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As final reunion looms, flight engineer Ed Saylor looks back on the Doolittle Tokyo Raid
UPDATE: Today, April 18, is the anniversary date of the Doolittle Tokyo Raid. On Wednesday, the first day of the surviving Raiders' final reunion, Eglin Air Force Base named an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter hangar for Ed Saylor.
Ed Saylor is a member of a fast diminishing group. Originally 80 strong, conflict, illness and age have since dwindled their numbers to four. A fifth, Major Thomas C. Griffin, only recently died at the age of 96.
At one time, they all agreed the last two survivors would share an aged bottle of E&J brandy. Now, none of them drink. The bottle will likely be donated to a museum, Saylor recently told a congregation of Enumclaw Rotarians.
What's the historical significance of this particular bottle of Kentucky whiskey? Its owners were the returning airmen of World War II's Doolittle Tokyo Raid, a retaliatory bombing mission to boost American morale after the attack on Pearl Harbor and scatter Japanese forces.
In planning, the operation called for a temporary squadron of volunteers to launch modified B-25 bombers — aircraft normally unsuitable for carrier transport — from the USS Hornet 400 miles off the Japanese coast, hit 10 military and industrial targets, and push forward to an airfield in Zhejiang, China for eventual extraction from Chongqing.
But in practice, the raiders and their mission were plagued by bad luck. A sighting by a Japanese patrol boat forced the planes to take off early into a headwind. All but one arrived in China by crash landing far from their destination. Though the bombings were successful, the return home for Saylor and the 68 others who avoided capture would come down to luck and aid from Chinese civilians.
Saylor's story begins in Montana, where he was raised on a ranch outside the isolated town of Jordan.
"I was pretty naive," Saylor said. "I had never seen a train or a bus."
In 1939, after graduating Garfield High School and before the U.S. had entered the war, he saw an Army recruitment poster promising wages of $72 a month; a comfortable living for the time. The 19-year-old signed up with high hopes that would only be partially dashed by actual starting pay of $21 a month.
"At that time, there were no war movies or anything else that showed what it would be like," Saylor said about his decision to join up. "So I didn't know quite what to be scared of."
Almost three years later, Sgt. Saylor was a 22-year-old flight engineer cooling his heels on base in Columbia, S.C. America had just entered the war, the wound of Pearl Harbor still fresh in the public psyche. Though a broken nose lent him a rough-and-tumble appearance, Saylor was still a combat greenhorn.
One day, Lt. Col. James Doolittle appeared on base looking for volunteers for a top secret mission. Doolittle couldn't tell them what they would be doing, other than manning bombers, or where they would go. Their loved ones would likewise be in the dark as to their spouses' whereabouts.
Saylor opted in and said his goodbyes to his wife.
Over several months, the crews practiced putting the B-25 Mitchell bomber in the air in fewer than 500 feet — the length of an aircraft carrier's runway — until they were ready to be sent to McClellan Field in San Francisco for final departure.
Sixteen made it onto the USS Hornet: 15 to participate, and one more to test flying conditions from the carrier. Given that the bombers couldn't land on the carrier once off, No. 16 wound up on the bombing run with the rest.
Saylor's aircraft, TNT, almost didn't make the mission at all.
A week out to sea, Saylor was checking the oil on the right engine sump. By this time, the Raiders had been briefed on their assignment and targets. TNT would be hitting an aircraft factory and dockyard in Kobe, about 300 miles southwest of Tokyo. Now Saylor's job was to make sure his plane would be in flying condition.
As he pulled out his dipstick, two horseshoe-shaped hunks of metal were stuck to the magnetized end. Saylor recognized them immediately as keys from the planetary gear drive system. This was bad news: the keys kept the gears on the driveshaft. Without them, the gears could slide out of place and destroy the engine.
"(My plane) came very close to being pushed over the side," Saylor said.
Doolittle had originally prepared 24 planes and crews in the run-up to his mission but the USS Hornet had nowhere near the deck space to hold them all. As some of his arriving volunteers would quickly learn, he was willing to scrub any man or vehicle that didn't meet his exacting standards. He had come this far, and he wasn't about to undo months of planning and preparation by flying into Japanese territory on subpar planes. Several with only a hint of trouble had been cut at McClellan. It wouldn't be out of character for the colonel to give "TNT" a burial at sea; indeed, he told Saylor the plane could either be fixed or pushed overboard.
