Ceremony to honor vets who raided Japan in WWII

May 3, 2012 7:55:30 AM PDT
On Saturday, ceremonies on the USS Hornet will honor a small group of brave men who overcame incredible odds to strike back at Japan after Pearl Harbor. They will also pay tribute to the Bay Area native who led them.

It's April, 1942 and an aircraft carrier bobs like an apple in an angry Pacific. From this heaving deck, Army bombers filled to the gills with fuel and carrying a reduced bomb load would try to take off. Their destination: Tokyo. There's only one problem, nobody had ever tried to fly these big, heavy planes on a bombing mission that began on a 450 foot floating runway.

Alameda native Jimmy Doolittle was the famous aviator picked to lead the mission and thereby prove a B-25 bomber didn't need 3,000 feet of runway to lift off. The raid came just four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor decimated the Pacific fleet.

"We seen Doolittle take off and he circled the ship, waggled his wings, then headed out," said former USS Hornet crewman Richard Nowatski.

Richard Nowatski of Lincoln was an 18-year-old crewman aboard the USS Hornet -- the ship that hauled Doolittle's 16 bombers to within striking distance of the Japanese coast. He was manning a gun turret aboard the carrier as the planes struggled into the air.

"We were all excited about going. We were finally going to strike back and we were going to do the striking," said Nowatski.

"America was literally back on its heels, that coupled with what was happening in Europe, painted a bleak picture not just for the American people, but the people of the free world," said Ret. USAF Maj. Gen. Thomas Kane.

Retired Air Force Major General Tom Kane heads the Jimmy Doolittle Air and Space Museum at Travis Air Force Base. His organization is taking part in ceremonies on Saturday honoring Doolittle and the raid onboard the USS Hornet in Alameda. The floating museum replaced the earlier Hornet which was sunk in battle.

The Doolittle name may not be well known to this generation, but in the mid-twentieth century he was one of America's most accomplished flyers.

"If it could fly, Jimmy Doolittle would be the one who would want to fly it," said Kane.

Although every plane dropped its bombload on Tokyo, Doolittle considered the raid a failure. Damage was minimal to Japan, and all the aircraft ran out of fuel and crash landed; 12 of the 80 airmen died. But, for a country still reeling from Pearl Harbor and a four month series of military defeats it was a huge morale boost. It certainly was for Rich Nowatski who went to Doolittle and volunteered to go along. The offer was declined.

"I got a chance to speak to a world famous man and gave him a big laugh when he was in the middle of a pressure-filled operation and it gave me a great sea story," said Nowatski.

Nowatski will be at the Saturday event, as will three of the five surviving crew members. Jimmy Doolittle died in 1993, believing he should be court martialed for losing all his planes, but most historian believe it was a big morale boost.


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