A Personal Account of a World War II Tokyo Raider’s Training and Mission over Japan
WWII Tokyo Raider – Lt. Edgar McElroy
Excerpts from a story by Perry Giles with contribution by Rick McElroy
Born and raised in Ennis, Texas, I developed a love for airplanes from an early age – often imagining the freedom of flying my own plane. As a young man during the turbulent times prior to WWII, I felt our country would soon be drawn into war and made the decision to join the Army Air Corps in November, 1940.
I reported for primary training in California at airfields throughout the state. The training was difficult and frustrating at times with many of the men failing to complete. Graduating on July 11, 1941 as an Army Air Corps pilot, I was also now following my dream.
Receiving my orders, I reported to Pendleton, Oregon and joined the 17th Bomb Group. My unit would be the first to receive the new B-25 medium bomber. It appeared huge, sleek, and powerful and I was looking forward to flying this machine.
We were transferred to another airfield in Washington State, where we flew practice missions and attacked imaginary targets. There were other assignments in Mississippi and Georgia for more maneuvers and practice.
We were returning to California on December 7th when we received word of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We listened with mixed emotions to the announcements on the radio and the next day’s declaration of war. President Roosevelt’s words played over and over in my mind. “…With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounded determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.” I felt as though he was talking directly to me.
None of us knew what would happen now but felt sure we would see action soon. The first weeks of the war, we were back in Oregon flying patrols at sea and looking for possible Japanese submarines.
We were up at 0330 hours to warm the engines of our planes. With 18 inches of snow on the ground, it was so cold that our engine oil congealed overnight. We placed large tarps over the engines to reach the ground. Inside these tents, we used plumber blow torches to thaw the engines until warmed to start.
Patrols were flown over the coasts of Oregon and Washington from dawn until dusk. We considered it fortunate the Japanese did not attack the west coast, as we felt we weren’t strong enough at this point. Our country was in dire need and overall appeared bleak to most people.
In early February, 1942, we were ordered to report to Columbus, South Carolina and were unsure what was to follow. After settling in, our squadron commander called us all together. We were told a very hazardous mission was being planned and he asked for volunteers. There were some who did not step forward but I was one who did. Although married with a baby on the way, I had joined the Air Force to serve and knew the war would not be easy for any of us.
Those who had volunteered were transferred to Eglin Field near Valparaiso, Florida in late February. When assembled, there were almost 140 of us who were told we were now part of the “Special B-25 Project.” We commenced our training, although none of us knew the specifics. We were ordered not to discuss, even with our wives.
In early March, we were all called for a briefing and gathered together in a large building on the base. Someone mentioned the man heading this operation would speak to those assembled and in walked Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle. He was already an aviation legend and there he stood right in front of us. I was truly amazed just to meet him.
Doolittle explained the mission would be extremely dangerous and only volunteers would take part. We were told the location was still secret and some of us would not be coming back. There was a silent pause and moment of quiet for everyone. We were told that anyone could withdraw now and no one would criticize our decision. No one withdrew.
From the outset, all volunteers worked from early morning hours until well after sunset. All excess weight was stripped from the planes and extra gas tanks were added. The lower gun turret, heavy liaison radio, and tail guns were removed and more gas tanks put aboard. We extended the range of that plane from 1000 to 2500 miles.
I was then assigned my crew. There was Lt. Richard Knobloch as co-pilot, Lt. Clayton Campbell the navigator, Sgt. Robert Bourgeois my bombardier, Sgt. Adam Williams as flight engineer gunner, and myself as pilot. Over the coming days, I came to respect them tremendously. They were a great group of all-American boys.
We gleaned information from the training as to what type of mission we faced. A Navy pilot had joined our group to coach us on short takeoffs and shipboard etiquette.
