A hat tip to the indefatigable Michelle Malkin, who notes the recent passing of a genuine American hero. Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Chase Nielsen died last Friday in Brigham City, Utah, at the age of 90.
On April 16, 1942, Nielsen--then a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps--was a navigator on a B-25 Mitchell bomber, part of the famed "Doolittle Raiders" who delivered a devastating psychological blow against Japan during the dark days of World War II. Launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, the bombers hit targets in Tokyo (and four other cities) that Japan's military government claimed were invulnerable to attack.
With the 65th anniversary of the raid now approaching, it's worth remembering what an audacious enterprise it was. Barely five months after Pearl Harbor, Allied fortunes in the Pacific were at low ebb; the British garrisons at Hong Kong and Singapore had fallen, along with U.S.-Filipino Army on Bataan. Surviving British naval units had been chased back to Ceylon, while much of our fleet remained on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. For the moment, the Japanese appeared unstoppable.
Against that backdrop, the War Department was searching for a way to strike back against Japan. A Navy submariner (Captain Francis Low) actually came up with the idea of launching Army bombers from a carrier deck, for a raid against the Japanese home islands. To lead the mission, the Army Air Corps Commander, General Hap Arnold, selected one of America's best-known aviators, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. The winner of numerous international air races and competitions in the 1920s and 1930s, Doolittle also held a PhD in aeronautics from MIT. Among his many achievements, Doolittle pioneered instrument flying, and was the first pilot to successfully perform an outside loop.
Arnold allowed Doolittle to hand-pick his crews, who underwent an intensive, two-month training program, primarily at Eglin Field in Florida. Once their traning was complete, Doolittle and his crews flew cross-country to Alameda, California, where their 16 B-25s were loaded onto the deck of the Hornet. The carrier left port on April 2, 1942, joining formation with the USS Enterprise off the California coast. Both carriers--and their escorts--sailed across the Pacific under strict radio silence, to minimize chances of Japanese detection.
Original plans called for the B-25s to launch about 400 miles from the Japanese coast, giving them enough fuel to fly on to landing strips in China. But on the morning of April 18th, the U.S. task force was sighted by a Japanese picket vessel, prompting a decision to launch the B-25s early, about 625 miles from Japan, and a day ahead of schedule.
Lieutenant Nielsen was navigator of the sixth B-25 to leave the Hornet. While most of the raiders survived the raid and found safety in China, Nielsen was one of eight crew members who were captured by the Japanese. He endured torture and deprivation during three years as a POW before being liberated by American troops in 1945. Nielsen was the only member of Crew #6 to survive the war.
When he emerged from that prison camp, Chase Nielsen already knew that the raid had been a success. While the B-25 strike had inflicted little physical damage, it had delivered a severe psychological blow against Japan, while greatly boosting American morale--at very the moment we needed it most. For their efforts, Nielsen and the other POWs suffered horribly (Nielsen spent much of his captivity in solitary confinement), but they endured and kept the faith, despite the execution of three raiders by the Japanese, and the death of another from disease.
April 18th falls on a Wednesday this year. On that date, when you have a moment, pause and say a silent prayer of thanks for men like Chase Nielsen, and the nation that still produces them.
ADDENDUM: Many of the Dootlittle Raiders were rescued in China through the efforts of a Baptist missionary-turned-intelligence officer, John Birch. Yes, that John Birch.