Chapter One ONE
Nielsen joined the US Army Air Corps as a flying cadet in 1939. For a twenty-two-year-old, it was a steady paycheck with a bit of glamour. Nielsen also had a
head for numbers; he was always ready to impress a room with his ability to add large digits together without a paper and pencil. Being a flight navigator suited his natural talents, and the only real risks were the inevitable dangers that came with hurtling through the air in a machine whose basic concept had been perfected only thirty years earlier.
Now, though, there was a war on. Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, had made Nielsen’s life more complicated, and not just because his dark hair, dark eyebrows, and
swarthy complexion made it easy at first glance to mistake him for Japanese. Nielsen was engaged to marry a good Mormon girl by the name of Thora Ricks that December. Stationed with the Seventeenth Bomb Group in Pendleton, Oregon, the start of the war meant that Nielsen was stuck doing patrols along the Pacific Coast for enemy submarines at the very time he was supposed to be getting married. Undeterred, Thora made the trek all the way to Oregon to elope, which Nielsen could relish as a sign of her love and devotion despite the thousand miles between them. But it also made Nielsen a relative rarity for the flyboys of his generation. He was a husband.
In February, Nielsen and the rest of the Seventeenth Bomb Group received an enigmatic request: “
Volunteers for a dangerous mission.” The request was worded perfectly to seduce restless men of a certain age, who in every generation are convinced that theirs is the first for whom the laws of mortality do not apply. Such men ruled the ranks of the Seventeenth Bomb Group, and Nielsen, though now a
family man, was as unable to resist as the others. It was a difficult choice. Once married, Nielsen knew that a Mormon man’s first responsibility was always to his family, so he
broke the news to Thora as gently as he could: he had a special assignment, and she might not hear from him for a while.
Nielsen soon found himself
stationed at Eglin Field, near Pensacola, Florida, with more than 120 other flyboys from around the country who had been just as seduced by the prospect of such an enigmatic risk. No details were provided to explain the strange training regimen they were all being put through. But Nielsen could take comfort in knowing that any risks he would be asked to take were finely calculated ones. The man requesting volunteers was Jimmy Doolittle.
Short, balding, and bubbling over with energy, James H. Doolittle embodied the popular conception of the flyboy—lunatics with no sense of mortality who rode airplanes like unbroken horses—but he had somehow always survived. A lieutenant colonel in the US Army Air Force, Doolittle had been a junior officer at the end of the First World War in what was then called the
Army Air Service. By the time he had his wings, it was too late to take part in the Hell’s Angels era of sky jousting, when pilots’
mortality rate was one in five in combat and nearly half if accidents were included. But that fateful lack of action allowed Doolittle to become something of a celebrity stunt pilot in what soon became the era of aviation. And he did it by always making the numbers add up.
Doolittle was famous for getting both
air traffic tickets for “unlawful aerial acrobatics” and a
doctorate in aeronautical engineering at MIT. He
developed cockpit navigation instrumentation that ensured that piloting decisions were made based on data, not the gut. And throughout his career, the very stunts that made him look insanely fearless were, in truth, proofs of scientific concepts. In 1928, he even went so far as to blackout the windshield of his airplane before taking off from Mitchel Field on Long Island, flying fifteen miles overhead, and landing smoothly without ever being able to see a foot in front of him. It was proof that he could calculate his way out of any risk. He could even
As war had begun to
loom the summer before, Doolittle had left a lucrative job with the Shell Oil Company to mobilize again and became a close advisor to General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the commanding general of the US Army Air Forces. He was a week away from his forty-fifth birthday when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was impatient for a counterattack, but when
Special Aviation Project No. 1 was proposed, there was no technology in the US arsenal that could reliably drop a bomb on Japan.
Arnold asked Doolittle to make the numbers add up.