We began our short takeoff practice with first a light load, then a normal, and finally overloaded up to 31,000 lbs. The shortest possible departure was obtained with flaps full down, stabilizer set three-fourths, tail heavy, full power against the brakes and releasing them simultaneously, as the engine revved up to max power. We pulled back gradually on the stick and the airplane left the ground with the tail skid about one foot from the runway. It was a very unnatural and scary method to get airborne
I could hardly believe myself, as I took off the first time with a full gas load and dummy bombs within just 700 feet of runway in a near stall condition. We were, for all practical purposes, a flying gasoline bomb.
In addition to departure practice, we refined our skills in day and night navigation, gunnery, bombing, and low-level flying. We made cross-country flights at tree-top level, followed by night and navigational flights over the Gulf of Mexico without radio transmission.
After starting our short-field takeoff routines, we had diligent competition among the crews. We were told only the best would actually participate on the mission and the rest held in reserve. One crew stalled on takeoff and slipped back to the ground, breaking their landing gear. They were eliminated from the operation.
Doolittle emphasized again and again the extreme danger to be encountered and made it clear that any of us, who so desired, could drop out with no questions asked. No one did. At our base in Florida, we were abruptly told to pack our things. After just three weeks of practice, we were on our way. It was the middle of March 1942 and I was 30 years old.
Our orders were to fly on our own, at the lowest possible level, to McClelland Air Base in Sacramento, California. So here we were, scraping tree tops at 160 miles per hour and skimming just 50 feet above plowed fields. We crossed North Texas and then the panhandle, scaring livestock, buzzing farm houses, and many a barn along the way. We flew over the Rocky Mountains and across the Mojave Desert, dodging thunderstorms. We enjoyed the flight immensely and it was good practice for what lay ahead.
Upon arriving in Sacramento, mechanics scrupulously checked our plane. Of the twenty-two that made it, only those with no mechanical problems were allowed to proceed. The others were shunted aside.
After having our plane serviced, we flew on to Alameda Naval Air Station in Oakland. As I came in for final approach, I excitedly called the rest of the crew to take a look. There below us was a huge aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. I had never even seen a carrier until this moment.
As there were already two B-25s parked on the flight deck, now we knew. My heart was racing and I thought how insignificant my plane would look on board this huge ship. As we landed and taxied off the runway, a jeep pulled in front which we followed straight to the wharf and alongside the towering Hornet. All five of us were in awe, scarcely believing the size of this carrier.
As we left the plane, there was already a Navy work crew swarming to attach cables to the lifting rings on the wings and fuselage. As we walked towards our quarters, I looked back and saw them lifting my plane up into the air to swing it over the ship’s deck. It looked so small.
Later that afternoon, all crews met with Lt. Col. Doolittle for last-minute assignments. The next morning, we all boarded the ship and I turned aft and saluted the flag. It was April 2 and, in full sunlight, we left San Francisco Bay. The whole task force of ships – two cruisers, four destroyers, and a fleet oiler – moved slowly with us under the Golden Gate Bridge. Thousands of people looked on and waved to us as we passed underneath.
Once at sea, Doolittle called us together. “Only a few of you know our destination, and you others have guessed about various targets. Gentlemen, your targets are Japan!” A sudden cheer exploded among the men. “Specifically Yokohama, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, Nagasaki and Osaka. The Navy task force will bring us as close as possible to launch our planes. We will hit our targets and proceed to airfields in China.” After cheering stopped, he asked again, if any of us desired to back out, no questions asked. No one did, not one.
Then over the intercom for the whole ship to hear, the voice of the Captain blared, “The destination is Tokyo!” A tremendous cheer broke out from everyone on board. I could hear metal banging together and wild screams from down below decks… It was quite a rush! I felt relieved, actually, as we finally knew where we were going.
I set up quarters with two Navy pilots who were part of the Torpedo Squadron Eight. I enjoyed my time with them but later learned that both were killed at the Battle of Midway. They were good men.
