Flying High in a B-25
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In early February, I received a call from writer, artist, filmmaker and friend John Mollison. John has, for several year now, contributed some amazing content to SDPB audiences. His work centers on veteran’s stories. On this day, John was calling in his other capacity, as the Communications Director for the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. He was putting together an event to commemorate the 77th Anniversary of the famed Doolittle Raid. John was working to help bring a restored B-25 Bomber for what he was calling the “Raid Across South Dakota”. John mentioned that if all goes well, there was a chance that a limited number of media representatives would have the opportunity to take a short flight in the airplane. The event itself sounded exciting but a chance to ride in the airplane sealed the deal immediately.
History of Doolittle Raid
Early 1942 was a daunting time for the Allies and for the American public. We were involved in a war that was not of our choosing. We had been attacked at Pearl Harbor in December, and the Japanese were advancing through China, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. Americans desperately needed hope, and the Allies needed to strike back in a major way. They needed to hit the Japanese where it would do the most damage, geographically and psychologically.
The man put in charge was Lieutenant Colonel James H. (Jimmy) Doolittle, a pioneering pilot, aeronautical engineer, combat leader and military strategist who had been flying airplanes since becoming a cadet in the Army Signal Corps in 1917, He had earned Masters and Doctoral Degrees in Aeronautical Engineering, worked as a test pilot, and designed flight instruments. Since 1940, he had been an Army test pilot. Doolittle’s plan included assembling crews for sixteen B-25 bombers, launched from an aircraft carrier within striking distance of Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe, Japan. Due to the distance, this would likely be a one-way trip. Among the 80 men selected were two South Dakotans.
23-year-old Second Lieutenant, Henry Potter from Pierre was the Navigator for Doolittle’s lead crew. Potter had attended Yankton College, and later, the University of Oregon. Potter survived the Doolittle Raid, and continued to fly combat missions.
24-year-old pilot Donald G. Smith was born in Oldham, and had moved to Belle Fourche as a child, graduating from Belle Fourche High School in 1936. He had gone to South Dakota State College and played center for the Jackrabbits. He played football for four years and had been selected as an All–American center.
Each crew was assigned specific targets and on April 18th, 1942, less than 6 months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Doolittle Raiders launched from the USS Hornet, several hundred miles east of Japan. Despite a premature launch terrible weather conditions, the crews hit their targets, before bailing out over the coast of China, finding help from friendly Chinese citizens, and one crew landing in Vladivostok, USSR and held as prisoners for over a year. The raid was a key blow to the Japanese Army and a moral booster for the Allies and the American public.
South Dakota’s Ellsworth Airforce base bears a direct connection to the Doolittle Raid. The 34th Bomb Squadron, which took part in the raid, is still active at Ellsworth today. On April 18th, the Air Force held a private ceremony to honor the raiders, but they were looking for a component to build awareness among the people of South Dakota. The Raid Across South Dakota would include a B-25 Bomber crossing the state with brief stops in Sioux Falls, Mitchell, Pierre and Rapid City before it's display at Ellsworth. John Mollison and others went to work finding a still-flying B-25 Bomber, gathering sponsors to pay for the trip, making arrangements with the South Dakota Air and Space Museum and the Commemorative Air Force, and putting together an educational handout featuring the history and significance of the Doolittle raid and South Dakota’s connection to it. Everything came together in time for the anniversary. The Raid Across South Dakota began April 16 at Joe Foss Field in Sioux Falls. By April 17th, the airplane reached its final stop at Ellsworth Air Force Base after layovers at Mitchell, Pierre and Rapid City.
SDPB Associate Producer Michael Zimny and I arrived at L&D Aero in Rapid City on April 17th, excited for the chance to experience this historic aircraft up close, gather video, take pictures and talk with the people who made this event happen.
We also learned something about flying WWII aircraft, specifically that they only fly in visual flight rules, or VFR weather conditions, meaning that the cloud ceilings must be high enough, and the visibility far enough that the pilots can see the ground along the route. At the time of the scheduled flight from Pierre to Rapid City, the cloud ceiling was too low at Pierre to allow for the plane to depart, but the weather was slowly improving. After an hour or so of waiting, we were relieved to see that the airplane, nicknamed Miss Mitchell was on her way to Rapid City. As she got closer, the crowd of a couple of dozen gathered stepped outside to watch her land and taxi to the ramp.
Cared for and flown by volunteers of the Commemorative Air Force, Miss Mitchell is magnificent in every way. Her twin tail was immediately recognizable in the distance as she entered her final approach. Her transparent nose, top, side and tail gun positions, complete with authentic armament came into view. She announced herself with the loud roar of her two 1,700-horsepower Wright Cyclone engines. There were several versions of the B-25 produced over the years, this is the B-25J model. It differs slightly Doolittle bombers, but I could certainly feel the history everywhere I looked. Up close, her Miss Mitchell nose art, Commemorative Air Force markings, and sleek frame revealed that this was the real deal.
After the crew landed and counted heads of those on the ground, they determined that there was enough room in their first of three rides for both Michael and me to climb aboard. After donning our flight gear, and receiving a safety briefing from the crew, we climbed the ladder into the belly of the airplane. After a few minutes of getting situated in the somewhat tight surroundings, strapping ourselves into the 1940’s-era seats complete with original seat belts and putting on our headsets, the deafening engines once again roared to life. We departed the airport and headed west for a flyover of the Black Hills and a flyby of Mt. Rushmore.
A couple of brief minutes after takeoff, we could unbuckle our seat belts and carefully move around the plane, checking out the views from the various gun positions. I made my way to the side windows and watched the Black Hills pass below us, I then crawled on my hands and knees down the small, narrow passage to the tail gun area and saw the view from the very back of the plane. I have had some experience in small planes, and have never experienced airsickness, but after looking out the rear of the plane for several minutes, I wanted nothing more than to crawl back to my seat and hope my stomach would stop churning. It turns out I didn’t need an airsickness bag, but it was getting close to that point. The entire ride lasted around 45 minutes, and as I climbed down the ladder to the ramp, I felt just fine, and the totality of experience was just starting to sink in.
The goal of this event was to educate people like myself about what our parents and grandparents went through in the war. From inside the aircraft, I couldn’t help but think what this was like for the men who flew these warbirds. As loud and slightly claustrophobic as it felt for me, I could only begin to imagine what the experience would have been like flying for hours, every day, with the guns firing, enemy gunfire coming in, seeing friends and fellow crew members die, knowing that the odds of making it out alive were not good at all. It’s a very humbling experience to even get a small sense of what these young men went through, how incredibly brave they were, and the debt we can never repay.
Henry Potter survived the war, had stateside service after Tokyo Raid in Michigan, Colorado, Washington D.C., Florida and California. He served overseas in Germany from 1954 to 1958 and held a rating as master navigator. His decorations include Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Commendation Medal, and the Chinese Army, Navy, and Air Corps Medal, Class A, 1st Grade and went on to have a long career. Henry Potter died May 27, 2002
Captain Donald G. Smith arrived in England on September 26, 1942. He served there for less than two months when he was killed in an air crash in England on Saturday, November 12, 1942.
The final surviving member of the Doolittle Raid, Richard E. Cole, passed away on April 9, 2019 at the age of 103.
National Museum of the U.S, Air Force