WASHINGTON, D.C. -- An old adage says, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Some argue that today this maxim is irrelevant, but with war, it's undeniable.
Sixty years ago this week -- April 18 to be precise -- Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle led 79 U.S. Army airmen in 16 Army B-25 aircraft from the deck of the Navy carrier the USS Hornet. Their mission: bomb five Japanese cities -- including Tokyo, the Imperial capital -- in the first U.S. counterattack of World War II. The parallels between that attack and the first battle in the first war of the 21st century are remarkable.
The Doolittle Raid -- as it came to be known -- was launched 132 days after Japan's savage surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The mission, believed to be technologically impossible at best, and suicidal at worst, is one of history's most extraordinary and heroic feats. When the raiders departed, Tokyo Rose was broadcasting to the world that the Japanese home islands were "invincible."
And well the Emperor's military hierarchy might have believed it. By early 1942, the Axis Powers were triumphant. Hitler dominated Europe. Mussolini's troops were marching through ancient African capitals. And after conquering Malaya, Singapore, Java, Guam and Wake Island, the Japanese were threatening Australia. By April 9, the Battling Bastards of Bataan would finally lay down their arms -- and thousands would soon perish on an infamous death march into the Philippine jungle.
Amid this despair, President Roosevelt challenged the newly activated Joint Staff to strike back. Navy Captain Francis Low suggested to Admiral Ernest King, the chief of naval operations, that Army bombers might successfully attack Japan if they launched from a Navy carrier -- something never tried before. Although skeptical, King told Army Air Corps Chief of Staff Hap Arnold -- who summoned perhaps the only man in America up to the task.
Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle was already a legend. He had a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from MIT, and had won nearly every flying trophy in existence, helped develop high-octane aviation fuel and pioneered instrument flying. Doolittle chose the B-25 for the mission -- a relatively new, twin-engine land-based bomber built by California's North American Aviation Company.
The charismatic Doolittle turned to the 17th Bombardment Group at Pendleton Field, Ore., ordered them to Columbia, S.C., and, after watching them fly, selected 20 volunteer crews for intensive "short takeoff" training at Florida's Eglin Field. By the end of March, he dispatched them to California -- ordering them to fly cross-country at "low levels." Capt. Marc Mitscher, skipper of the USS Hornet, our newest $31 million carrier, could only take 16 of the B-25's aboard his 809 foot ship. When they sailed from San Francisco Bay on April 1, the crowds gathered on the Golden Gate Bridge thought the vessel was simply ferrying bombers to Hawaii. Not until they were at sea did the ship's crew and most of the Raiders learn they were on a one-way mission to bomb Japan.
A dozen of the 23 surviving Doolittle Raiders gathered last Thursday in Columbia, S.C., to salute departed comrades and celebrate their 60th anniversary. I listened as they told how they were forced to launch 12 hours and 250 miles earlier than planned when the task force was discovered by a Japanese picket ship. I marveled at their descriptions of how all the aircraft struck their targets and how all but seven of them survived the mission. I was horrified to hear them tell how the Japanese executed three of their colleagues -- and starved another to death. And I was honored when they asked me to discuss the parallels to today's war. Here's what we concluded:
The war they fought began with a sneak attack that killed thousands of Americans. So did this one. The Doolittle Raiders were volunteers. So are those fighting today. They had the Tokyo Rose propaganda. We have Osama bin Laden videotapes. Theirs was the first attack launched by Army aircraft from a Navy carrier, the USS Hornet. In Operation Enduring Freedom, Army pilots flying helicopters from the USS Kittyhawk delivered the first Special Operations strike into Afghanistan. They had colleagues captured and brutally killed by their enemies. That, too, has happened in this fight. Later in their war, suicidal Kamikazes attacked Americans. In this war, that's already happened. Even the hand-inscribed headbands on today's "martyrs" look like those worn by the Emperor's "Divine Wind."
Having now met both the courageous airmen of the "Doolittle Raid" and the young Americans fighting in Afghanistan, it's clear that they share admirable qualities -- among them, humility.
Lt. Tom Griffin served as navigator on the ninth B-25 off the Hornet's deck. Sixty years ago this week, he was evading Japanese patrols in China trying to get back to America. When he finally returned home, he volunteered with Doolittle in the European theater. He was shot down over Sicily in 1943 and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. I asked him how he wanted to be remembered. He said: "As a man who did his duty."