's the link: "What Happened to the Doolittle Raiders?"

B-25 Taking Off from the USS Hornet during the Doolittle Raid
Courtesy of U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Jimmy Doolittle, commander of the Raiders, piloted the first B-25 to take off from the deck of the USS Hornet. A terrible storm bucked the ship with tremendous waves, but all eyes focused on the lead plane. If the “Old Man” didn’t succeed, none of them would. Plane #1 lifted off with yards to spare, and the sailors across the whole convoy cheered. Each of the sixteen planes lifted off four minutes apart, and they headed to Japan spread out over a field fifty miles wide and one hundred fifty miles long.

B-25 Taking Off from the USS Hornet during the Doolittle Raid
Courtesy of U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The B-25’s flew low, their crews watching for surface ships and other aircraft. The planes cleared the storm front 200 miles from Japan and flew through clear skies all the way to their targets. After arriving over Japan, Doolittle flew close to treetop level. After spotting a squadron of Japanese fighters ahead, he dropped lower and the plane's olive drab paint allowed the plane to “disappear” over a rice paddy and lose the pursing fighters.

Doolittle flew over Tokyo at thirty feet, but nearing the target, rose to 1,200 feet, and his bombardier, Fred Braemer, dropped all four bombs consecutively. Doolittle dove back down for the getaway but encountered antiaircraft fire. Although the copilot, Dick Cole, counted eighty enemy planes during the course of their flight over Japan, the only damage to Plane #1 was some holes in the tail from flak.

Crew #1 - Front Row: James H. Doolittle, Richard E. Cole,
Back Row: Henry A. Potter, Fred A. Braemer, Paul J. Leonard
Courtesy of U.S. Air Force (Public Domain)

Doolittle headed to the East China Sea, and his navigator, Hank Potter, estimated they would be 135 miles short of the Chinese coast when they ran out of gas. This was a scary prospect since the crew spotted sharks basking in the sea below. Fifteen of the sixteen planes followed this same route, but after leaving Japanese territory, a miracle developed. The prevailing winds which usually blew from west to east reversed direction, and all fifteen planes rode a thirty-mile-an-hour tailwind, gifting them with an extra 250 miles of flying time before running out of gas. The tailwind lasted for five to six hours, allowing all fifteen planes to reach mainland China.

As the planes neared land, the tailwind gave out, night descended, and the Raiders hit a coastal storm. Doolittle headed for a landing field at Chuchow, then in the hands of Free China, but couldn’t locate it in the storm and darkness. Through a serious of missteps the authorities in Chuchow didn't receive word about the imminent arrival of the allied planes or of the signal the Doolittle crews would use to contact them. Instead, upon hearing the noise of approaching aircraft and assuming the Japanese were conducting a night raid, the officials in Chuchow ordered a complete blackout. At the last possible moment, Doolittle instructed his crew members to bail out. He was the only member of the Raiders who had jumped from a plane before, and he was afraid he’d repeat an earlier experience and break both ankles again.

Gunner Paul Leonard landed in the rain and dark on the side of a very steep embankment, and after crawling twenty feet up and down and getting nowhere, he rolled up in his shoot, wrapped his arm around a bamboo tree, and went to sleep. Copilot, Dick Cole, landed in a thirty-foot pine tree. He climbed to the top, untangled his chute, then climbed down and inspected his surroundings. He was on the top of a very steep mountain, so he made a hammock and stayed in the tree for the night. Colonel Doolittle landed in a rice paddy which had recently been fertilized. To deal with the cold, he spent the night inside a water mill doing light calisthenics.

Doolittle, Flight Crew, & Chinese Officials in China after Raid on Japan
Courtesy of U.S. Army Air Forces via Wikimedia Commons

In the morning, a peasant took Doolittle to the local headquarters of the Chinese army, and Dick Cole arrived shortly after. A band of renegade guerrilla fighters brought Leonard, Potter, and Braemer in later. Leonard and Doolittle climbed to the crash site of their B-25, spread out over several acres. Doolittle said he “felt lower than a frog’s posterior.” This was his first combat mission, but he considered it a failure and expected to be court-martialed or relegated to sitting out the war behind a desk.

Japanese soldiers in the area could have captured Doolittle and his crew, but they were blessed to have fallen into the hands of the free Chinese who smuggled them many miles to safety. Doolittle reported that American missionary John Birch, travelling by river, arrived at the same location where the crew was hiding in the cabin of a boat. A man led Birch to the crews’ hiding place, but when they heard his voice they were afraid Birch was a Japanese impersonator. His Southern drawl convinced Leonard to open the door. Birch joined the airmen, translating for them, and facilitating their trip to Chuchow.

Eastern China Airfields the Doolittle Raiders Had Hoped to Use for Refueling
Courtesy of Hyper War: Army Air Forces in World War II

The Japanese conducted regular air raids on Chuchow, and the Americans were driven to a handmade cave in the hills outside of the city. They remained at an army post near the cave until a United States C-47 arrived on April 29th and flew them to Chungking, the capital of Free China. At the American Embassy in Chungking, Doolittle learned that seventy-five of the eighty Raiders had landed in enemy-controlled territory. Twenty of them were rescued and brought to Chungking at the same time. 

President Roosevelt, General Marshall, and General Arnold sent personal congratulations to the Raiders, and Doolittle learned he'd received a double promotion to that of brigadier general. He left Chungking on May 9th on a two-week trip puddle jumping west to Washington D.C. where he was immediately ushered to the White House and met with President Roosevelt.

I’ll share many more exciting stories from the Doolittle Raiders in the coming months.      

Source:  The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid—America’s First World War II Victory by Craig Nelson (Viking, 2002)


CindyStewart, a high school social studies and language arts teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, semifinaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s 2017 Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s 2014 First Impressions writing contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-six years and near her married daughter, son-in-law, and three adorable grandchildren. She’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.


  1. Wow! Now, that's an adventure story!

  2. What a story! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Hi, Melanie. Thank you for being a faithful reader at Heroes, Heroines, & History!

  3. Loved learning more about their experiences! My husband just met Doolittle's copilot, Richard Cole, at the veterans' event Skyball in Dallas, and got to witness him making the final toast to his comrades since he is the last surviving member. It was the highlight of his trip!

    1. Thank you for posting, Heidi. What a wonderful opportunity your husband had to meet Dick Cole. He just turned 102 in September!

  4. Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words and for following my monthly posts, Caryl!

  5. Great post. Thank you for sharing this history.

    1. Hi, Marilyn. Thank you for dropping by and leaving a note. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. Fascinating facts. Have you seen 30Seconds Over Tokyo? Great movie. I noticed that one of the guys was Henry Potter. I guess they took that name for the TV show MASH! Keep up the history lessons. Love it!

    1. Paula, thank you for your kind words! Watching "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" is on my bucket list, and I'm looking forward to blogging about Ted Lawson's story (plane #7) in a few months. I'll mention the movie in my post.

  7. I loved reading this post and I always enjoy learning more about our history.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Connie! Glad you stopped by and enjoyed the post. More to come next month!