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Memorial Day: Survivor recalls daring Doolittle Raid

Edward Saylor Credit: Photo: Feliks Banel

If you happened to see the 2001 film "Pearl Harbor" with Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale, you may remember that the movie ends with a re-creation of the Doolittle Raid. In that stirring sequence, Alec Baldwin plays Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, leading a squadron of B-25 Mitchell bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier to attack Japan.

The real-life April 1942 raid was big news. It was the first time that American bombers had been launched from a ship, and it was the first strike that the United States made against Japan following the attack on Hawaii the previous December.

But if you ask 93-year old Edward Saylor of Enumclaw, he’ll tell you that he doesn’t care for Baldwin’s take on Jimmy Doolittle. “Alec Baldwin was a total flop,” said Saylor, who prefers Spencer Tracy's interpretation of the famous aviator and war hero in the 1944 film "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."

“Tracy took on Doolittle’s character," said Saylor.

And Saylor should know.  He was a crewman on one of those Doolittle Raid B-25s back in 1942. 

Saylor grew up on a ranch in Jordan, Montana. He joined the Army in 1939 because jobs were scarce in those late Depression years, and there was no money for college. It also happens that military service is something of a tradition in the Saylor family.

“My dad was in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines,” Saylor said. “My grandfather fought in the Civil War and was with General Sherman's March to the Sea and burned Atlanta. My uncle was in World War I. Myself and two brothers in WWII.  My son was in Cambodia. So, yeah, we been around wars.”

And now, Saylor is one of just four living members of the Doolittle Raid. He typifies the humility of that generation’s military veterans.

“I was just doing my job,” Saylor said about serving as a flight engineer aboard a Doolittle B-25. “I was no hero. I wasn't into politics. I didn't think what I'd done was all that big a deal.”

But it was a big deal. Saylor had volunteered for the mission not knowing what it would actually entail.

The Doolittle Raid was conceived as a morale booster in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. It was a grim time, with much of the country reeling from the attack and from the prospect of war in the Pacific and in Europe. 

The aviators trained on land in Florida for a few months in early 1942, practicing tricky aircraft carrier-style take-offs with the heavy B-25 bombers that had been designed for use on traditional airfields. In early April, the crews flew their bombers across country to Long Beach, California to board the USS Hornet, for an unknown destination. Once underway and well off the coast, the men were told where they were going and what would do when they got there: Attack the heart of industrial Japan, then keep flying west to airfields in China, a U.S. ally back then.

All went according to plan as the Hornet approached Japan and the area designated for take off. But then, not far off the coast, a Japanese ship came into view. The carrier’s gun crew sank the vessel. But U.S. commanders feared the enemy ship might have had time to alert Japanese forces to the presence of an enemy aircraft carrier. They decided to get the planes in the air as soon as possible to preserve, if possible, the element of surprise in their favor. That meant making it all the way to China before running out of fuel was unlikely.

As Saylor tells it, reaching their target — one of Seattle’s future sister cities — was the easy part. “For the actual getting to Kobe  and dropping the bombs, I was pretty nervous,” he recalled. “I never panicked. But I was worried. I thoroughly expected to get shot at. But I didn’t visualize being shot down.”

As it turned out, Saylor’s B-25 wasn’t shot down. But the plane didn’t make it to China either.

Just off of the coast of China, “the pilot said we just have to land here in the water, and that was the end of the conversation,” Saylor said. The crews had never trained for water landings. “The plane did great. It bounced along the waves and came to a stop, and floated for 10 minutes.” 

That 10 minutes gave Saylor and the rest of the crew enough time to get out of the B-25 before it sank. They made it to a small island off the coast, where fishermen helped them reach the mainland and avoid capture. It took several weeks, but Saylor’s crew and most of the other airmen made their way safely to China, where Madame Chiang Kai-shek pinned medals on their chests.

Not all the Doolittle Raiders were so lucky. Eight were captured; three of those were tried and executed by the Japanese.

Meanwhile, back in her hometown of Tacoma, Saylor’s wife Lorraine had heard all about the Doolittle Raid. The mission had done what it set out to do: It showed the American people that the U.S. military could strike back against the Japanese homeland, which boosted morale on the Yankee homefront.

Lorraine Saylor had no idea that her husband was part of the famous raid. Until, “she went to a movie one afternoon and they had those Movietone newsreels in those days — the primary source of news was in the theater,” Saylor said. “She was sitting there watching the newsreel, and I showed up — Madame Chiang Kai-shek pinning the air medal on us, big as life right in front of her. Oh boy, that was something for her.”

After seeing her husband on the big screen, Lorraine rushed home, grabbed her mom and ran back to the theatre, where the two women sat through several showings of feature films so that they could see the newsreel a few more times.

Edward Saylor returned from Asia and made it back to Jordan, Montana, in time to be a reluctant participant in his hometown Fourth of July celebration.

“I didn't have any natural talent for coping with this, I'll put it that way,” Saylor said. “I had to give a talk to the crowd at the dance hall that night. I got up there and mumbled something.”

Saylor served in Europe for much of the rest of World War II, and lost a brother in combat there. He made the Air Force his career.

His wife passed away a few years ago. While he’s humble about his role in the Doolittle Raid, he’s aware of what the mission accomplished.

“Over time, historians have come up with the idea that we had changed the course of the war," he said. "I guess probably we did, 'cause we sure got the Japanese attention good." He concedes with a laugh, “Now when there’s only four of us left it’s a big deal. Anybody that wants to talk to us had better get at it."


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