Friday, July 31, 2009

Flying With the Dolittle Raiders

I had the opportunity last week to fly two gentlemen around the Seattle area on an orientation flight. Normally these flights are uneventful. These orientation flights serve a dual purpose: They are training sorties for us and also give us the opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities of the C-17 and what's involved with being an airlift aircrew member. This particular flight was a little different, however.

These two gentlemen took part in the famous WWII Dolittle Raid that bombed Tokyo in April of 1942. They launched a fully fueled B-25 off the rolling deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet to an uncertain fate. The gentleman in the tan coat is Lt Col (retired) Cole and was Jimmy Dolittle's copilot that day. The gentleman in the red sweater is Maj (retired) Griffin, the navigator on the 9th aircraft that launched that day.

Several things stood out in my mind that day as I talked with them both during the flight and afterwards:

1. The raiders had to launch early--a Japanese fishing boat had spotted the convoy. They'd run the numbers and realized that they wouldn't have the fuel to make it to China. They knew they were going to have to set it down in the ocean--they went anyway. That's courage.

2. As we flew up the San Juan straight that day, Lt Col Cole leaned over and said, "A buddy of mine bombed and sank a Japanese sub right along here back in '42." I didn't realize the war had gotten that close on the West Coast.

3. Maj Griffin talked about what happened after they got back to the States after the raid. They did a war bond drive for a month or two then he was shipped off to North Africa to support ongoing operations there. He and his aircraft were shot down by the Germans and he spent the remainder of the war in Stalag Luft III. You'd think they'd be set up in the lap of luxury after a mission like that. They didn't miss a beat and all went off to fight the war elsewhere.

4. Those of you familiar with the movie "The Great Escape" may be familiar with Stalag Luft III. That was the actual camp where the Great Escape took place. Maj Griffin actually helped spread the dirt from the tunnels, though no Americans actually escaped that night. I asked him if the Steve McQueen character was based on him. He had a nice laugh about that and said, "No, but I sure spent a lot of time in the cooler like his character did."

One of the most rewarding things I've done in the Air Force. God Bless the men and women who fought for us all in WWII and all the past and present wars.


George said...

That is awesome! Congratulations on getting to have that experience with two icons of American History. Very Cool.

Alan said...

Wow. That is incredible, Steve. I came across the Lake Murray Dam tonight and visualized those men doing their practice runs on "Bomb Island". Those were the men who literally turned the war in our favor. After that raid on Japan, Japanese leaders no longer felt impenetrable. What heros!

James said...

I remember my mom working in the old Dolitte hanger at the Columbia airport when she worked for the now-defunct Air South.