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Jewish World Review May 29, 2001 / 7 Sivan, 5761

Bob Greene

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You wouldn't know them on a city street -- 'PEARL HARBOR" opened this weekend, and regardless of what occurs -- whether the movie ultimately turns out to be a huge box-office success, whether it fails to meet advance expectations, or falls somewhere in the middle -- something good is destined to happen because of it.

Attention will at long last be paid to a small group of now-elderly men who, if you were to pass them on the street today, you would not recognize.

I'm not talking about survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- although it is great that those men will be accorded the nation's thanks in weeks to come.

I'm referring to another group of men -- there are only 25 of them left, many in failing health -- men our country has all but forgotten about.

These are men whom it has been my privilege to come to know a little bit, because of a few twists of fate.

They are....

Well, let's back up.

When I first heard that a big-budget movie was being filmed about Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, I was puzzled: How can you make a movie about Pearl Harbor and have the audience leave the theater feeling anything but dejected? All that death and devastation -- how could the movie not be unremittingly depressing?

How do you end a movie like that in a way that gives the audience hope, makes them feel pride and strength?

And then I figured it out. Of course. You end it with the Doolittle Raiders.

For many of you, that name may not mean much. But a week from now, it will. Because from what I have heard, the filmmakers of "Pearl Harbor" have, indeed, chosen to make the Doolittle raid the climax of their movie. If you wanted to feel hopeful about America's chances in the war in the months after Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle raid was just about all you had to cling to. What magnificent men those Raiders were. And -- as I have come to know -- what magnificent men they still are.

In the months after Pearl Harbor, when all the war news from the Pacific seemed to be bad news for the United States, a decision was made: The one way to turn things around would be if American planes could somehow conduct a surprise bombing raid on the Japanese mainland.

But how? There were no U.S.-controlled airfields close enough to Japan from which to launch the attack.

Theoretically, the planes could take off from aircraft carriers. Heavy bombers had never attempted such a feat -- it had never been tried.

American commanders believed that if B-25s were to be modified specifically for this mission -- to take off from a carrier, with their crews trained to allow no margin of error -- it might succeed.

Sixteen five-man crews, under the command of James Doolittle, were recruited. They were given only three weeks to train -- the war in the Pacific was going that badly. Their training did not include actually taking off from ships. The day of the raid would be the first time the 16 crews ever attempted it.

The 16 crews were supposed to drop their bombs on Japanese targets, and then fly to China, where, it was hoped, they could land at an airfield friendly to the United States. There was one catch -- and it was an enormous problem:

Once the planes took off from a U.S. carrier, they could not turn back. If launching the attack from the carrier was a risky proposition, landing the big, heavy bombers back on the deck was an impossibility. The carrier -- it would turn out to be the USS Hornet -- and its task force would reverse course as soon as Doolittle's men took off. The American aviators would be on their own.

On the day of the planned raid on Japan, the 16 B-25s were lined up on the deck of the Hornet. Then the news came:

The Japanese military had reportedly spotted the U.S. task force.

The raid was supposed to begin 400 miles out in the Pacific from the Japanese mainland. From 400 miles, the planes had just enough fuel -- maybe -- to make it to safety in China.

Now they were 640 miles away. The mission would either have to be called off -- or the men would have to be sent off the deck from much too far away, knowing they lacked the fuel to make it to safety.

The attack order came from Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey, who was on another ship, the USS Enterprise:


And they went. Knowing that they did not have enough fuel, that they likely had no chance of landing safely, that they could not turn back because the carrier would be gone, they took off from that deck. What happened next -- and how I have come to know some of those men today -- will be reported as this story continues tomorrow.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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