Aircraft—November…3…9…4…3…Whiskey…departing runway 21 to the West…
Unicom—Winds calm…no other reported traffic…
Payback for Pearl Harbor
One of my favorite events to attend each year is the aviation conference held by the Kentucky Aviation Association, better known as the KAA. Usually the conference is held somewhere between the cities of Owensboro and Lexington. Many airport managers, airport board members, FAA officials and Kentucky Department of Aviation members attend. It’s an excellent opportunity to meet face to face with the aviation people we talk with all year long. I’m convinced that many of the projects the FAA has funded at Big Sandy is because we always have a presence at these conventions, they know we are passionate about our airport.
This year’s projects total over $7 million dollars in improvements, all without any local funds. When we call Memphis to talk to our administrators, they know who we are and they know where Big Sandy is located. It’s no free vacation either, myself and all the board members who attend pay our own way to the conference, it’s part of our commitment to our airport.
The KAA puts on a great event. When it was held in Louisville one year we toured the UPS facility, in Lexington we toured the Toyota plant, the riverfront at Owensboro and the Corvette plant in Bowling Green. During the day we have speakers from the FAA, various aviation vendors and, sometimes, some famous aviators. One year in Owensboro we got to meet the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, they put on a little show for us as they arrived in town as they flew directly over the convention center balcony at low level.
I have heard some very interesting speeches from pilots who have flown dangerous missions. It’s interesting to hear those “behind the scenes” stories that happen during war and conflicts. My favorite speech was from Tom Griffin during the conference held in Lexington about 12 years ago. Mr. Griffin had an accounting business in Cincinnati but before he was an accountant, he was a navigator on bomber #9 of the Doolittle Raiders in WWII.
Maj. Griffin was in his mid eighties when he gave his speech, without any notes, in a clear, soft voice; he spoke for over an hour, I have never seen a speaker command an audience the way he did that evening. Of the nearly 200 people in attendance, all were totally quiet, you could hear a pin drop while he spoke. Even the hotel staff waiting on us stopped serving drinks and stood against the wall and listened.
The Doolittle raid against Japan happened only 4 months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The damage to Tokyo was considered minimal but the psychological benefits were good for our country and forced the Japanese to spend more resources defending their homeland. At the beginning of WWII all the news was bad news, the Doolittle raid was the first good news that the United States got at the beginning of WWII, it let the Japanese know that the fight in the Pacific had just begun.
The plan for the Doolittle raid was to sneak across the Pacific and strike Japan with 16 B-25 bombers, flying off the deck of an aircraft carrier, that had never been done before and no one was sure it could be done. Japan felt pretty safe because we had no base close to them and they thought it would be foolish for us to attack since we had so far to go.
Lt. Col. James Doolittle was put in charge of carrying out the plan. He recruited the most experienced group of B-25 pilots and crew he could find. The men were told the mission was very dangerous and it was strictly voluntary. Of the 80 men who were in the squadron, all volunteered to accept the mission.
They trained first in South Carolina and then in Florida. They weren’t told what the mission was and they wondered why they had to get the bombers in the air in less than 400 feet. The bombers were stripped of all unnecessary weight and extra fuel tanks were put everywhere possible. Even the rear gun was removed and a black painted broom stick was put in its place to possibly fool the Japanese. No gun was needed for this mission, if they engaged the enemy they knew they couldn’t win a dog fight with them.
After only 4 months of preparation and with no leave to come home because of the secrecy of the mission, the planes were flown to San Francisco and loaded onto the aircraft carrier USS Hornet at night and covered with tarps, after the crew came onboard, they were told what the mission was, “payback for Pearl Harbor”.
With as much secrecy as possible, two aircraft carriers (the USS Enterprise was for protection if they were spotted) headed across the Pacific for Japan. The plan was at 400 miles off the coast of Japan, the bombers would launch, fly only 100 feet above the ocean until over Japan, drop their bombs at 1500 feet so the explosions wouldn’t take them out, then head west as quickly as possible to airfields in China. Everything had to go as planned-it didn’t.
