RAPID CITY, S.D. — Hundreds of today’s Ellsworth Air Force Base personnel, local veterans, and family members gathered Thursday to honor Airmen of the past, the Doolittle Raiders.
April 18, 1942 was a pivotal moment in history. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo was the turning point in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Ellsworth Air Force Base has three of the four squadrons that made up the B-25 squadrons that took off from the Hornet aircraft carrier, the 34th and 37th bomb squadrons, and the 89th attack squadron.
“It was the first strike on Japan after Pearl Harbor,” said TSgt Cody, sensor operator with the 89th attack squadron.
“Eighty bold and intrepid men did something that nobody thought they could do,” said Col. John Edwards, 28th Bomb Wing Commander. “No one thought they would succeed.”
Aircraft carriers themselves were a newer idea and the planes mainly launching from them were small, fighter planes.
“You really weren’t expecting to be able to strike across the Pacific Ocean like that and they said well wait, lets see how big an airplane we can get on an aircraft carrier,” said Robert Liebman, volunteer with the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.
“So [they] took off with B-25s, specifically modified to fly this mission,” said Cody. “We were never able to do anything like this before in history.”
“Zip in there, get this longer range airplane off the deck, strike Japan, and show them that we’re in this fight,” said Liebman.
15 of the 16 B-25s crashed. The last plane landed in Russia, where it was held.
“After the fact, they were unable to return to the United States,” said Cody. “They had to ditch over China and other friendly areas in order to recover the crews.”
“It lifted the morale of the United States in a time following the attack on Pearl Harbor that was really necessary,” said Edwards. “It changed the strategy of Japan in the war of the Pacific too.”
Seventy-seven men survived. Three were captured and executed by the Japanese.
Two of the surviving men were from South Dakota, Henry Potter, a navigator, and Don Smith, a pilot.
PHOTO: Henry Potter (circled), next to Jimmy Doolittle, Fred Breamer, Richard “Dick” Cole, Paul Leonard (Courtesy: John Mollison)
PHOTO: Howard Sessler, Don Smith (circled), Thomas White, Griffith Williams, Edward Saylor (Courtesy: John Mollison)
Eighty Congressional gold medals were made for the immediate families of the Doolittle Raiders, but the medal to go to Smith was never claimed.
“Dick Cole had the medal that was to go to Don Smith’s family but he wanted it to go to South Dakota because nobody had claimed it,” said John Mollison, communications, South Dakota Air and Space Museum. “This is the one that’s left and now it’s being presented to the Air and Space Museum as a gift from Dick Cole.”
Dick Cole was the last surviving Doolittle Raider, who passed away last week at the age of 103. Cole was co-pilot to Jimmy Doolittle, of whom the raid receives its name.
Photo: Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole (USAF ret.)
The heritage of the raid lives on in the three squadrons now at Ellsworth AFB.
“To be able to continue the lineage and be able to carry their history and continue to bring the fight to the enemy like they did back in the day, it’s just incredible,” said Cody.
“What a magnificent reminder of the folks that came before us and whose shoulders we stand on today,” said Edwards.
Attendees of Thursday’s event watched the visiting B-25 Mitchell Bomber, take off, following the ceremony.