Paul Greenberg

The daring raid that brought one Osama bin Laden to justice was not the first such counter-strike against a ruthless enemy.

They buried William M. Bower, 93, Colonel, United States Army Air Corps, at Arlington just before Memorial Day this year. He was the last surviving pilot of another American raid that caught the aggressor's attention, and the world's.

The date was April 18, 1942, when the forces of freedom were in retreat all around the globe. After the surprise attack that wiped out the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the road to conquest was open. One island outpost after another fell as the Pacific turned into a Japanese lake. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, as the Japanese dubbed their expanding empire, was growing greater all the time.

Then, out of the wild blue yonder, American B-25s appeared above Tokyo itself, dropping their bombs in sight and sound of the emperor's palace. The sleeping giant had awakened. And was striking back.

The president and commander-in-chief was always at his most chipper in the darkest hour. At the lowest ebb of American fortunes, Franklin Roosevelt ordered a raid on the Japanese home islands.

A lieutenant colonel by the name of Jimmy Doolittle was picked to plan and execute the audacious counter-attack. Talk about a mission impossible: The 16 lightly armed medium bombers, manned by 80 volunteers, were to be ferried across the Pacific on the USS Hornet.

To reach their take-off point, they would have to evade the Japanese naval patrols that could have detected and sunk the aircraft carrier at any point on its route. Even if the American bombers managed to get past the Zeros swarming around their objective, uncertain weather might obscure their targets. And once they'd made it to their targets, they wouldn't carry enough fuel to make it back. The crews would have to head for Manchuria, ditch their aircraft, and bail out, hoping they'd fall into friendly hands.

Somehow it succeeded. One day the Japanese looked up and there the Americans improbably were -- for 30 seconds over Tokyo. Not a single American aircraft was lost en route to its target. Back in Washington, President Roosevelt explained that the bombers had been launched "from our new secret base at Shangri-La."

Enraged, the Japanese would kill hundreds of thousands of Chinese in reprisal for the assistance given the American flyers. It was the first defeat, if only a symbolic one, that the invincible empire had suffered in the long war it had begun. Many more would follow before the war would conclude in formal ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur presiding.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.