Saylor was cautiously optimistic about his prospects. First, the engineers didn't go that deep into the engine during training, he said. Second, the plane was too large to be moved down to the hangar deck. The engine would have to be removed up top, at the mercy of wind and sea. Third, he had never done anything like this before.
"You couldn't lay anything down on the deck," he said. "Not a tool. Not a part. It would go right overboard.
"I had to put everything inside the airplane … then (when we reinstalled the engine) I had to figure out where I put everything or what it was. But I got away with it."
With great effort, it was done. The Hornet's machine shop was able to discern that the keys that had come off didn't have enough clearance inside the engine. They knurled them down to fit and the reassembled machine was reinstalled in the plane.
TNT, "Democracy's Ace in the Hole," was saved.
"The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful until we were 800 miles out from Japan and we were spotted," Saylor said.
The Japanese picket boat No. 23 Nitto Maru spotted the USS Hornet at 7:38 a.m. April 18. The escort cruiser USS Nashville was able to sink it, but not before it had radioed the mainland. This turn of events forced the Raiders' hand.
"So the Japanese knew we were coming," Saylor said. "That information wasn't available to us at that moment, but we knew that they knew we were coming. But we were 400 miles too far out. We were supposed to take off 400 miles from Tokyo. Our original plan was to take off at dusk, bomb the targets, get to the Chinese airfield at dawn and gas up. We didn't get to do it that way, because we couldn't."
The Raiders, none of whom had flown from a carrier before, took off immediately. They had trained to catch air within 500 feet on the assumption that it would be a challenge for a big plane on a short runway. But of all the misfortunes that had already occurred and were yet to come, a rough takeoff wasn't one of them, thanks to a strong headwind.
Now came the hard part. They were already further out than planned and the same headwind that put them in the air safely was working against them, slowing them down and gulping up precious fuel. The covert nature of the operation meant each plane was entirely alone: no formation and total radio silence. The only thing guiding them was a magnetic compass. TNT had left its navigation officer behind to make room for flight surgeon Lt. Thomas Robert White.
"We're approaching Japan and we can see a bunch of navy ships all over the coast … and we can see people walking around on the decks," Saylor said. "We were at 1,500 feet and they all ignored us. And the reason was that the Japanese hierarchy didn't do much to get ready for us, so nobody knew we were coming except them. And they made a couple mistakes. They thought they knew every plane we had that could operate off a carrier, and that we would have to make it within 200 miles of Tokyo to make it back to the carrier. And, plus the fact they didn't think they could be hit anyway. That was their mindset.
"The surprise element saved us."
Saylor fully expected to be shot down and die on the mission, he said. Any one of the coastal ships could have shot them down cold. That didn't happen.
Guided by the 20-cent "Mark Twain" bomb sight — two strips of aluminum meant to replace a secret state-of-the-art sight intended for high altitude missions — they hit their targets and pushed on without damage.
Success didn't relieve the crew's expectation of death. The Imperial navy may not have downed their craft, but the headwind still had a clear shot.
Luck was on their side. The headwind turned into a tailwind, pushing them onward.
Ditched to sea
The wind brought TNT closer to the Chinese mainland than Saylor — perhaps any of the crew — had imagined. Pilot Lt. Donald Smith could see the coastal mountains outside his windshield. He attempted to gain altitude, but fuel was dangerously low.
They wouldn't make it. Smith dropped the plane, ditching into the East China Sea less than half a klick away from the Tantou Mountain Island.
"Somehow, I didn't panic," Saylor said. "It was a good spot to be panicking, but I got out all right.
"I got into the China Sea and kind of floundered around, because I didn't know how to swim. People ask me what the first thing was I did when I got back, and I tell them, 'the first thing I done is learn how to swim.'"
The crew made it to the shore of Tantou. They lost track of Dr. White, who had wandered off on his own in a desperate bid to find the medicine box he lost at sea. Imperial forces were in hot pursuit, raiding the island during the day and patrolling in gunboats at night. Civilian friendlies found them first, helping them get off the island disguised as fishermen.
