I was going to title this story “77” for the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but due to my ever popular college football website, I didn’t want anyone to think the article had anything to do with the late great Red Grange.
It occurred to me that I have written a lot about the veterans of World War II, even last week on the anniversary I wrote a few paragraphs about it on the aforementioned football website to commemorate the event.
I didn’t want this to be a cut and paste of other things I have written or a regurgitation of stories I have told in the past and that is when I noticed a book in my living room, tucked away amongst the other history books of various conflicts.
Before I retrieved the book from its place and saw the names, the signatures inside the cover, I knew what I was going to write about.
I haven’t told this story before, not that I am aware of anyway.
But on this 77th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I want to tell you about the “80”.
As has been chronicled and I hope you all know by heart, on December 7th 1941 on a Sunday morning the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, the airfields, fleet and the heart of America itself.
We have all read about the devastating blow, the casualties that day and the fact America was simply unprepared for what lay ahead of them in a world that was at war.
Everyone has seen the old black and white newsreels of the day, with President Roosevelt, the lines at military recruiting stations etc. But I will tell you something those newsreels and the commentators of today won’t tell you.
America was wild, daring and dangerous then…..
America wasn’t afraid to be reckless and gamble
If you think I am off track here, then let me tell you a story about the “80”.
When America was nearly knocked out by the blow at Pearl Harbor, what did she do?
At that time she had little or no military might to speak off, most of the Navy was damaged or destroyed and we had very few aircraft or any type.
Japan had conquered China, had just invaded the Philippines and had our forces there surrounded were conquering Indo-China and forcing the mighty British Lion to capitulate.
Across the Atlantic, Hitler was seeing his dreams of world domination become reality.
So what did America do?
I will tell you what America did……..
She said, “Hold my Beer and Watch this….”
I imagine the conversation in Washington D.C. went something like this…..
“Hey I have an idea, lets get a bunch of Junior Officers in some of the remaining bombers we have, put them on one of the few aircraft carriers that are left, you know, even though the planes don’t fit onboard and probably can’t fly anyway and attack Japan on a one way mission, what do say?”
I don’t know if that is exactly how the conversation took place, but that is in fact exactly what happened.
A Lieutenant Colonel was put in charge of the Operation…..
EDITORS NOTE: Now we have General Officers that are in charge of parking lots at the pentagon.
The other crew members were Lieutenant’s along with a few Captains and a hand full of Sergeants and all of them young.
There were eighty of them and they were called the “Doolittle Raiders” after their commander, Lt. Col Jimmy Doolittle.
They flew the B-25 Mitchell Bomber and practiced their short (very short) takeoffs at what is now Eglin Air Force Base in the panhandle of Florida.
They all knew it was a one way trip…..
They were to launch their bombers (hopefully) from the USS Hornet in the Pacific Ocean without fighter aircraft cover, and fly to Japan and bomb the industrial center and then (hopefully) crash land in China, or the ocean and escape to be rescued later (hopefully).
EDITORS NOTE: To think the military did all of that without an environmental impact study or a detailed safety analysis of the situation.
Four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor that is exactly what they did……
In April of 1942 the Doolittle Raiders aboard the USS Hornet launched their planes that were not ever (ever) designed to fly from an aircraft carrier and attacked Imperial Japan.
Many never returned from the one way mission……..
Some people today will tell you that the mission did little for the war effort but was only conducted as a morale booster for the folks back home.
I tell you it was dangerous, it was daring and it was bold and it told the world…..
“You can knock us down, but we will get up and whip your ass.”
I am sure many of you are saying “Thanks for the History lesson, but…..”
But what does this have to do with me?
I will tell you
In the later half of 1986 I was at NASA at Cape Canaveral for a brief period of time…..
I often joked with people that asked if I was there to become an astronaut, I said “No” I’m just an “ass” that’s here for something else. That something else was with the then McDonnell – Douglas Corporation, and I was there to test the new (and improved) rockets carried by infantrymen to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles.
In June of that year I was “invited” by my boss who was a frustrated Colonel in artillery who wanted to be a General of everything to attend the big air show they have there every year and to tell you the truth I wasn’t excited about it.
I have never been one for “mandatory fun” which in the military vernacular means that your attendance is mandatory and to try and have a good time while you are there.
Thank God I didn’t have to wear my uniform in that heat or maybe I missed the memo, about wearing it, but I went to the big air show nonetheless.
Way away from the crowds, the static displays of planes etc was a medium sized tent.
There were some tables set up and a dozen or so older gentlemen were seated in chairs just talking with one another, with only a handful of what I would classify as visitors talking with them as well.
As I walked towards the tent out of curiosity and to escape the watchful eye of my boss, I noticed a small sign at the opening of the tent and it said…..
“Doolittle Raiders Book Signing”
I felt like I had bricks in my shoes……..
