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Jewish World Review May 30, 2001 / 8 Sivan, 5761

Bob Greene

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The hero who sits by the side of the stage -- KNOWING they had virtually no chance of making safe landings, the 80 Doolittle Raiders -- 16 five-man crews in reconfigured B-25s -- took off for Japan from the deck of the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942.

They didn't have enough fuel. The plan had been for them to launch a surprise attack on the Japanese mainland from 400 miles out in the Pacific. But they had been detected by the Japanese military. They had to take off from 640 miles away -- which meant that they would almost certainly run out of fuel before they could attempt to land at a friendly airfield in China. The Hornet and its task force had orders to reverse course and head back toward Pearl Harbor as soon as James Doolittle's men took off from the deck; no bomber had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier before, and there was no way the big, heavy B-25s could land on a carrier deck.

Doolittle himself was first in line. He had the greatest chance of crashing -- the 16 bombers were lined up in a row, and Doolittle had the shortest amount of deck in front of him. He made it off the Hornet. The other 15 B-25s followed.

The planes bombed Tokyo and other targets in Japan, burning or destroying the Tokyo Armory, a tank depot, steel and gas works, factories and a harbor installation. It was America's first ray of hope in the Pacific after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Finally, the U.S. was striking back.

And the Doolittle Raiders? They were over Japan, with dwindling fuel. There was a storm and fog over China. The Raiders got past the border of Japan, but 11 of the five-man crews had to bail out. Four more crews crash-landed. The other Doolittle B-25 landed inside Russia -- and its crew was taken prisoner and held for more than a year.

Two of the Raiders died as they bailed out. Eight others were captured by the Japanese; three were executed, and five were sentenced to life in prison. One of the five died of starvation in a Japanese prison camp; the other four endured 40 months of mistreatment as POWs, until Paul Tibbets and the men under his command dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and ended World War II.

The Raiders who had bailed out and made it to China were recovered by the U.S. government. Most were sent back into combat; having survived the raid, 10 more of Doolittle's men were killed in action later in the war.

Now, in 2001, many, if not most, Americans are unaware of who the Doolittle Raiders were, and what they did. Men of almost unbelievable courage, they had given the people of the United States something to believe in when hope was in desperately short supply. The big "Pearl Harbor" movie, which will open this weekend, is said to feature the Doolittle raid as its climactic scene; you can't make an uplifting movie about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but if you want to end a movie on a note of triumph, the Doolittle Raiders are your men. A week from now, the world should be talking about them.

As I mentioned yesterday, it has been my great privilege and honor to get to know them a little bit. Twenty-five are still alive; you could walk past them on the street and have no idea who they are.

In my stupid parallel life singing backup with Jan and Dean during the summers, keyboard player Gary Griffin has become one of my closest friends. His parents live in Cincinnati; whenever Jan and Dean have performed near there, they have come to watch Gary play.

Gary's dad, Tom Griffin, 84, is a quiet, unassuming man. He'll sit off to the side of the stage on a folding chair, watching his boy. So we'll be playing some outdoor show, singing "Shut Down" and "Help Me, Rhonda" and the other surf-cars-girls songs, and the audience will be on their feet and cheering. For the music.

And they won't even notice Tom Griffin, off to the side.

He was a Doolittle Raider. When this country needed heroes, he was one of the men who had the guts and the skill to take off from the USS Hornet, and fly toward Japan. He never hears a cheer; he seldom hears a word of thanks.

That's about to change, when the movie opens. At least, if there's any justice in the world, it will change. How I got to know the rest of the surviving Raiders -- it began with a surprising request from Tom Griffin -- will be the subject of tomorrow's column, as this story continues.

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

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