On this July 4th I need to share a story that epitomizes the gallantry, bravery, integrity, mindset and heart-set of who Tom Brokaw refers to in his best-selling book as The Greatest Generation. Psychologists tell us that we are defined by our significant emotional experiences, and this generation was identified through military service and defined by how they responded to the call to duty for honor and country when America came under fire in World War II.
One attached photo shows three World War II heroes, all of whom I have had the privilege of sharing the speaking platform with and who I proudly call friends: Flying Ace Alden P. Rigby, who on the morning of Jan. 1, 1945, shot down five Nazi war planes in the Battle of the Bulge; Gail Halvorsen, who during the Berlin airlift in 1948-49, created ‘Operation Vittles,’ in an effort to raise morale in Germany by dropping candy via miniature parachute to the city’s residents, for which he became known as the ‘Berlin Candy Bomber;’ and Chase Nielson, a Doolittle Raider who on one single day, in one mission, changed the course of history forever.
The second attached photo is explained in the following tale.
America was brutally attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. We had been pacifists and isolationists up to that point in World War II. Amazing how this unprovoked bombing quickly changed our mind-set and altered our center of gravity. We immediately declared war on Japan, but without the strength of our navy, we lost battle after battle in the pacific.
The morale of our fighting force and general population was shaky at best with no better prospects for the future. With the majority of our battleships destroyed in Hawaii, the Japanese navy was clearly the most powerful in the world.
General Hap Arnold desperately sought a way to swiftly improve American morale, rekindle hope, strengthen our center, and shift the momentum of the war. But how? He decided to call upon Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle—who was known as the “Master of the Calculated Risk” because of his success as an aircraft test pilot and national air-racing champion.
Arnold asked Doolittle if he thought it was possible to fly the land-based B-25 bombers off the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bomb Japan. Clearly this would demonstrate to the Japanese emperor and the people of Japan that they were not invincible. The emperor had promised the military and his fellow countrymen that Japan would never be attacked and, as the superior global power, would never be vulnerable.
Doolittle called Arnold back and reported in the affirmative. U.S. Army and Air Force volunteers were solicited. Doolittle explained to the volunteers that their mission would be a special, dangerous, secret, one-way mission that could end in enemy territory and that the pilot’s lives would be in jeopardy.
And like all great leaders, Doolittle had vision with optimism stating, “this had never been done, not off a carrier, but with training it could be done.” The entire 17th Bombardment Group of a hundred-plus pilots, crew members, and maintainers volunteered anyway!
To prepare for the raid, sixteen B-25 land-based bombers were stripped down to bare bones equipment to minimize weight and were loaded onto the Hornet. Never before had bombers taken off at sea from a carrier, and instead of the usual five hundred feet of runway needed for a land-based takeoff, these pilots were given less than four hundred feet.
After being detected by a Japanese fishing boat, the “Raiders” were forced to take off much sooner and further away from Japan than they had anticipated. This meant that their mission suddenly turned from a one-way trip with no planned airfields on which to land to a flight in which they might not even have enough fuel to get them to land.
All eighty men went anyway! On the morning of April 18, 1942, their commander, Jimmy Doolittle, took off first, and the rest followed.
These sixteen B-25’s with five crew members each took off one by one in brutal, crashing waves and stormy seas, heading low and slow over the ocean toward Japan. And they made it!
With only a thousand pounds of bombs aboard, each plane took out specific targets in Tokyo and throughout Japan, including manufacturing plants and oil and gas refineries. In the grand scheme of things, the physical and economic damage rendered by this raid was minimal.
However, the emotional damage to Japan’s center of gravity changed the entire outcome of the war. No longer did the people believe the emperor’s promise that they could not be attacked. No longer did the Japanese government completely control the hearts and minds of the people.
Immediately after the Doolittle Raid, top Japanese military leaders were called from the fighting fronts back to Tokyo, along with planes and assets enough to protect the homeland. Confused by an attack on Japan by land-based B-25 bombers, and never receiving the message from the fishing boat that they were carrier based, the Japanese believed that the planes had taken off from Midway or Alaska and, therefore, they moved up by three months their plans to attack and capture Midway and Alaska.
From these strategic and close locations, Japan could easily attack California and the western United States, conquer us on our own soil, control, and rule! But moving up their attack plans on Midway left the Japanese fleet vulnerable, less prepared, and without the number of fighters necessary to protect Japanese ships.
Consequently, America took advantage of this and scored a decisive victory at the battle of Midway, destroying huge numbers of planes, killing many of Japan’s best pilots, and sinking major ships. Attacking Alaska and California became a physical impossibility.
Let us connect the dots from then to now. In hindsight, without each of these 80 Doolittle Raiders relentlessly pursuing individual excellence in preparing for and executing this one Tokyo raid, Japan would have been unstoppable, World War II would have been over in 1942, and Americans would be governed by Nazis or brutal racist imperialists and speaking German or Japanese to this day! So would the French and the British and the….
Sacrifice and Service Before Self
Yes, and as expected, every Raider plane ran out of fuel. Yes, they all crash landed and bailed out into the rainy darkness, not knowing if they would land in the friendly Chinese lands or in the brutal barbaric hands of the Japanese occupying that part of China.