There were sixteen B-25s tied down on the flight deck and I was flying number 13. All the carrier’s fighter planes were stored away helplessly in the hangar deck. They couldn’t move until we were gone. Our Army mechanics were all on board, as well as our munitions loaders and several back up crews, in case any of us became ill or withdrew.
We settled into a daily routine of checking our planes. The aircrafts were grouped so closely together on deck that it wouldn’t take much for them to get damaged. Knowing that my life depended on this plane, I kept a close eye on it.
Day after day, we met with the intelligence officer and studied our mission plan. Our targets were assigned with maps and objective folders furnished for study. We went over approach routes and our escape course towards China.
Every day at dawn and dusk, the ship was called to general quarters and we practiced finding the quickest way to our planes. If at any point we were discovered by the enemy fleet, we were to launch our bombers immediately to enable the fighter planes on board. We would then be on our own and try to make the nearest land which would be Hawaii or Midway Island.
Dr. Thomas White, a volunteer member of plane 15, reviewed our medical records and provided inoculations. We were given training sessions in emergency first aid and lectured at length about water purification and such. Although a medical doctor, Tom had learned gunnery to be included on this mission.
Our new tail guns, in place of those removed to save weight, were not exactly functional but merely two broom handles painted black. It was hoped they would appear to be what they were not.
On Sunday, April 14, we met with Admiral Bull Halsey’s task force just out of Hawaii and joined into one large force. The carrier Enterprise was now with us, as well as another two heavy cruisers, four more destroyers, and another oiler. We were designated as Task Force 16.
It was quite an impressive sight to see what represented the bulk of the U.S. Navy after the devastation of Pearl Harbor. There were over 10,000 Navy personnel sailing into harm’s way, just to deliver sixteen Army planes to the Japanese by order of the President.
As we steamed further west, tension was rising as we drew nearer and nearer to Japan. Someone thought of arming us with old .45 pistols on board. They were in such bad condition that I disassembled several of them, using good parts from some until I built a serviceable weapon. Several of the other pilots did the same…
Lt. Col. Doolittle called us together on the flight deck. We all gathered round, as well as many Navy personnel. He pulled out friendship medals given by the Japanese government to some Navy officers several years back. Now the Secretary of the Navy had requested us to return them. Doolittle wired the medals to a bomb while we all posed for pictures. Something to cheer up the folks back home.
I began to pack my things for the flight scheduled for April 19. No letters or identity cards were allowed, only our dog-tags.
Doolittle let each crew determine their target. We chose the Yokosuka Naval Base about twenty miles from Tokyo. We loaded 1450 rounds of ammo and four 500-pound bombs… a little payback, direct from Ellis County, Texas.
We checked and re-checked our plane several times. Everything was now ready. I felt relaxed, yet tense at the same time. Day after tomorrow, we launch at 400 miles out. I lay in my cot that night and rehearsed the mission over and over in my head. It was hard to sleep, as I listened to sounds of the ship.
Early the next morning, I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast and expecting another full day on board. I noticed the ship was pitching and rolling quite a bit this morning, more than normal. I was reading through the April 18th day plan of the Hornet and a message which stated, “From the Hornet to the Army – Good luck, good hunting, and God bless you.”
I still had a large lump in my throat from reading the goodwill, when all of a sudden the intercom blared, “General Quarters, General Quarters, All hands man your battle stations! Army pilots, man your planes!”
There was instant reaction from everyone in the room and food trays went crashing to the floor. I ran down to my room, jumping through hatches along the way, and grabbed my bag, running as fast as I could to the flight deck. I met with my crew at the plane, my heart pounding… and someone said, “What’s going on?”
The word was the Enterprise had spotted an enemy trawler. It had been sunk but not before transmitting radio messages. We had been discovered!
The weather was poor, the seas running heavy, and the ship pitching up and down like I had never seen before. Great waves were crashing against the bow and washing over the front of the deck… This wasn’t going to be easy!