Doolittle’s solution was to get an aircraft carrier as close to the Japanese mainland as possible, launch a squadron of modified B-25B “Billy Mitchell” Army bombers on a one-way raid over Japan, and then fly them on to a
landing strip in China that—hopefully—Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the US-allied Kuomintang, would set up. That was
the only way the brute arithmetic of weight, fuel, and time would add up, and just barely at that. Doolittle had to
replace every unnecessary ounce of his B-25Bs with fuel tanks, which meant fewer guns, fewer defenses, and fewer provisions for contingencies. The tail guns were even replaced by broomsticks.
Once assembled in Florida, Nielsen and the rest of
Doolittle’s volunteers trained for weeks on the magic number: five-hundred feet. They had to get off the ground in five-hundred feet, not the near half-mile of runway that the B-25B had been designed to take off from. Early on, the best the crews could manage was six hundred feet, so
Doolittle kept drilling them, looking for any extra piece of unnecessary equipment to dump to save weight or any extra bit of finesse that could get the wheels off the ground a few feet sooner.
By the end of March, it was time to go and Doolittle
led them all in a test flight of their flying gas cans across the country to Alameda, California. He chose to fly the lead plane himself, and selected seventy-nine men to join him, the happy few to crew the sixteen planes that could be loaded by crane onto the deck of the USS Hornet
, one of the few aircraft carriers that was mission ready in the US fleet.
Nielsen was tapped to be the navigator on the
sixth plane off the deck, which he and the crew nicknamed the Green Hornet
. Nielsen’s crewmates were a cross section of a remote America he would have never known had the war not brought them all together. There was the pilot, Dean “Jungle Jim” Hallmark, a thick-necked Texan Baptist who had
played football for Auburn. A flyboy if ever there was one, Hallmark had a loud laugh and a flush that never left his cheeks, which gave the impression that his blood vessels couldn’t contain some fire that was coursing through him. His copilot, Robert
Meder, was a study in contrasts. Meder had a basketball player’s lanky frame, a subtle wit, and a heavy brow that gave the impression he was always thinking ahead of everyone. The son of Austrian immigrants, Meder was from Cleveland, which to men like Nielsen and Hallmark made him
seem as urbane as the most Boston Brahmin. Then there was their bombardier, William
Dieter, who came from a town as small as Vail, Iowa, and their gunner, Donald “Fitz”
Fitzmaurice, who came from a city as big as Lincoln, Nebraska. The two became fast friends as the Green Hornet
’s pair of
good Catholic boys.
On April 1, 1942, they all
boarded the Hornet
flyboy’s nonchalance about the dangerous mission for which they had volunteered and
disembarked the following day from San Francisco Bay into a dense fog. No one, except for Doolittle and a few other high-ranking officers, knew the precise nature of their mission, and the sailors of America’s Navy were
less than pleased to share their beautiful new aircraft carrier with a hoard of flyboys, who were rowdy, dressed in all manner of wrinkled shirts, jackets, and trousers, and strutted about in unpolished shoes as if they were on a leisure cruise. But resentments faded away two days into the voyage, when the Hornet
loudspeaker broke in: “This force is bound for Tokyo.”
It was official. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the humiliating defeats the Allies had suffered in the Pacific from Shanghai to the Philippines, the United States was finally taking the fight to Japan. And Doolittle and his men, eighty men who would forever be celebrated as the “Doolittle Raiders,” were going to be the ones to do it.
scheduled his raid for the evening of April 18, 1942. It would be a Saturday, and they would be protected by the cover of darkness as they made their bombing runs across Japan. Doolittle organized a series of briefings with the help of a naval intelligence officer,
Stephen Jurika, who had been stationed in the US Embassy in Tokyo before the war and had even been awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by Emperor Hirohito, a medal Jurika asked Doolittle to return to the emperor on the nose of one of his bombs.
handed out the target list and let the pilots select which targets they wanted to bomb. The pilots had drawn cards to see who got to bomb the Imperial Palace, but Doolittle disappointed them with the news that it was
off limits. Doolittle had
contemplated bombing the palace but had decided against it after reflecting on the German Blitz on London. The Germans had attacked the city for weeks, destroying docks, supplies, factories, and houses, and had put a slow but sure drain on public morale. The public’s mood had changed, though, when the Germans had hit Buckingham Palace. Public sentiment rallied around the idea that “if the king can take it, we can take it,” and Doolittle did not want to give the Japanese a reason to rally around the emperor.