"We thought we had made it to the mainland, but it turned out we were just on another island," Saylor said with a chuckle, as if he still couldn't believe their bad luck. They trekked up to a Buddhist temple, where a man inside told them Japanese military were combing the islands for their attackers. In their efforts to get off the second island, Saylor came within mere feet of being found by his pursuers; he recalled squatting in a cave and watching Imperial boots walk by through a crack in the wall.
Finally en route to the mainland, the crew learned plane No. 7, "The Ruptured Duck," had suffered a rough beachside landing, throwing its crew clear from the point of impact. They had been taken in for care by nearby civilians, but four of the five had to be rushed to Linhai Enze Medical Bureau for serious injuries.
As the only flight surgeon among the Raiders, and being fortunately close to the hospital, White knew he was obligated to assist. By the time they arrived at the hospital, pilot Lt. Ted Lawson had a life-threatening infection in his knee, Saylor said. White assisted Dr. Chen Shenyan in amputating the leg. Lawson would survive and go on to write his memoir "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," which would be adapted to film two years later.
"He had very little anesthesia — just a little bit of morphine — and by the time the surgery was almost done, he was waking up," Saylor said. "And he kind of knew what was going on, but they were sewing him up. He needed a transfusion and the only person who had his kind of blood was our copilot."
Without proper transfusion equipment, the doctor used his syringe to administer the blood shot-by-shot.
After the doctor's work was done, it was time to get to the business of returning home. Saylor's crew was still well away from the extraction point. The problem was transportation. There were no buses, trains or even roads. So they walked, hoping for some stroke of good fortune.
Luck came on the trail up to the mountains in the form of a Chinese teenager, name unknown, recently orphaned by bombings in Shanghai.
"He spoke a little English, and he stayed with us for the rest of our trip across China," Saylor said. "He became our navigator, our interpreter and our food scrounger. We owed him big time."
With his help, they made it to a broken down bus that gave them harbor, as long as they were willing to push it up hills.
The Japanese were still in pursuit and executing retaliatory attacks on Chinese soil. At one point, Saylor recalled, a bomber took out an identical bus just a short distance ahead of them — the second to last close call of the mission. The second came while they were taking shelter in a pagoda that gave them a clear view of bombings on a nearby city.
"One day, we decided we better not stay in this pagoda anymore, because we figured they'd find us," Saylor said. These were violent times for Chinese civilians, and they knew some civilians would be willing to sell them out in exchange for their safety. "So we stopped going to that pagoda, and the next day they bombed it. We got out of there just in time."
The situation had degraded to the point that there was no hope for an air extraction from China. They hitchhiked across the country, through India and then to West Africa.
Finally, in Africa, they made contact with the Navy and were able to arrange a flight across the Atlantic.
There was one problem: they had one too many passengers. The crew of the TNT attempted to bring their teenaged guide with them on the plane, hoping to bring the boy who ensured their survival back to the States. But they were told it just couldn't be allowed.
He was left behind on the tarmac.
Saylor’s wife finally found out about her husband’s mission, but not from his own mouth. She was taking in a movie when the newsreel showed him receiving a medal from Madame Chiang Kai Shek.
She had a few adventures of her own during his absence. One of Saylor's favorite stories involved her deciding to meet his family in Montana. She sent out a telegram ahead and immediately departed. When she arrived in the closest accessible town, she hitched a ride to the ranch. She was confused to find nobody knew who she was. But they put her up, and the next time the mail arrived, there was her telegram; she had arrived ahead of it.
Saylor himself went on to a 28-year career with the Air Corps and its successor, the Air Force. He served in Europe during the remainder of the war, and admitted he felt a little awed by the continued heroism of the Army GI's.
As it would turn out, Saylor's emergency engine work on the TNT would be his first step in a reputation for never grounding a plane for mechanical failure. He retired in 1967, having achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.
This time of year is bittersweet for Saylor and his fellow surviving Raiders. Every year, they have met during the anniversary of the raid for a reunion. Last year, with only a handful left, they decided to make 2013 the end. They meet in Fort Walton Beach, Florida through Saturday.