Last minute instructions were given. We were reminded to avoid non-military targets, especially the Emperor’s Palace. Do not fly to Russia but as far west as possible, land on the water, and launch our rubber raft. This was going to be a one-way trip!
We were still much too far out and all knew our chances of making land were slim. At the last minute, each plane loaded an extra ten 5-gallon gas cans for a fighting chance of reaching China. We all climbed aboard, started our engines and warmed them up, just feet away from the plane in front of us and the plane behind.
The ship headed into the wind and picked up speed. There was now a near gale force wind and water spray coming straight over the deck. I looked down at my instruments as my engines revved. My mind was racing. I went over my mental checklist and said a prayer… God, please help us!
Past the twelve planes in front of us, I strained to see the flight deck officer. He leaned into the wind and signaled with his arms for Colonel Doolittle to come to full power. I looked over at my co-pilot who nodded to me and we both understood the significance of the moment.
With the deck heaving up and down, the deck officer had to time departures just right. Then I saw him wave Doolittle to go and we watched breathlessly to see what happened… When his plane pulled up above the deck, we screamed, “Yes! Yes!”
The second plane, piloted by Lt. Hoover, appeared to stall with its nose up and began falling toward the waves. We groaned and called out, “Up! Up! Pull it up!” Finally, he corrected, staggering back up into the air, much to our relief!
One by one, the planes in front of us took off. The deck pitched wildly, 60 feet or more, it appeared. One plane seemed to drop into the water, disappearing for a moment, then pulled back up into sight. There was a sense of relief with each one that made it… We gunned our engines and started to roll forward.
Off to the right, I saw the men on deck cheering and waving! We continued inching forward, careful to keep my left main wheel and my nose wheel on the white guidelines painted on the deck. If a little bit too far left, we go off the edge of the deck. A little too far right and our wing-tip will hit the island of the ship.
We watched Lt. Bower take off in plane number 12, and I taxied up to the starting line, put on my the brakes and looked down to my left. My main wheel was right on the line. Applying more power to the engines, I turned my complete attention to the deck officer on my left, who was circling his paddles. Now my adrenaline was running high.
We went to full power and the noise and vibration inside the plane increased greatly. The paddles circled furiously while watching forward for the pitch of the deck. Then they dropped and I yelled, “Here We Go!” Releasing the brakes, we started rolling forward and, as I looked down the flight-deck, you could see straight down into the angry churning water.
As we slowly gained speed, the deck gradually began to pitch back upward. I pulled up and our plane slowly strained airborne and away from the ship. There was a big cheer from the crew, as I just felt relieved and muttered to myself on how short the distance.
We made a wide circle above our fleet to check compass headings and get our bearings. Looking down, as we passed low over one of our cruisers, we saw men on deck waving to us.
I dropped down to low-level, so low we could see the white cap waves breaking. It was just after 0900 with broken clouds at 5,000 feet and visibility of thirty miles.
Up ahead and barely in sight, I could see Captain Greening, our flight leader, and Bower on his right wing. Flying at 170 mph, we were able to catch up to them in thirty minutes. We were to stay in formation until reaching landfall and then break our separate ways. We now settled in for the five-hour flight… Tokyo, here we come!
Williams was in the back emptying the extra gas into the tank, as soon as we had burned off enough fuel. He then punched holes in the tins and pushed them out the hatch against the wind. Some of the fellows ate sandwiches and other foods the Navy had put aboard for us… I wasn’t hungry.
I held onto the controls with a firm grip, as we raced along westward and some fifty feet above the cold rolling ocean, as low as I dared to fly. Being so close to the choppy waves gave you a true sense of speed. Occasionally our windshield was even sprayed with a little saltwater. It was an exhilarating feeling and I felt as though the will and spirit of our whole country was pushing us along. I didn’t feel too much fear, just anxiety, as there was a lot riding on this mission and on me.
