A Portland Connection to the Doolittle Raid of 18 April 1942

  • Published
  • By By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 17th Bombardment Group

Some 76 years have passed since the famous Doolittle Raid on Japan, 18 April 1942, when US Army Air Corps Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle led the crews of 16 B-25B Mitchell bombers off the pitching, wet and windswept deck of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8).  It was the first American attack on the Japanese home islands, a shock to the Imperial warlords and gave a much-needed boost to the morale of the American people after months of military defeat early in the war.  It was also a successful joint forces operation between the Army and the Navy.


Many of the 80 Airmen who comprised the Doolittle Raiders came from the 17th Bombardment Group (Medium), the first unit to receive the North American B-25B Mitchell medium bomber.  In fact, when the unit began to receive the aircraft in mid-1941 it was stationed at McChord Field, Washington, before moving to Pendleton Army Air Field, Oregon in July of 1941.


When the war in the Pacific started in December, 1941, Pendleton-based B-25s were used for coastal patrol against Imperial Japanese Navy forces.  (Later in the war, Portland Army Air Base was also used for coastal patrol missions, as written about in:   “Remembering the Southern crew on Memorial Day 2015,” on the 142FW webpage at:  http://www.142fw.ang.af.mil/News/Features/Display/Article/864356/remembering-the-southern-crew-on-memorial-day-2015/

In fact, a trio of 17th Bomb Group B-25B’s forward-based at McChord Field were involved in a coastal patrol mission flown by the Oregon National Guard’s federalized 123rd Observation Squadron on Christmas eve, 24 December 1941 which sighted a Japanese submarine off the mouth of the Columbia River.  A B-25B piloted by Lt. Everett W. Holstrom (born in Cottage Grove, Oregon) subsequently responded and attacked the enemy submarine. (See “Head West!! Oregon National Guard's Initial Response to Pearl Harbor Attack” on the 142FW webpage at:  http://www.142fw.ang.af.mil/News/Features/Display/Article/438254/head-west-oregon-national-guards-initial-response-to-pearl-harbor-attack/

One of the better-known Doolittle Raiders was a 95th Bomb Squadron pilot named Ted W. Lawson, who authored the first book about the Doolittle Raid titled “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1943, Random House) which was then made into a movie by the same name (1944, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).


Not as well-known is the fact that Lt. Lawson was involved in an aircraft mishap which had a connection to Portland Army Air Base on the same day of the sub sighting and attack, 24 December 1941.  Lawson and his crew along with another B-25 and crew were also on coastal patrol that day and lingered in the area of the first B-25’s attack on the sub off the mouth of the Columbia River hoping to make their own attack until their fuel ran low, complicated by deteriorating weather conditions. 


McChord Field was socked in so Lawson decided to head for Portland.  But with his fuel at a critical state he only made it halfway before he decided he had to set down, finding a 1,500-foot emergency strip near Ilwaco, Washington, with his aircraft still loaded with four 300-lb bombs.  It wasn’t an airfield with a paved runway, but a simple 1,500 foot open field. 


After circling three times to decide on his best approach considering he had bombs on board, he set his tricycle landing gear down on a concrete road, and managed to “…land like the Navy: a ker-plunk, but just enough of a ker-plunk to slow it down a little and not enough to break anything…” (Lawson, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo), then bounded across a ditch and on into the field.  Three big shallow mud puddles could have rolled the B-25 over but Lawson kept control and the mud helped slow the ship down until it stopped, still within the field, but then it sank into the mud, with the propellers striking the muck before the engines could be shut down.  His bomber, B-25B serial number 40-2281, was damaged in the landing and subsequently written off by officers at Portland Army Air Base.  It had but 18 flying hours on it at the time.


This mishap didn’t dampen Lawson’s future flying prospects.  In early February 1942, the 17th Bombardment Group left Pendleton for Columbia, South Carolina, for coastal patrol work against the German U-boats savaging shipping off the US east coast.  There Lawson was among 140 aircrew selected by the four squadron commanders as the volunteers for the Doolittle mission.  He made that first cut to be chosen and successfully mastered the training needed to become one of the 80 aircrew selected for the mission (16 B-25s with 5-man crews each).  Of note, his co-pilot on the mission was Lt. Dean Davenport, from Portland, Oregon, as was his bombardier, Lt. Robert S. Clever, flying together in Crew Number 7 in B-25B serial number 40-2261, which they named "The Ruptured Duck." 


And so there it is, a Christmas eve Portland Air Base connection to the epic Doolittle Raid of 18 April 1942.  Of the 80 Airmen who flew that day, three were killed in the bailouts or crash landings in China after the attack, and four more died in Japanese captivity.  All 16 B-25 bombers were lost. 


Another 13 of the Doolittle Raiders were killed during World War II, most in action against the enemy.  Ted Lawson survived his grievous crash landing wounds, served for most of the rest of the war and had a full life.  He passed away in 1992.  Today only one man of the 80 brave Airmen of that mission is left with us, Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, who was then Lt. Col. Doolittle’s co-pilot on the mission.  He is 103 years young. 


On this 76th anniversary year of the Doolittle Raid, we salute the 80 Airmen who flew the mission, as well as the 10,000 men aboard the US Navy warships that risked their lives in Japan’s home waters to launch them. Their achievement exemplifies the service and sacrifice Americans made then and do now in order to preserve the freedom and liberty we enjoy today.