Greening, Colonel Charles Ross (1914-1957)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 2/22/2013
  • Essay 10320

Ross Greening of Tacoma developed an interest in flight at an early age and went on to make it his career. He became an expert B-25 Mitchell bomber pilot in 1941 at McChord Field near Tacoma and served in one of a number of outstanding aircrews trained at McChord. During World War II Captain Greening and other airmen volunteered for an extremely dangerous mission to launch bombers from a carrier to attack the Japanese home islands, which became known as the Doolittle Raid. Captain Greening flew 27 missions following the raid until shot down over Italy. He became a prisoner and spent nearly two years in a prisoner-of-war camp. After the war he remained in the Air Force and reached the rank of colonel. Greening died in 1957 while still on active duty.

Early Interest in Flight 

Charles Ross Greening was born in Iowa and spent his early years in Montana. His father Charles (1883-1938) was a banker and cattle rancher. As a youngster, Ross developed an interest in flight. He first flew as a passenger at the age of 6. In 1925 his father's bank failed and the family moved to Tacoma. Ross Greening continued his love of aviation and experienced his first plane crash as a passenger when he was 13 years old.

He graduated from Tacoma High School and then attended Washington State College, where he majored in fine arts with minors in physical education and military science. While he would go on to a military career, his sketching and painting would be very important in his life. At college he dated Dorothy "Dot" Watson (1912-2003). During his senior year, he hitchhiked from Pullman to Vancouver, Washington, to take a flight school physical.

Army Air Corps 

Greening entered the Army at Fort Lewis, near his Tacoma home, on June 23, 1936, and was accepted into the Army Air Corps Flying School located at Randolph Field in Texas. He graduated on June 9, 1937. His first assignment was to Barksdale Field in Louisiana. He took leave to come to Olympia to marry Dorothy Watson. The couple overcame a difficult automobile trip to return to Barksdale. A 1938 transfer brought them west to California's Hamilton Field and the 17th Bombardment Group. In 1940 when volunteers were sought for the new McChord Field near Fort Lewis, Greening jumped at the opportunity to return home.

At McChord, the 17th Bombardment Group, initially had Douglas B-18 Bolo Bombers, followed soon by Douglas B-23 Dragon Bombers. In late 1940, the B-23s were replaced with the North American B-25 Mitchell Bombers and the 17th was renamed a Bomb Group. From September through November 1941, the 17th Bomb Group participated in Louisiana and then Carolina maneuvers, flying infantry support missions. The group was ordered to California in early December.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor, the group went to a Pendleton, Oregon, airfield and conducted coastal patrols, searching for Japanese ships and submarines. The Pendleton Field operations encountered weather problems, so the group returned to McChord Field.

The Doolittle Raid  

In February 1942, volunteers from the 17th Bomb Group were sought for an extremely hazardous mission: to provide crews for a bombing raid on Tokyo and other targets in Japan. The flight leader for what became known as the Doolittle Raid was Lieutenant Colonel James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle (1896-1993). The volunteer group was sent to Florida to train, while B-25B bombers for the raid were modified for longer range.

As the mission armament officer, Captain Greening addressed the issue of the bombers' inadequate armament. Among his corrective actions was to install a pair of black-painted wooden sticks in each aircraft's tail. This would intimidate attacking enemies. Ross Greening also removed the expensive and secret Norden bombsight and replaced it with a simple device. He and his technical assistant Sergeant Edward Bain (1917-1943) designed a sight with two pieces of aluminum that could be fabricated in the base metal shop. When tested, it proved more accurate at low-altitude bombing than the Norden bombsight. It cost just 20 cents and Greening named it the "Mark Twain." After the raid, reporters called it the "20 cent bombsight" and the name stuck.

On April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 bombers lifted off the U.S.S Hornet to attack Japanese home island targets. Greening was the pilot on aircraft 11, nicknamed the "Hari Kari-er." The raiders flew their bombers close to the deck, just above the water to avoid radar. Greening's target was an oil refinery at the Yokohama docks. Headed for its target, the "Hari Kari-er" accidentally flew over an enemy airbase. Ten minutes later Japanese fighters from the base attacked Greening's bomber. The bomber's crew believed they shot down one or two of the attackers. Aircraft 11 continued on to bomb a fuel storage facility. Captain Greening then changed course for a designated Chinese airfield and safety. The plane ran out of fuel and the crew had to bail out 200 miles inland from the China coast. They made it out safely with Chinese assistance.

Hero and Prisoner 

By then a major, Greening was granted leave in July 1942. A hero's welcome awaited him when his train arrived at Tacoma's Union Station. His wife Dorothy and his mother Jewell R. Greening (1888-?) were there. Greening visited friends and aided the war bond effort; he spoke at Seattle’s Victory Square to sell bonds.

Following his leave Greening reported for duty at McChord Field and training in the Martin B-26 Marauder Bomber. He became a group commander and flew 27 missions from a North Africa base before being shot down on July 17, 1943, and taken prisoner. Greening escaped from his prisoner-of-war camp and was on the run for six months before he was recaptured. He spent almost two years as a POW. Back home in Tacoma, Jewell Greening aided the war effort in a number of ways including participating in ship commissioning.

After the War 

After the war Greening came home to Tacoma for another visit with his mother and then traveled to a Montana lodge with his wife. Ross and Dorothy Greening then went to Washington, D.C., where the major proposed a prisoner-of-war exhibit to the Army Air Force. The exhibit would include crafts and artifacts that Greening had shipped back from his POW camp. It was approved and Major Greening became the commanding officer of the project. The "Army Air Force POW Exposition" opened in New York City on October 1, 1945. It toured the United States and a portion of it is on permanent display at the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

Images from the POW exhibit and Ross Greening's life can be seen in a beautifully illustrated biography Not As Briefed: From the Doolittle Raid to a German Stalag. Following the prisoner-of-war exhibit, Ross Greening began a Cold War air force career that included jet training at Panama City, Florida; air command duties; and, in November 1949, duty with the Aeronautical Chart Service. In 1954 Greening served as U.S. Air Attache in Australia and New Zealand. He died of an infection in 1957 while on active duty.

Sources: Colonel C. Ross Greening, compiled and edited by Dorothy Greening and Karen Morgan Driscoll, Not As Briefed: From the Doolittle Raid to a German Stalag (Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 2001); Carroll V. Glines, The Doolittle Raid: America’s Daring First Strike Against Japan (New York: Orion Books, 1988); Craig Nelson, The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid, America’s First World War II Victory (New York: Viking Press, 2002); "Youth Flies in Tokyo Raid," The Oregonian, May 21, 1942, p. 16; "Tokyo Raiders Wrecked Huge Aircraft Plants," The Seattle Daily Times, July 18, 1942, p. 4; "Back from War," The Seattle Daily Times, July 20, 1943, p. 16; "Doolittle Flyers Waggled Wings, Fooled Jap Patrol," The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1943, p. 2; "Tokyo Bomber Leaves for East," The Oregonian, July 26, 1942, p. 53; "Tokyo Raider Writes from Nazi Prison," The Seattle Daily Times, September 1, 1944, p. 16; "Charles Ross Greening, 0-22443, Colonel," Doolittle Tokyo Raiders website accessed February 11, 2015 (
Note: This essay was corrected, as to Col. Greening's birthplace, on February 11, 2015.

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