Celebrating "Doolittle's Raiders," who some say changed the course of World War II

Doolittle's Raiders
Four of the surviving members of "Doolittle's Raiders"
CBS News

(CBS News) The months following Pearl Harbor were tough ones for America. Much of the Navy fleet had been sunk. The enemy, Japan, was on the move.

But 70 years ago Wednesday, 80 men who came to be known as "Doolittle's Raiders" did the impossible, and helped turn the tide.

CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports that the Raiders changed the course of World War II.

The Doolittle Tokyo Raid was the first successful attack on seemingly isolated and impenetrable Japan after that country's bombing of Pearl Harbor. The raid was carried out by 80 men who had never seen combat, in planes that were thought to be too big to take off from an aircraft carrier.

The 20 B-25 bombers that flew in formation over a Dayton, Ohio, Wednesday honored these four men and the miracle they pulled off in their own B-25s back in 1942.

"Of course the reason we got away with it was the surprise element," said 92-year-old Edward Saylor, who was 22 years old when he volunteered for a mission with a secret destination led by dashing aviator James Doolittle.

"I thought we'd end up in the jungle in the Pacific, on a short runway somewhere," Saylor said.

Richard Cole was Doolittle's copilot. At 26, he was one of the oldest members of the squadron.

"I think I was about two days at sea when the PA system came on and said, 'This force is bound for Tokyo,'" Cole said.

The plan was audacious: 16 B-25 bombers designed to take off from much longer runways would be launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier, bomb targets in five Japanese cities, and land at allied airfields in China because they were too large to land back on the carrier.

"These were fully loaded bombers taking off for the first time in a combat situation and you had to go straight off that deck," said Tom Griffin, 95, who was a B-25 navigator.

But they were spotted by a Japanese ship. So the attack was launched a day early, much farther from Japan than planned

"We had to use the worst-case scenario. Take off in the daytime, bomb in the daytime, and not have enough gas to get to China," said Edward Saylor. "I expected to be shot down."

Doolitle's crews hit their targets, but they knew those Chinese airfields were unreachable.

"Ran out of gas along the coast of China. The engines were still flying but the gauges were empty," Saylor said.

David Thatcher, 90, was in one of two planes that crashed in the China Sea.

"We hit the water with the wheel down, immediately it flipped us over. And all the other four of the crew were thrown out of the airplane," Thatcher said.

All 16 crews either crash landed or bailed out; 11 airmen were killed or taken prisoner. Doolittle thought he would be court-martialed.

But when word of their bravery reached America, the Raiders became heroes. They proved Japan was vulnerable to attack.

"They say we changed the course of the war in the Pacific. That makes sense. We probably did," Edward Saylor said.

It was the gamble he and the others took in the early days of war that convinced a nation that victory was not just possible, it was inevitable.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' chief White House correspondent.