Hallmark chose some steel mills in downtown Tokyo, and Nielsen was handed two-and-a-half-square-foot
target maps of Japan to study. Each map covered only a small area and showed the highways, railroad tracks, and other geographical details around each target. Doolittle had instructed them to conduct
low-level bombing to frustrate Japan’s air defenses. But that created a large trade-off in terms of accuracy and navigation. At a normal bombing altitude of 10,000 or 20,000 feet, Nielsen could easily track their position. Navigating at only a few hundred feet off the ground, though, was like trying to find an address in a new city while speeding at 150 miles per hour.
To help, Jurika marked off Tokyo’s major buildings. “
The Diet Building,” he said, “was something that you could fly over, go a very short distance, and be in Kawasaki, perhaps three or four minutes, no more than that, on a bombing run, and the first major point under you would be the Tamagawa River, and just beyond that would be a major petro-chemical works.
You don’t have to estimate, you don’t have to use a stopwatch. You have these major physical points to look at.”
Nielsen studied the aerial photographs and maps, trying to prepare the approach they would make and the landmarks they would see on the ground before their targets came up. “
Fly over these and go on an absolute course,” Jurika explained. “You then pass over a river and the next big complex that you see, with chimneys belching yellow smoke, that’s where to lay your eggs.”
There was less ability to prepare for when they got to China. Chiang Kai-shek had
supposedly set up on a landing strip in Quzhou that they could locate by sending out a call—“57”—on a
special radio frequency. But if they did not make it that far, Jurika was pessimistic. “
If captured dropping bombs on Japan, the chances of survival would be awfully slim; very, very, slim.” They should expect he said to be “paraded through the streets as Exhibit A, and then tried by some sort of a kangaroo court and probably publicly beheaded.”
Still, Jurika offered some
tips for staying alive. He taught them Chinese phrases such as Lusau hoo metwa fugi
(“I’m an American”) and explained that they could tell Chinese soldiers apart from Japanese soldiers based upon their footwear, since the Japanese wore socks that separated the big toe from the rest of the toes.
The day before the raid, Nielsen sent Thora
a letter. “Tomorrow is the big day,” he wrote, hinting that he was about to go on a dangerous but very important mission. “Keep your chin up and don’t worry,”
he assured her. “I have a feeling I’ll be coming back.”
At 3:10 a.m. on April 18, 1942, the Hornet
radar contact with a Japanese picket boat, the Nitto Maru
. They were still
seven hundred nautical miles from Japan; too far to get deep enough into China. Doolittle fought for more time to get just a few more nautical miles closer, but Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Jr., the commander responsible for the well-being of the USS Hornet
, was unwilling to take any more risks with one of the few operational aircraft carriers the Navy still had, not to mention the lives of the sailors on board. With the sun about to rise over the horizon behind them, Halsey gave the
order to launch.
By daybreak, the
sea was rough and the wind blew across the deck at 40 knots, causing the Hornet
to pitch so violently that it kept taking water over the bow. Doolittle
took the lead and, at 8:21 a.m., sped his B-25B down the slippery deck and up into the clouds in just 467 feet. Minutes later, it was the Green Hornet
’s turn, and when the flagman gave the signal, Hallmark got up in just about 500 feet.
