Airmen from McChord Field take part in Doolittle Raid against Japan on April 18, 1942.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 2/21/2013
  • Essay 10341

On April 18, 1942, airmen from Washington's McChord Field, who have volunteered for the dangerous mission, launch bombers from an aircraft carrier to attack the Japanese home islands. The attack, made soon after America's entry into World War II, becomes known as the Doolittle Raid after its flight leader, Lieutenant Colonel James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle (1896-1993). All 16 aircraft on the raid are lost. Of the 80 raiders, five die in crashes. Japanese forces capture eight men and execute three of them. One of the captured aircrew dies in captivity. The survivors will gather every year to remember their fellow airmen; in 2013, with four raiders surviving, three will meet for a final toast to the mission and the memory of their comrades.

McChord Field Training

McChord Field, located near Fort Lewis outside Tacoma, became an important B-25 training base that produced outstanding aircrews. McChord's 17th Bomb Group was the first bomb group to receive the B-25s and quickly became the most expert in their use. Aircrews from the 17th instructed new trainers and earned the nickname "Daddy of Them All."

When it came time to select crews for the raid on Tokyo, the 17th Bomb Group dominated the list. Among the McChord-trained 17th Bomb Group aircrews were Major John A. Hilger (1909-1982), Captain Charles Greening (1914-1957), Captain Edward J. York (1912-1984), Captain David M. Jones (1913-2008), Lieutenant Everett W. Holstrom (1916-2000), Edgar McElroy (1912-2003), H. F. Watson (1916-1991), Travis Hoover (1917-2004), Denver V. Truelove (1913-2008), Charles J. Ozuk (1916-2010), Ted Lawson (1917-1992), and Jacob DeShazer (1912-2008).

The Attack

In February 1942 the 17th Bomb Group was ordered to Columbia, South Carolina, to fly coastal patrols. It was also to provide crews for the Tokyo bombing raid. Volunteers from the 17th were sought and told that they would fly an extremely hazardous mission. The volunteer group was detached and sent to Florida to train for carrier launches. B-25B bombers for the raid were sent to a modification center for installation of added fuel tanks and removal of equipment to lighten the aircraft for longer range. Captain Greening, the mission armament officer, designed an accurate bomb sight that cost just 20 cents. After the raid, it was dubbed 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. Each B-25 had a crew of five. The mission flight leader, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, was pilot of aircraft 1, the first to launch. Aircraft 1 was the first over Japan and bombed a factory. Doolittle then turned the plane toward China where it crashed into a mountain. The crew survived and Chinese civilians escorted all to safety. Greening and his aircraft 11 crew fought off Japanese fighter planes and bombed a fuel storage facility before running out of fuel and bailing out over China, where they also made it to safety with Chinese assistance.

Among Washington-raised crew members on the raid were Fred Braemer (1914-1989) and Wayne M. Bissell (1921-1997). Staff Sergeant Braemer, a 1935 Ballard High School graduate from Seattle, was a bombardier on aircraft 1, Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle's bomber. After the raid Braemer attended flight training and was commissioned a lieutenant. He retired in 1968. Wayne Bissell, a Vancouver High School football star and graduate, was a bombardier on aircraft 9, which bombed the Tokyo Gas and Electric Company. This crew bailed out over China and survived.

The Raid's Impact

All 16 aircraft on the raid were lost. Japanese forces captured eight raiders and executed three of them. One of the captured airmen died in captivity. Five others died in crashes. The U.S. Navy Task Force 16 that carried the bombers paid in deaths and injuries as well. Chinese civilians helped the downed crews escape and return safely to Allied bases. They did this at an incredibly heavy cost, with some accounts estimating as many as 250,000 civilians were killed by Japanese forces in their search and as reprisals.

The 80 Doolittle Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle was promoted to brigadier general, skipping over the rank of colonel. He also received the Medal of Honor. While the raid itself caused only limited damage, it gave a huge boast to American morale. It was a minor setback for the Japanese but it did mean that senior Japanese military leaders who had promised the homelands were free from attack had been upstaged by the Americans.

The raid also caused Japanese military leaders to divert naval forces to protect the home islands. Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto (1884-1943), Commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, rushed plans to capture the Midway Islands to establish a safe perimeter and then attack Pearl Harbor in retaliation. The Japanese defeat at Midway set America on course for victory in the Pacific.

