President Franklin Roosevelt described Dec. 7, 1941, as a date that would live in infamy when he addressed the nation by radio the following day. He went on to say he had directed all measures be taken to defend the nation following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As his first step he instructed his military leaders to find a way to retaliate.
The challenge for the military was that Army fighter planes could not reach Japan from American soil. The new B-25 Mitchell bomber could travel 300 miles per hour and could carry 2,400 pounds of bombs fully loaded. Even if Pearl Harbor was still operational, a plane taking off would have to travel almost 4,000 miles in the air to reach Japan. U.S. Army and Navy officers began exploring the possibility of sending B-25 Mitchell bombers off a Navy aircraft carrier that could get close to Japan, a procedure that never had been done.
The plan that quickly came together was to ask Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle to plan, recruit, and execute an attack on Japanese cities to let them know they were not safe from American retaliation.
Jimmy Doolittle was a famous test pilot and aeronautical engineer between the world wars and somewhat of a daredevil. In 1922, he completed the first cross-country flight from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Diego, California, making only one refueling stop. In 1927 he performed the first outside loop, a maneuver that was considered fatal. In 1929, he became the first pilot to take off and land a plane without an outside view, using only instruments. In 1932, he set the world’s high-speed record for land-based planes at 296 miles per hour.
Jimmy Doolittle asked the 17th Bombardment Group, then based in Oregon, to provide a large pool of potential volunteers to choose from; he ultimately would need 80 crew members to fly 16 planes. The 17th BG was ordered to fly to a newly built Army base in Lexington, South Carolina, renamed the Columbia Army Air Base, now the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
The airmen were sent from Oregon to Columbia using three separate routes for security. They arrived in Columbia in early February 1942. Jimmy Doolittle arrived a few days later to observe test flights and to ask for volunteers for a dangerous top-secret mission. Everyone there volunteered.
Horace “Sally” Crouch, who was from Columbia, said, “The base in Columbia was right on a road and everybody going by could see right in.” It is believed Jimmy Doolittle wanted to use the Columbia base to determine who his volunteers would be so he could send home the soldiers not chosen before he sent the volunteers to be trained in a secret location, Eglin Field, in Florida.
In 1942, Eglin Field was hidden by a forest and was close to the Gulf of Mexico for overwater navigation practice runs, perfect for the training for this mission.
After Jimmy Doolittle’s raiders left for Florida, the Columbia base became a major training facility for military pilots learning how to fly the B-25 Mitchell medium bombers. Airplanes crashed into the lake during practice missions and crews died. An island on Lake Murray, now called Bomb Island, was used for bombing practice. One plane crashed in Lake Murray in April 1943 and was raised from the bottom of the lake in 2005; it has been restored and is displayed at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama.
Bomb Island has become the home of hundreds of thousands of purple martins, arriving each year in late July, helping rid the Midlands of millions of insects.
Jimmy Doolittle’s volunteers went from Columbia to Eglin Field in late February 1942, where they first learned how to launch a B-25 fighter plane from a standing stop to airborne in 500 feet, the length of an aircraft carrier runway. A loaded B-25 Mitchell generally used 3,300 feet of runway to work up enough speed to take off. Doolittle tried to cut weight from the planes at the same time he was adding fuel tanks; he took the machine guns from the back of the planes and replaced them with wooden dowels, basically broomsticks, painted black, to fool Japanese fighters.
After a few weeks at Eglin Field, Doolittle sent everyone on the base home but the crews that were chosen to fly the mission. The crews arrived at Naval Air Station Alameda, California, in late March 1942 and boarded the USS Hornet aircraft carrier with the B-25 Mitchells. Once the Hornet had left the port, Doolittle announced their destination to the crews to raucous cheering and applause.