As they made their way to Japan, the weather cleared. Nielsen navigated the Green Hornet
to their targets in downtown Tokyo with a
northern approach over Japanese farmland. A bit of flak fired up from some antiaircraft gunners on the ground, but nothing caused them any trouble. All the anxieties that had quietly built up over months swelled into giddiness as they realized how easy it all was turning out to be. As Dieter dropped their incendiary clusters over Tokyo’s suburbs,
Hallmark led them all in a chorus of the song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” In the ballad’s slow, swaying rhythm, they all crooned:
I don’t want to set the world… on… fire
I just want to start… a flame in your heart.
But as they escaped toward China, flying low over the water, the
weather turned again. The clouds and rain came in and the sun began to set in front of them. Nielsen kept track of their position and began to doubt that the Green Hornet
had enough fuel to get over land, much less to the rendezvous site Chiang Kai-shek had supposedly set up for them in Quzhou.
made the call. It was time to strap on their “Mae Wests,” life preservers that wrapped around the neck and inflated two large balloons at the top of their chests. As soon as land was in sight, they would make a water landing and paddle to shore on the emergency raft.
By the time land was visible, it was n
early dark. Hallmark slowly edged the Green Hornet
’s belly closer and then closer still to the blackening surface of the East China Sea. The altimeter wound down like the hands of a clock going back in time. When it reached midnight, the Green Hornet
would be at sea level. The attitude indicator, the circle on the left side of the instrument panel whose top half was sky blue and whose bottom half was ground green, wobbled as Hallmark adjusted the yoke by inches to keep the wings level. The hands on the altimeter wound down to midnight, and Hallmark lined up the belly of the plane to skid across the tips of the waves as smoothly as a big fat B-25B Billy Mitchell could.
But then, with only a few seconds left, the
engines started kicking out. The propellers sputtered, first on the left and then on the right, a delay that made the shaky attitude indicator spasm. The Green Hornet
’s left wing clipped the waves. At the speed they were going, the water was only just softer than concrete and the impact tore the wing clean off, whipped the fuselage onto its side, and slammed its glass nose into the blackness of the water.
smacked his head and came to waist deep in sea water that was flooding into the navigator compartment. The Green Hornet
was sinking with him inside, so he pulled himself out through the cockpit. Once on the surface, he
saw Fitz, the gunner, floating limply with a deep hole in his head that was draining blood. Dieter had been seated in the plane’s glass nose, which had
crushed him inside before spitting him out to the surface. Now he was floating by the life preserver around his neck, telling Nielsen “I’m hurt all over.”
Nielsen tried to regroup with Hallmark and Meder on the sinking fuselage. Meder pulled out the emergency raft and yanked its cord to inflate it. But a combination of Meder’s anxious strength and shoddy manufacturing
ripped the cord clean off. Then, as Meder scrambled to fill the raft with the hand pump, a wave washed over them.
bobbed to the surface. He could tell that Hallmark and Meder were still alive and floating nearby. Whether Fitz and Dieter were was less clear. But soon the tide scattered the five of them into the cold darkness. And before long, Nielsen could no longer hear anyone’s cries but his own over the drumming of the rain.
The next morning, Nielsen found himself in Juexi, a seaside town on the Xiangshan Peninsula, south of Shanghai. Nielsen, Hallmark, and Meder had all been rescued by some locals who had seen the crash the night before. The bodies of Fitz and Dieter had just been found washed up on the shore.
Juexi’s mayor, Shimiao Yang, was welcoming and seemingly sympathetic to all they had endured. He had coffins made so that Nielsen, Hallmark, and Meder could give Fitz and Dieter a
proper funeral. At a scenic spot on a hill that overlooked the coast, they packed sawdust around the bodies, lowered the coffins into the ground, and said a prayer.
Yang had assured them that he was trying to find a way for the three of them to get to safety, but it wasn’t long before some Chinese guerrillas
came around. Nielsen could never figure out who had tipped them off. And soon the guerrillas were joined by a cadre of Japanese regulars, whose
interpreter greeted Nielsen, Hallmark, and Meder with surprising cordiality.
“You now Japanese prisoner,” Nielsen heard him say. “You no worry. We treat you fine.”