NEW ORLEANS – Almost 70 years after the United States struck Japan in a bold bombing raid that did little damage but lifted the spirits of a Pearl Harbor-weary nation, Thomas Griffin relishes the role he played that day as a navigator in one of Jimmy Doolittle's B-25s.
"It was risky, but we all wanted to do it," Griffin said. "Everybody was ready to go after Pearl Harbor."
Coming just four months after the Imperial Japanese Navy savaged the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and with U.S. defense of the Philippines crumbling, the April 18, 1942, raid on Japan's home islands electrified a world at war.
Griffin, 96 and now living in Cincinnati, and three other survivors of the raid will be featured at a National World War II Museum symposium Wednesday through Friday focusing on the early months of American response to the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
"The bombing at Pearl Harbor shocked the nation," museum president Gordon "Nick" Mueller said. "But it quickly turned to a giant effort to respond. The country had been focused on the war in Europe before that. After that the focus included Japan."
In a speech to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decried the "day of infamy," and called a reluctant nation to war. A week later, the United States also was formally at war with Nazi Germany.
The conference at the New Orleans museum focuses on the first year of American involvement in the war in the Pacific, where a series of Japanese victories in early 1942 destroyed U.S. power in the Philippines, and chased British and Dutch forces from island possessions.
Eighteen World War II historians, including Richard Frank, author of "Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle" and "Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire," Takeo Iguchi, child of a Japanese diplomat in Washington who was interned after the attack on Pearl Harbor and author of "Demystifying Pearl Harbor: A New Perspective from Japan" and Hugh Ambrose, author of "The Pacific," the best-selling companion book to the HBO mini-series, will conduct seminars.
"It was designed for people who are part of the historically literate population and interested in the war, not other historians," said Allan Millett, Ambrose professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans.
Speakers include the Doolittle raiders.
"That's really important now," Millett said. "These guys will not be with us much longer. It's already two generations, maybe three since the war and especially the veterans that were in the first years of the war are disappearing."
Army Air Corps Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle led 16 North American B-25s into the air from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet — a remarkable feat for its time that required intense and secretive training. Each carried a five-man crew, extra gasoline and a modest bomb load as they winged for Tokyo and other targets in the Japanese home islands. The top-secret mission did little damage, but was a tremendous psychological blow to the Japanese, said historian and author Col. C.V. Glines.
"The Japanese people had been told their homeland was safe, that nobody could attack it," said Glines, who will be part of a panel at the conference. "And it was a dramatic response that did a lot to help this country recover from the Pearl Harbor attack."
The raiders had to launch farther from the Japanese coast than planned after the task force commanded by Vice Adm. William F. Halsey was spotted. For the raiders it was a one-way mission — they couldn't return to the Hornet, which turned around with its task force at high speed soon after the launch.
The fliers expected to bomb their targets, then land in China and hope they could be whisked away from occupying Japanese troops. But only one plane landed — and in the Soviet Union — while the others crashed or were abandoned when they ran out of fuel. The Soviets, then not at war with Japan, interned the crew for more than a year.
"We crash-landed on a Japanese occupied island off the coast of China," said David Thatcher, 90, of Missoula, Mont., a sergeant at the time.
He was knocked unconscious but the rest of the crew was seriously injured. People from a fishing village found them and got them to the Chinese underground, Thatcher said. The flight of his plane, dubbed "The Ruptured Duck," and the crews' dramatic escape after the bombing, was the subject of the book and movie "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo," which starred Spencer Tracy as mission commander Doolittle.
Amazingly, causalities were relatively light. Three died in action, eight were taken prisoners of war, three of those prisoners were executed and one died of disease.
Griffin and his crew mates parachuted from their plane as it ran out of gas.
"We bailed out into a huge storm in China," Griffin recalled. "It was pitch black and raining so hard we couldn't make out the wing tips."
A couple of days after the plane went down; some villagers took Griffin to see the wreckage.
"My claim to fame is that I'm the only Doolittle raider who got his suitcase after the raid," Griffin laughed. "I looked great, but the rest of those guys looked like bums."
When news of the attack was released, Roosevelt was asked where the big bombers came from, since the United States did not have bases close enough to strike Japan. The president, jubilant at having good war news for a change, said the bombers came from Shangri-La., the utopian paradise of the popular novel and 1930s movie "Lost Horizon."
After the Doolittle raid, U.S. forces still faced the fall of the Philippines and the consolidation of Japanese power in what is now Indonesia.
Two months later, in June 1942, the Hornet again went on the attack in the Battle of Midway, where naval aviators stopped the Japanese advance in the Pacific by sinking four aircraft carriers to the loss of one U.S. carrier, the USS Yorktown.
It marked a turning point in the Pacific war, though more than three years of bloody fighting lay ahead.