I may be one day late, but I’ve always heard it was “better to be late then not at all.” Wednesday is the 75th anniversary of the famous Doolittle raid on Tokyo. On that date in 1942, a raid planned and led by James “Jimmy” Doolittle, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force took place. The raid was launched to bring the war to the enemy’s own land.
A few days before I wrote this column, I received a large envelope marked “Photos” from Robert C. Anderson of Rockwall. The envelope contained a brief note from Bob saying that he grew up in Sherman and had only recently learned that General John Hilger also was a hometown boy.
Five years ago, I wrote a couple of columns about Doolittle’s raid, but I didn’t have the wonderful picture of Doolittle, Hilger and crew members involved in the raid. So I decided it was worth another column to show the picture. Bob also included copies of several other pictures, including; B-25s aboard the USS Hornet en route to attack Japan, the Hornet launching the B-25s and Doolittle being decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt. I appreciate Bob sharing the pictures.
The USS Hornet was 700 miles from Tokyo when the attack took place. A Denisonian and former city councilman, the late Dan Mooney was involved in the attack. He was aboard the USS Grayson that was part of the second Hornet escort and rendezvoused at sea with the Enterprise. After the attack, he joined the destroyer on June 6 that year in San Francisco.
Col. Hilger was born in Sherman in 1909 and graduated from Sherman High School in 1926. His military career began in 1932 as a second lieutenant in the Infantry Reserve and by 1940, as a lieutenant, he was commander of the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron. In March of 1942, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was the deputy commander and a pilot with the famed Doolittle mission.
Hilger took off from the Hornet at 9:15 a.m. and the attack took place at 15:20 (3:20 p.m.). After leaving Nogaya, six cruisers and one aircraft carrier were sighted about 50 miles apart off the south coast of Japan. About 300 miles off the China Coast, they were met by rain and weather that got so bad they pulled up to 1,000 feet and began instrument flying.
The plan was for the B-25s to bomb military targets in Japan, then continue westward and land in China. It wasn’t possible for the planes to land on the Hornet. But all the aircraft involved in the bombing were lost and 11 crewmen were either killed or captured. Three of the captured men were executed by the Japanese Army in China. Thirteen entire crews and all but one crewman of the 14th returned to the U.S. or to American Forces.
When they had only about 40 gallons of gasoline left, Hilger changed altitude to 8,500 feet and ordered the crew to jump. They abandoned the plane quickly with no confusion and after the co-pilot jumped, Hilger set the plane for flight at 170 miles per hour and abandoned the plane himself.
His report indicated that he heard the plane crash shortly after his parachute opened. None of the crew of that plane was injured other than bruises and sprains.
When Hilger landed from his jump, he was shaken up but not seriously injured. He was on a steep mountain so he made a tent of part of the parachute and rolled the rest of it up and spent the night there.
The next morning he discovered a small village at the foot of the mountain and one of the villagers took him to a road, where he met a military party out searching for the crews. He was taken to Kwang Feng, about 15 miles from where he landed, then sent to Chuchow, China, the next night. In July 1943, he took command of the Chinese-American bomb group in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations.
Hilger was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame in Galveston and retired as a brigadier general on Nov. 20, 1966. He died Feb.3, 1982, and his ashes were scattered off the coast of Newport Beach, California.
Oran Art of Sherman also served three years aboard the second USS Hornet. The one from which Doolittle’s B-25s departed during the attack sank sometime later in 1942. The new Hornet was christened in 1943 and that’s when Art went aboard.
It was a coincidence that Mooney served on the Grayson and lived in Grayson County. However, the destroyer was named for Cary Travers Grayson, an acting assistant surgeon, USN, who eventually was assigned to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery with additional duty as aide to the White House. He became chairman of the American Red Cross and died in 1938.
The Doolittle Raid was the subject of a 1944 film, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” starring Spencer Tracy as Doolittle and Van Johnson as Doolittle Raider pilot Capt. Ted W. Lawson. Lawson wrote the book with the same title. He lost a leg and had other serious injuries after crash landing off the coast of China. The film was noted for its accurate depiction of the raid as well as its use of actual wartime footage of the bombers in flying scenes.
Footage from the film was used for the opening scenes of “Midway” and the television mini-series, “War and Remembrance.” Many books have been written since the raid at the end of the war.
In 2011, I was a guest of Dan Mooney at a lunch meeting of Navy veterans in Sherman and heard many wonderful stories of happenings during their service in the U.S. Navy.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She resides in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.