At 650 miles off the coast of Japan a fishing vessel spotted the ships, the decision was made to destroy the fishing vessel, not knowing if it was a spy vessel, with radio equipment and their position had been reported. The men were awakened from their sleep and briefed that they wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to the airbases in China, they would most likely have to ditch in the China Sea after dropping the bombs. No one backed out.
Lt. Col. Doolittle’s plane was the first to take off from the USS Hornet where he had the least amount of room, the planes were staggered on the far end of the flight deck. Seas were rough, winds were blowing at 35 knots and the Hornet was turned into the wind, at full speed ahead, his plane left the deck, dipped toward the sea and climbed out toward Japan. The other 15 planes followed him, no radio communications, no teaming up, there wasn’t enough fuel for anything but straight to the targets.
These men knew that they wouldn’t be landing in China, even if they got to complete their mission. They made it to Japan undetected, dropped their bombs and headed west to see just how far they could go before their gas was exhausted. To make matters worse, there was a storm in their most direct path, causing them to have to change direction. Fortunately, the winds swirling around the storm were providing a tail wind, they still couldn’t make it to an airfield in China but they could make it over land, before bailing out in the dark. When Maj. Griffin’s plane ran out of fuel, he was at 10,000 feet above sea level but only 2,000 feet above the mountains, in a storm, in total darkness.
He and his crew had to jump, the plane was going down. Maj. Griffin said it was so dark he couldn’t see anything but his parachute and he had no idea when he was going to hit the ground until he spotted a tree limb just seconds before he stopped falling. He was so lucky, his feet were just barely touching the ground because the strings from his parachute extended from the trees to just inches off the ground. Some of his crew weren’t so lucky, they landed hard, some had broken bones.
Most all the men survived the mission, they were helped by the friendly Chinese nationals and made it back to the United States. Historians agree that the bombing attack wasn’t very significant for the damage it caused, but the psychological damage to Japan and the morale boost it gave us was tremendous.
Maj. Griffin returned to action, flying in Europe, was shot down over Italy and spent time in a German prison camp until the war ended.
Most of the all volunteer group of Doolittle raiders survived the war and they started having reunions each year in different cities across the country. During a reunion in Tucson, Arizona, the city counsel presented a wooden case, filled with silver goblets with the names of all 80 of the Doolittle Raiders inscribed on them, twice. Right side up and upside down: the deceased raiders goblets were turned upside down and the living raiders goblets remained right side up. At each reunion the remaining raiders would toast the deceased raiders. A special bottle of cognac, made in 1896, the year that, the now, General Doolittle was born, was to be opened by the last two living Doolittle Raiders and a toast given for all the men. (General Doolittle was awarded the medal of honor for his role in the raid, he died in 1993.)
During Maj. Griffin’s absolutely spellbinding speech, as he was telling about the silver goblets, the audience erupted in laughter when he said, “Every year at the reunion, I look over the crowd and wonder just who I’m going to drink that bottle of cognac with.”
Maj. Griffin was almost right, he was only survived by 4 Doolittle Raiders when he died at 96 in 2013, only months from the last reunion, held in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, near Eglin Air Force base where training took place. The last living raider was Lt. Col. Dick Cole who lived to be 103 years old, he died in 2019. Lt. Col. Cole was Gen. Doolittle’s co-pilot on plane #1, the first to fly off the deck of the USS Hornet that day.
Every person at the banquet that night lined up to shake Maj. Griffin’s hand. The next morning during breakfast, one of the KAA board members who knew Maj. Griffin personally, asked during opening remarks what we thought of the guest speaker the night before. Loud applause followed, then he told another story about Maj. Griffin. He said, “As much respect as I have for him as a soldier, I have even more respect for him as a human being. His wife recently died with Alzheimers, he had to move her to a nursing home near his home in Cincinnati. For several years, every morning Maj. Griffin would make his wife a lunch, take it to her and read to her by her bed.”
A good friend of mine once told me that when looking at a person’s tombstone, the most important thing besides the name of the person is the space between the date of birth and the date of death, those dates are just insignificant numbers he said. That space between the numbers represents their life, what they did with the time they had. Tom Griffin did a lot with his 96 years, he lived an incredible life.
Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…4…3…Whiskey inbound for landing…airport advisory please…
Unicom—Winds calm…no other reported taffic…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager at Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties.)