The USS Hornet left Alameda on April 1, 1942, with the intention of taking the men and planes within 400 miles of Japan; the planes would take off from the aircraft carrier, fly 400 miles to their targets in Japan, drop their bombs, and then fly another 1,200 miles to China, where they could land safely. The planes could not return to land on the aircraft carrier; once airborne, they had to keep going.
On April 18, 1942, 80 years ago this month, the USS Hornet aircraft carrier was spotted by a Japanese fishing boat 800 miles from Japan. The Americans sank the boat but had to assume their location had been reported to the military in Tokyo. Doolittle told the crews they would not have enough fuel to arrive in China but the men said they wanted to fly anyway. They took off so fast that they left without food for the 14-hour trip in the air. All 16 planes made it off the aircraft carrier, and they headed to Japan, not to arrive early in the morning as they had planned but to arrive at noon.
Japan never had been attacked from the air. The damage from the American bombs was relatively minor, but the impact on the Japanese commanders was major. They realized they were vulnerable to American attack, and they were deeply embarrassed by the audacious raid. The Japanese military leaders withdrew fighter units from Pacific war zones to improve their homeland defense, a factor in the American victory at the Battle of Midway two months later.
The impact on America also was major. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December, and four months later in April, 16 planes rained bombs on cities in Japan, including Tokyo. The United States scored a major victory that boosted morale.
For nine hours the planes flew away from Japan toward safety; the question was whether they would find an airfield to land on or would land in the ocean or even on a mountainside.
Lt. Sally Crouch, from Columbia, graduated from The Citadel in 1940 and married Mary Epting a few days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was a bombardier-navigator in plane No. 10 in the attack on Japan. His plane crew shot down two of the three Japanese Zero Fighters downed by the Raiders’ remaining nose guns and successfully bombed their target before heading toward China. They ran out of gasoline and bailed out of the plane near Chuchow, a city in China that is 1,200 miles from Japan. While training for the mission, Lt. Crouch never had practiced parachuting. He jumped from plane No. 10 and was supposed to count to 10 before pulling his cord but instead quickly counted to three and pulled. He managed to land safely in China and was rescued by Chinese guerrilla fighters. He stayed in China for a year, returned to Columbia, and taught math at Columbia High School for 25 years. Lt. Col. Horace “Sally” Crouch died in 2005 at age 87.
Another Doolittle Raider from South Carolina, William G. Farrow, was from Darlington. He had been a student at the University of South Carolina when he joined the Army. First Lt. Pilot Farrow was one of three soldiers on the Doolittle Raid who was captured, tortured, and executed by a firing squad. He was 24 years old.
The other Doolittle Raider who later lived in South Carolina was Nolan Herndon. Born in Texas, Herndon lived in Edgefield after the war and raised cattle and worked in the wholesale grocery business. He was a bombardier-navigator on plane No. 8. The plane ran out of fuel early and had to land in Russia, where the crew was held prisoner for a year before escaping to Iran. Lt. Herndon died in 2007 at age 88.
All of the crews in the Doolittle Raid completed their mission. One plane landed in Russia, and the other 15 planes either landed, crashed, or bailed out in China. Three of the 80 men died in the crashes, eight were captured, and the other 69 men made it back to the United States. Jimmy Doolittle thought his raid had been a failure because all the aircraft had been lost. He was concerned he would be court-martialed upon his return; instead, President Franklin Roosevelt presented him with the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony.
The Doolittle Raiders had a special relationship with one another beginning in Columbia in 1942, and they gathered for a reunion every year starting in 1945. Jimmy Doolittle died in 1993 at age 96, one year after the 50th anniversary reunion held in Columbia.
The 60th anniversary in 2002 also was held in Columbia as was the 67th anniversary in 2009, when four of the nine surviving Doolittle Raiders attended the celebration. This month, April 2022, would have been their 80th anniversary reunion.
The last public reunion of the Doolittle Raiders was held in 2013 in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, the home of Eglin Field. Five years later, Richard E. Cole died, at age 103, the last Doolittle Raider.