Post-raid Careers

After a leave, Ross Greening flew 27 missions from a North Africa base before being shot down in 1943 and spending nearly two years as a German prisoner of war. When the war ended, he proposed and then headed the "Army Air Force POW Exposition." Greening remained on active duty until his death in 1957.

Following the raid, Fred Braemer flew 26 missions in the China-Burma-India theater. He returned on leave to Seattle in July 1943 and appeared at a war bond rally at Seattle's Victory Square on July 26, 1943. Following this leave he attended flight school and received a commission. He left the Army Air Force in November 1945 and returned to Seattle. He reenlisted during the Korean War and served until retirement in 1968.

Sergeant Wayne Bissell came home on leave to Vancouver in July 1942. He attended many events and was honored as a hero during his time at home. The Vancouver Eagles Lodge had him as the principal speaker at its American War Heroes Day celebration. He had an East Coast assignment then went to flight school where he earned his commission on July 28, 1943. Lieutenant Bissell served in the Southwest Pacific until his discharge in July 1945.

Sergeant Edward J. Saylor (1920-2015), who served on aircraft 15 as an engineer, earned a battlefield commission on March 4, 1945. He remained in the Air Force and received a regular commission in October 1947. Saylor retired as a lieutenant colonel on October 1, 1967, and settled in Washington.

Raider Reunions  

After the war, the Doolittle Raiders held reunions to recognize devotion to duty and honor their departed comrades. A central feature of the reunions was a collection of 80 silver goblets, each inscribed with a crewmember's name, presented to the raiders in 1959 by officials from Tucson, Arizona, and preserved at the National Air Force Museum between reunions. Over the years, as raiders passed on, their goblets were turned over. Kept with the goblets was a bottle of 1896 Hennessy cognac, which had been presented to General Doolittle (who was born in 1896) on his sixtieth birthday. The plan had been that the last two raiders would open the bottle to toast all the departed. However, in 2013, the final four surviving raiders decided to gather that year for the toast, rather than waiting until only two survived.

The February 2013 death of Major Thomas Griffin (1916-2013) left four living Doolittle Raiders: Lieutenant Colonel Saylor of Puyallup, Pierce County; Lieutenant Colonel Richard "Dick" Cole (b. 1915); Sergeant David Thatcher (b. 1921); and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hite (1920-2015). They decided to hold what would likely be the final reunion, and open the cognac, that fall. On November 9, 2013, Cole, Saylor, and Thatcher met for the ceremony at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Health issues prevented Hite, the last survivor of the eight raiders who had been captured by Japanese forces, from being present, but he was represented by family members. Others in the invited crowd of 600 included family members of deceased raiders, Air Force officials, and relatives of Chinese civilians who had helped the downed airmen. Cole opened the 1896 bottle and he, Saylor, and Thatcher made the final toast to the memory of their comrades. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Saylor died in Sumner, Pierce County, on January 28, 2015, at the age of 94.

Sources: 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; "'That's Like Fred', Says Wife of Man Who Hit Tokyo," The Seattle Times, May 20, 1942, p. 3; "Tokyo Raiders Wrecked Huge Aircraft Plants," The Seattle Times, July 18, 1942, p. 4; "Back from War," The Seattle Times, July 20, 1943, p. 16; "Doolittle Flyers Waggled Wings, Fooled Jap Patrol," The Seattle Times, July 21, 1943, p. 2, "Noted WWII Attack Pilot Dies at 96," USA Today, March 1, 2013, p. A-9; The Doolittle Tokyo Raiders website accessed April 17, 2014 (; "Final Surviving Members of Daring WWII Doolittle Raid to Gather for One Last Toast to Honor Late Airmen," New York Daily News, November 9, 2013 (; Jerry Kenney, "Doolittle Raiders Offer Final Toast to 71-Year-Old Mission," National Public Radio website accessed April 17, 2014 (; "Lt. Col. Edward Saylor Dies; Member of Doolittle Raiders," The Seattle Times, January 30, 2015, p. B-3; "Passages," Ibid., April 5, 2015, p. B-6.
Note: This essay was updated on April 17, 2014, and on January 30 and April 5, 2015.

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