As we began to near land, we saw an occasional ship here and there. None of them close enough to be threatening but, just the same, we were feeling more edgy.
Then at 1330 we sighted land, the Eastern shore of Honshu. With Williams now on his guns in the top turret and Campbell on the nose, we came ashore still flying low as possible and surprised to see people on the ground, waving to us as we flew in over the farmland… It was beautiful countryside.
Campbell, our navigator, said, “Mac, I think we’ll be about sixty miles too far north.” I decided he was absolutely right and turned left ninety degrees, just offshore, and followed the coast line south.
When I thought we had gone far enough, I climbed to two thousand feet to determine our location. We started getting fire from anti-aircraft guns and, spotting Tokyo Bay, turned west and nose down, dove toward the water.
Once over the bay, I could see our target, Yokosuka Naval Base. Off to the right there was already smoke visible over Tokyo. Coming in low over the water, I increased speed to 200 mph and told everyone, “Get Ready!”
When close enough, I pulled up to 1300 feet and opened the bomb doors. There were furious black bursts of anti-aircraft fire all around us but I flew straight through them – spotting our target, the torpedo works, and dry-docks. I saw a big ship there just as we flew over. The flak bursts were really getting close and bouncing us around, when I heard Bourgeois shouting, “Bombs Away!”
I couldn’t see it but Williams had a bird’s eye view from the back and shouted jubilantly, “We got an aircraft carrier! The whole dock is burning!” I started turning to the south and strained my neck to look back and, at that moment, saw a large crane blow up and start falling over!…
There was loud yelling and clapping each other on the back. We were all just ecstatic and still alive but there wasn’t much time to celebrate. We had to get out of here and fast! When some thirty miles out to sea, we took one last look back at our target and could still see huge billows of black smoke..
We flew south over open ocean, parallel to the Japanese coast all afternoon. We spotted a large submarine, apparently at rest, and, fifteen miles later, three large enemy cruisers headed for Japan. There were no more bombs, so we just left them and kept going.
By late afternoon, Campbell calculated it was time to turn and make for China. Across the East China Sea, the weather ahead looked bad and overcast. Up until now, we had not had time to focus on our gasoline supply which, at this point, did not look good. We just didn’t have enough fuel to make it!
Each man took turns cranking the little hand radio to see if we could pick up the promised radio beacon. There was no signal… another bad sign.
The weather turned worse and was getting dark, so we climbed higher. I was now flying on instruments through a dark misty rain. Just when it really looked hopeless for reaching land, we suddenly picked up a strong tailwind. It was an answer to a prayer… Maybe just maybe, we can make it!
In total darkness at 2100 hours, we figured we must be crossing the coastline, so I began a slow, slow climb to ensure we hit no high ground … I conserved as much as I could but we were really low on fuel now.
The crew was still cranking on the radio but after five hours, there was utter silence. No radio beacon!
Then the red light started blinking to indicate twenty minutes of fuel remaining. We prepared to bail out. Turning the controls over to Knobby, I crawled to the back of the plane, past the now collapsed rubber gas tank. I dumped everything out of my bag and repacked just what I really needed – my .45 pistol, ammunition, flashlight, compass, medical kit, fishing tackle, chocolate bars, peanut butter and crackers.
I told Williams to come forward with me so we could all be together for this. There was no other choice. I had to get us as far west as possible and then we had to jump.
At 2230 we were up to sixty-five hundred feet. We were over land but still above the Japanese Army in China. We couldn’t see the stars, so Campbell couldn’t determine a good fix on our position.
We were flying on fumes now and didn’t want to run out of gas before we were ready to go. Each man filled his canteen, put on his life jacket and parachute, and filled his bag with rations.
On auto-pilot, we all gathered in the navigator’s compartment around the hatch in the floor. We checked each other’s parachute harness. Everyone was scared, without a doubt, as none of us had ever done this before!