One Raider was killed bailing out and two drowned in the high surf after ditching their planes the night of the raid. Five others were interned in Russia and the remaining eight brave Raiders remained in China as prisoners of the Japanese.
The Japanese had decided to make an example of their captives and conduct a trial. The verdict was decided before the proceeding had begun. Three were sentenced to death and immediately and brutally executed – shot in the head at close range mafia-style while kneeling down in a field.
The remaining five were sentenced to life imprisonment and would spend the next 40 months being tortured beyond belief as prisoners-of-war – one would die in prison do to dietary deficiencies.
64 of the 80 flyers made it back safely – some even returning to fly combat missions over Germany, Asia Pacific and North Africa with four of them actually getting shot down to become prisoners of the Germans until the end of the war.
In 2006, I was invited to attend the sixty-fourth anniversary celebration and reunion of the Doolittle Raiders held at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and met eight of the remaining sixteen living Raiders. I was honored and privileged to attend the private and sacred “goblet ceremony” as roll call was taken in alphabetical order. One of the attending Raiders was designated as spokesman for all who had passed away and reverently responded when each name was read, “Here.”
A unique and special spiritual atmosphere filled the room while each of the eighty names was called. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
At the end, the eight attending Raiders raised their goblets and toasted those who were ill or who had passed away since the last reunion.
Although in his 80’s, because of his good health and his natural ease in public speaking, for the last few years the Raiders designated spokesman has been Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Chase Nielsen (navigator on plane number 6), who was the only one from his 5-man crew who survived the raid and was one of the four who spent the three and a half years in the prison camp.
When Lt. Nielsen was captured by the Japanese he was 6 feet tall, 185 lbs. and 20 years old. For 40 months no one knew he was still alive. His “Distinguished Service Cross” medal was presented to his grieving parents posthumously in a special ceremony in Washington D.C.
Lt. Nielsen had spent all 40 months in solitary confinement, and yet never caved into the torture to aid the enemy in their propaganda, returning home with honor, weak and frail, weighing only 103 lbs. Nielsen and the few survivors had been rescued a week after the war ended.
Can you imagine the exhilarating mixture of grateful shock and tears of joy, when three and a half years later and at the end of the war, Lt. Nielson suddenly calls home to tell his father who answered the phone, “Hi dad, this is Chase. I’m alive and well and was just released from a Japanese prison camp. I’ll be home soon.”
In 1946, Chase provided evidence during war crimes trials that helped convict Japanese officers of maltreatment and murder of prisoners.
Following World War II, he rose through the ranks in the Air Force, helping to build up the Strategic Air Command. He retired in 1961 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Because every single one of the Doolittle Raiders clearly understood who they were, why they needed to attack Tokyo, and shared a collective covenant to service before self that they and their hundreds of team members who maintained the airplanes, trained the pilots, fed and housed all the people, ran the training bases sprinkled from Eglin, Florida to the west coast of California, and conducted the enormous task of ship operations on the U.S.S. Hornet, together they single handedly turned the tied of World War II that allowed our Allied Forces to rally and win the war!
We Americans must never forget what happened on December 7, 1941—or on April 18, 1942, or on September 11, 2001. Pearl Harbor, Doolittle’s Raid, and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and aboard United Flight 93 all prove that one moment in time, one day, one battle, and one thirty-second period over Tokyo really can change the world forever!
Proudly we honor Chase Nielson as the first Utahn to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross, and was also awarded the Air Medal, the Purple Heart with Cluster, the Air Force Commendation Medal with Cluster, the Outstanding Unit Award, the Longevity Ribbon with Four Clusters and the Chinese equivalent of the Flying Cross.
Sadly, on March 23, 2007, 90 year-old retired Lieutenant Colonel Chase Nielson passed away peacefully at his home, leaving behind a grateful nation, a thankful world and a legacy of leadership and freedom that will live on forever!
Sadly, on June 27, 2016, 94 year-old retired Staff Sgt. David Jonathan Thatcher, one of the last two surviving members of the Doolittle Raiders, passed away. Thatcher’s death leaves retired Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole of Comfort, Texas, as the only living airman from among 80. Ironically, Mr. Cole was Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot and the first to take off to lead the way, and now is the last one left to make sure the mission is complete, and that everybody has finally returned home!
Among my most prized and cherished possessions that I proudly display on my ‘Wall of Fame,’ is the photograph I have of me standing with eight Doolittle Raiders and the Chinese gentleman who helped save their lives by evading the Japanese until they could be rescued. Each of these Raiders autographed my photo, and every time I look at the picture I fondly reflect on that one historic night that I had the honor and the sacred privilege to spend hours chatting with Chase Nielson, Dick Cole and the rest of this heroic and energetic crew until the wee hours of the morning! God bless each of these superstars – ordinary men who when called upon did something extraordinary – not because it was expected by others, but because it was demanded of themselves!
Thanks to the Raiders and individuals like Chase Nielson, Alden Rigby, Gail Halvorsen, and the rest of the Greatest Generation, we all realize that America is the land of the free Because of the brave and the sacrifices of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have served and are currently serving in the United States military. We love you and need you and honor each of you and your families on this and every Fourth of July!