April 18, 1942 – The Doolittle Raid

Today we are moving a little north to Box Elder County to honor a local hero, Lieutenant Chase J. Nielsen.  He was born on January 14, 1917, to Don Carlos and Cleo McCrary Nielsen, in Hyrum, Utah.  He enlisted in the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet on November 1, 1940, 13 months before Pearl Harbor.  He was later selected as one of Doolittle’s Raiders.

Admiral Bill Halsey later wrote of the mission, “In my opinion, their flight was one of the most courageous deeds in military history.”

As remembered by Air Force General Curtis E. LeMay:  “The appearance of sixteen B-25’s over Japan on April 18, 1942, lifted the gloom that descended on America and her Pacific allies.  The bomb damage that resulted was not great, compared with that inflicted later in the war, but the raid had some far-reaching effects.  For the defense of the home islands, the Japanese were forced to retain fighter units that had been intended for the Solomon, and they felt compelled to expand their Pacific perimeter beyond what could be adequately defended…The full impact of the raid and its consequences in the Pacific were not realized until long after the conflict.”

The raid also had a psychological effect on both the U.S. and Japan.  The Japanese people had long been promised that there would never be an air attack in Japan.  Those at home had a huge morale boost.  It was the first good news the Allies had since the attack at Pearl Harbor.

So, to start from the beginning, Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, had conceived the idea in January of 1942, and at the same time as President Roosevelt had expressed to the Joint Chiefs that they needed something to raise the country’s morale.   After going through the chain of command and getting approval the plan was to send 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers, reconfigured for the attack.  They would be launched from the Aircraft Carrier, Hornet, and   bomb strategic military targets in Japan, turn, and hopefully there would be just enough fuel left to make it to China.

The task force consisted of the aircraft carriers Hornet, the Enterprise along with three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers, and two fleet oilers.  They traveled in radio silence.

The morning of April 18th the task force was still about 750 miles from Japan when they were spotted by a Japanese boat, which radioed a warning to Tokyo.  It was immediately sunk by one of the heavy cruisers.

Doolittle and the Captain of the Hornet, decided to launch immediately.  None of the B-25’s, including Doolittle, had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier before.   All sixteen made it off.  They started to arrive over Japan about noon and although fired on, no bomber was brought down.  Low on fuel fifteen bombers headed for the east coast of China, one who was extremely low, flew to the Soviet Union. 

The story of each bomber is unique and if you are interested I would suggest the book, The Doolittle Raid, by Carroll V. Glines, who personally interviewed all of the survivors of the raid.

Our story will concentrate on Crew #6. Lieutenant Nielsen is on the far left of the picture.   The plane was called the Green Hornet.  Lt. Nielsen was the navigator.  After they completed their mission they flew south over the same route taken by the earlier bombers.  The weather was bad, it was raining with low clouds that hampered visibility.  By this time Captain Dean Hallmark was flying at about one hundred feet.  With all of the engines on empty, Lt. Nielsen estimated that the coast was still ten minutes ahead.  They kept on the heading, hoping to make it, but realizing they were going to have to ditch.  With four minutes left, the engines quit and the plane went down in the East China Sea.  Flight Engineer, Sergeant William J. Dieter and Gunner Sergeant Donald E. Fitzmaurice were killed.

In a fascinating and harrowing story, Lt. Nielsen made it to the shore, not knowing if he was in Japan or China.  He was in China.  Unfortunately after a few days he was captured by the Japanese with the pilot Lt. Dean Hallmark and Copilot Lt. Robert Meder.    They, along with five others, were taken as Japanese prisoners.  On August 28, four months after their capture, Lt. Hallmark and two others were put on trial for war crimes alleging they have murdered Japanese civilians.  On October 15, 1942, the three were taken to Public Cemetery Number 1 and executed by firing squad.

Nielsen and Meder were moved with the others to Nanking in April of 1943.  Meder died on December 1st, leaving Lt. Nielson as the sole remaining member of the crew.

After the raid, the Japanese Imperial Army began a campaign to ensure that the eastern coast of China would never be used again for another attack on Japan.  All air fields within 20,000 sq. miles where the planes had landed were torn up.  Any Chinese civilian or soldier, found with Americans, were shot.  It is estimated that the Japanese killed and estimated 10,000 Chinese civilians during the search for Doolittle’s men.  An estimated 250,000 Chinese were killed during the campaign.

We still haven’t made it to Lt. Neilsen’s story of captivity, but we will leave that for another day.  Following the war, just three months after his release he returned to Shanghai, provided evidence (another cool story!!) and testified at the International War Crimes Trial.

He remained in the military and he died on March 23, 2007.

Incidentally, all of the Raiders would meet every year on April 18th to toast those who had died in that year.  Sadly this year, there is only one remaining survivor, Richard Cole of Dayton, Ohio. He is 101 years old.