I gave the orders, “Williams first, Bourgeois second, Campbell third, Knobloch fourth, and I’ll follow you all. Go fast, two seconds apart! Then count three seconds and pull your rip-cord.”
We kicked open the hatch and gathered around the hole looking down into the blackness which didn’t look very inviting. Then I looked up at Williams and gave the order, “JUMP!!!”
Within seconds they were all gone. I turned and reached for the auto-pilot but couldn’t make it, so pulled the throttles back, turned, and jumped.
Counting quickly – thousand one, thousand two, thousand three – I pulled my rip-cord and jerked back up with a terrific shock. At first I thought I was hung on the plane but, after agonizing seconds that seemed like hours, realized I was free and drifting down. In total darkness, I was disoriented at first but figured my feet must be pointed toward the ground. I looked down through the black mist to see what was coming.
I was in a thick fog with silence so eerie after nearly thirteen hours inside that noisy plane. I could only hear the sound of the wind blowing through my shroud lines until I heard the loud crash and explosion of my plane.
Looking for a flashlight, I groped through my bag to shine it toward the ground which I still could not see. Finally picking up a glimmer of water, I thought I was landing in a lake, as I hoped we were too far inland for the ocean…
I relaxed my legs in anticipation of splashing into water and swimming out. Suddenly jolted, I crashed onto my side in just a few inches of water. Raising my head, I put my hands down into the thick mud of a rice paddy.
There was a burning pain in my stomach and I felt I must have torn a muscle or broken something. I lay there dazed for a few minutes and, after a while, struggled to my feet. Digging a hole, I buried my parachute in the mud. Then, in trying to walk and hold my stomach, I realized in every direction I moved the water became deeper.
Seeing some lights off in the distance, I fished for my flashlight and signaled one time. Sensing something wrong, I retrieved my compass and discovered, to my horror, those lights were off to my west. That must be a Japanese patrol! How dumb could I be!
Knobby had to be back to my east, so I sat still and quiet and did not move. It was a cold, dark, and lonely night. At 0100 hours, I saw a single light off to the east and flashed my light in that direction, one time. It had to be Knobby!
I waited a while and then called out softly, “Knobby?” And a voice replied “Mac, is that you?”… Thank God, what a relief!
Separated by a wide stream, we sat on opposite banks of the water, communicating in low voices. After daybreak, Knobby found a small rowboat and came across to get me. We started walking east toward the rest of the crew and away from that Japanese patrol.
Knobby had cut his hip when he went through the hatch but it wasn’t too bad. We walked together toward a small village and several Chinese who appeared friendly. I responded in their language, “I am an American! I am an American!”
Later that morning, we found the others. Williams had wrenched his knee when landing in a tree but was fine, although limping. There were embraces all around and I have never been so happy to see four guys in all my life!
The five of us eventually made it out of China with the help of the local people and the Catholic missions along the way. They were all very good to us and later paid a terrible price for their help, as we would learn afterwards.
For a couple of weeks we traveled across country. Strafed a couple of times by enemy planes, we kept on moving by whatever transportation possible – by foot, pony, car, train, and airplane – finally reaching India.
I did not make it home for my baby’s birth but stayed on flying a DC-3 in the China-Burma-India Theatre for the next several months. I flew supplies over the Himalaya Mountains and when B-25s finally arrived in India, flew combat missions over Burma. Later in the war, I flew a B-29 out of the Marianna Islands to bomb Japan again and again.
After the war, I remained in the Air Force until 1962 when I retired from service and returned to Texas. I had been among the fortunate, for 13 of the Tokyo Raiders would later die during WWII.
Some people would call me a hero, yet I never thought of myself that way…although I did serve in the company of heroes.
What we did will never leave me. It will always remain in my mind, as I think of the fine and brave men with whom I was privileged to serve.
Edgar “Mac” McElroy, Lt. Col., U.S.A.F. (Ret.) passed away in Lubbock, Texas on the morning of Friday, April 4, 2003.