Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Doolittle Raiders Who Disobeyed Orders

by Cindy K. Stewart

What would you do if you were the pilot of a plane that would probably run out of fuel over the ocean or over enemy territory but you could land safely in a place where you were ordered not to go?

Congressional Gold Medal

U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson

During World War II, the Doolittle Raiders launched their fully loaded B-25's off an aircraft carrier, the first to do the impossible, and bombed Japan by total surprise. The pilots were ordered to fly from Japan to airfields in free China. All the men knew that if the Japanese didn't shoot them down they faced the likelihood of running out of fuel before reaching China. 

Pilot Ski York and copilot Robert Emmens of Plane #8 had both missed out on the training the other pilots had participated in at Eglin Air Force Base. Yet their plane safely leaped into the air as the deck of the USS Enterprise disappeared beneath them. The crew breathed a sigh of relief.

York safely piloted his plane to Japan and bombed a large factory installation. After strafing an airfield and not encountering any opposition, the men of Plane #8 made their getaway, flying just above the treetops. Navigator/bombardier Nolan Herndon calculated they would run out of gas over the ocean, 300 miles from free China. York made the decision to head for the Soviet Union which was much closer - after all, the U.S.S.R. was Allied territory. He directly disobeyed their commander, James Doolittle, who had ordered the Raiders not to land in the Soviet Union.

Crewman of Plane #8: Herndon, York, Laban, Emmens, Pohl
Courtesy of National Museum of the US Air Force

The Raiders of Plane #8 reached the Soviet coastline and turned inland. They sighted a small airport thirty miles from the city of Vladivostok and made a perfect landing. The Russians greeting the plane didn't speak English, but they correctly identified the airmen as “Americanski.” They communicated through sign language and provided the Raiders with food and vodka. The airmen asked for gasoline and an opportunity to contact the American Embassy, but their requests were put off. The next morning the Raiders were told their plane was ready, but when they emerged from their quarters discovered a DC-3 waiting for them.

The crew of Plane #8 was taken to Khabarovsk, Siberia, and interrogated by a Russian general who informed them they would be interned in the Soviet Union. The airmen were taken outside the city "to an army dacha in the countryside on the banks of the Amur River, across from Manchuria." The Russians provided beds, three meals a day, and a guard for each of the men. The Raiders were convinced they would only be interned for a week or two.

Amur River Basin - Note the Cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk on the Right
Courtesy of Wikimedia By Kmusser - Own work using Digital Chart of the World and GTOPO data 

Ten days later the Russians locked the Raiders and their guards in a third-class sleeper car attached to a freight train and transported them on a twenty-one day journey to the village of Okhuna, three hundred miles south of Moscow. The Soviets billed the U.S. thirty thousand rubles a month to provide for the interned soldiers. 

As time passed, the Raiders' worries grew. They learned that the Wehrmacht (German Army) was moving closer and closer to Moscow. They studied a map and realized that Okhuna was only a few days’ march from the front lines of the war. After seven weeks, American officials from Moscow arrived to check on the Raiders, and the airmen asked about "the rest of the boys on the Tokyo raid." The officials had no information about the rest of the Doolittle gang, but the attaché brought a telegram from the U.S. for copilot Bob Emmens. He was now the father of a red-headed baby boy!

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

War-time shortages caught up with the airmen and the airmen went without meat or vegetables and sometimes both for days. For weeks they survived on cabbage, rice, black bread, tea, and red caviar. Next the Soviets sent the men by train and a flat-bottomed paddle wheeler into the foothills of the Urals, on the western edge of Siberia. The people living there were very poor, dirty, and malnourished. The American ambassador visited the Raiders but could provide them with very little. The men ate boiled, fried, and baked cereal, and pure, uncooked pork fat, sliced about an inch thick. The temperature hovered at thirty-five to forty degrees below zero and for one three-day period at fifty below. The Raiders remained in Okhansk for seven months, and their physical condition rapidly deteriorated.

In early January of 1943, the airmen wrote a letter to Stalin. They praised the progress of the Soviet Army against the Germans, and they made three requests. Their reply came near the end of March when two Russian officers arrived, sent by the High Command of the Red Army in Moscow. They couldn’t grant the request that the men be released from the Soviet Union, but they would grant their requests to move to a warmer climate and to be allowed to work. The Raiders traveled by car for twelve hours to the city of Molotov, flew south to Chkalov, and then traveled by train for eight days to Ashkhabad, the capital of Soviet Turkmenistan. On the trip, Ski York shared a compartment with a young Russian named Kolya. Kolya had brought a large store of various food items and shared his bounty with Ski for every meal during the trip.

Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

In Ashkhabad, the airmen lived in a two-roomed mud house and slept on bare wooden beds with one blanket each. They worked in a factory which overhauled small trainer biplanes, and a Soviet officer showed up to count heads each night. Kolya visited and also took the Raiders to his own home, but always after dark. The men begged him to help them escape to Persia (Iran), fifteen miles to the south. One evening Kolya escorted York to the downtown square and directed him to a Persian man, Abdul Arram. After bargaining with York, Abdul agreed to take the airmen across the border for two hundred and fifty U.S. dollars.

In the middle of the night on May 26, 1943, after more than a year of internment in the Soviet Union, the Raiders of Plane #8 hiked over a mountain into Soviet-occupied Persia. After managing to avoid the Russian sentries manning the bridge into the city of Meshed, the airmen found refuge at the British Embassy. From there they flew to India and on to the United States. 

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


Cindy Stewart, 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! How very interesting! I wonder why those American officials couldn't secure the release of those men....

    1. Hi, Connie. The Soviets had planned to release the Raiders until an American newsman tried to push the government to say what they would do if an American military plane sought refuge in their country. The Soviets didn't want war with Japan, so they had to keep everything quiet about sheltering the Raiders. Apparently they felt that releasing the men would draw unwanted attention.

  2. Very interesting, Cindy! I haven't ever heard this story. I'm surprised a movie hasn't been made about it. Did all of the men survive?

    1. Hi, Vickie. A movie about the Doolittle Raiders was made during WWII called "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo." The movie was based on the book of the same title by Ted Lawson who was the pilot of Plane #7, the "Ruptured Duck." I'll be sharing many more stories about the Raiders in the coming months and will reveal the answer to your question. :)

  3. I found this bit from history very interesting. I had heard of Doolittle Raiders, but I didn't know anything about them. I, too, think this would make a good movie.

    1. Hi, Ruth. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Check out the movie, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" to watch the story of pilot Ted Lawson and the men of Plane #7.

  4. Another informative history lesson about the Doolittle Raiders.

  5. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post. I always enjoying reading about the Doolittle Raiders.

  6. Replies
    1. Thank you, Stephanie. There are so many interesting stories about the 16 planes and the 80 men known as the Doolittle Raiders. Next month I'll share more.