As I walked into the tent one of the “older” gentlemen was exiting and he asked me…
“Hey, were have they stashed the latrines around this joint?”
I mumbled something and pointed to the temporary latrines that had been brought in for the occasion and that was when he stuck his hand out and with a big Texas smile and said…
“I’m Nolan Herndon, what’s your name?”
I told him or mumbled it; I’m still not quite sure.
When I walked into the tent, I was in the presence of greatness…..
You could feel it.
There were a dozen or more of them in there to sign a book about their raid on Japan.
Lt. Joe Macia
Sgt Bob Bourgeois
Lt. J.R. Stork
Lt. Charles McClure
Lt. Hank Potter who was Lt. Col Doolittle’s Co-Pilot on the Raid
Lt. Bill Bower
Lt. Nolan Herndon
Lt. Richard E. Cole
Captain David M. Jones
Lt. Dick McCool
Lt. Bob Hite
Sgt David J. Thatcher
Lt. Thomas Griffin
Lt. Horace “Sally” Crouch
They were all in their seventies but you couldn’t tell it from the way they looked or the way they acted with one another. They were in a word, the coolest cats on the planet.
I bought a book and was getting it signed by all of them one by one….
I shook the hands that piloted the bombers and dropped the bombs…
I looked into the same eyes that were once fixed on a bomb sight looking at Japan
I don’t have the words to describe what that was like
I was near the end of the signing tables when one gentlemen who happened to be a retired Major General, looked me over and asked if I was a Marine as he signed my book with his old rank of “Lieutenant” along with his name.
I told him “Yes sir I am.”
The General looked at his two other Raiders in crime seated next to him and then asked me, “Where can a man get a cold beer around here on hot day like today?”
I made up my mind in less than a second when I replied
“I don’t know sir, but if you tell me what you want I will get it for you gentlemen”
There was the usual, “O’ you don’t have to do that son; we just want to know where we can get something cold to drink.” Little did they know that right then and there I had ulterior motives for my generosity.
I wanted to drink beer with the Doolittle Raiders and talk with them.
Just talk and listen to them…..
Drink beer with the By God, Bad Ass, Doolittle Raiders
I took orders from them all, and of course they all didn’t drink
I won’t say how much money I spent that day because it wasn’t important then and it’s damn sure not important now, but I will say I am glad a I drove a pickup truck, because it was full with beverages of several varieties and ice, lots and lots of ice.
I backed up to the tent with my pickup truck and I served those men whatever they wanted, as much as they wanted whenever in the hell they wanted it.
I got a chance to set down with them and listen, just listen while I drank beer with the Doolittle Raiders and I asked a few respectful questions about taking off the USS Hornet in the B-25.
It was an incredible experience
They talked about Jimmy Doolittle….
They knew Chuck Yeager
They talked about their days of daring…
But with most good things there will always be some damn kill joy that tries to interrupt the festivities and it was then I heard the voice of my then Boss, Colonel (Wants to be a General) shout from just outside the tent…..
“There YOU are I have been looking for you, where have you been?”
One of the Doolittle Raiders stood up and blocked my view of Colonel (Wants to be a General) and introduced himself;
“I am Major General Danny Jones, what can I do for you?”
The Colonel (Wants to be a General) said something I couldn’t hear before he was interrupted by Lieutenant of the Doolittle Raiders and retired Major General of the Air Force Danny Jones with a curt, “Can’t you see we are busy Colonel?”
I then heard my latrine buddy Lt. Nolan Herndon of Texas who was a POW following the crashing of his plane after the Raid until he escaped (“Yes” I said escaped…) and made it back to the United States say
“I think it’s time for you to be gone Colonel we are busy”
With that the Colonel (Wants to be a General) disappeared and we resumed our conversations but not without the “What the hell was his problem?”
I drank beer and talked with them all until it got dark and they had to return to their hotels, motels and families. I thanked them all for their time.
It was one of the grandest days of my entire life.
They offered to pay me for the refreshments, absolutely not, that was a day like no other.
I was in the presence of greatness.
When American had Leaders and Commanders, not Micromanagers
I was among men that day who one time risked it all in one crazy mission…
Now we are risk averse and people worry how something might upset their promotions.
The black and white pictures of them all on those days showed daring, dashing and courageous daredevils launching off to attack Japan.
They still looked like that way to me that day too even that many years later.
Time has taken most of them from us now and it won’t be much longer until they have all left this earth for their great reward, but they won’t be forgotten, not now not ever.
I look at those signatures in the book I bought that day…….
And I remember
I drank beer with them and talked with them……
And for a brief moment in time, I felt I was one of them.
This is written for the Courageous “80” Men of The Doolittle Raiders
When America once said…..
“Hold my Beer and Watch this….”
And She By God meant it too….