JOPLIN, Mo. —
There were 80 then; now there are five.
On April 18, 1942 — 70 years ago today — 80 U.S. Army Air Corps crew members in 16 B-25 bombers took off from an aircraft carrier 670 miles east of Tokyo. Their mission was to do the unimaginable: bomb mainland Japan.
Led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, the crew members — who became known as Doolittle’s Raiders — were forced to take off sooner than planned when their carrier was spotted by a Japanese fishing boat. The planes reached their targets, dropped their bombs and then, dangerously low on fuel, headed for China. Only one plane would land safely. The other 15 either crash-landed or had crews that bailed out.
Of the 80 men who took off, three were killed on the mission and eight were captured by the Japanese. Four of the captured Americans died in captivity — three by firing squad and one from illness.
The men who survived the raid would continue their service throughout the war, and 13 more would be killed in action. The surviving Raiders stayed close for the rest of their lives, gathering for annual reunions. As the years went on, time began doing to those brave men what the war did not.
Now, only five remain.
Joplin was home to one of Doolittle’s Raiders for almost 20 years. In 1988, Col. Travis Hoover moved to Joplin to be closer to his stepdaughter, Beverly Zerkel. Beverly’s husband, Jim, is a former B-25 pilot who served under Hoover.
After bombing his target, Hoover flew his plane toward a safe landing zone in China. Before he could reach the landing area, his plane ran out of fuel, and he was forced to land in a rice paddy. Hoover and his crew, with the help of Chinese guerrillas, avoided Japanese patrols searching for them. After a few days, the guerrillas recruited a young English-speaking Chinese engineer by the name of Tung-Sheng Liu to lead the Americans to safety. It was an incredibly dangerous task, and Liu showed uncommon courage in agreeing to help five men he had never met.
Hoover and Liu were reunited in 1948, and the two men developed a bond that would remain strong for the rest of their lives.
I got to witness that bond in 2006, when Beverly and Jim invited me to sit in on one of the last meetings between the two men. Hoover was 85 at the time and living at the Webb City Health and Rehabilitation Center.
Liu was a dignified and humble man who chose to talk about his friendship with Hoover.
“We are closer than friends. We are brothers,” Liu said.
Hoover died later that year. Liu, who long ago was named an honorary Doolittle Raider, died in 2009.
On Tuesday, I chatted with Beverly about the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle raid. I told her that I was worried that the date might go unnoticed, and that men such as Hoover and Liu would be forgotten. Beverly told me that I didn’t have to worry. She said she and Jim were leaving Thursday to attend a private dinner for the families of Doolittle Raiders at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio. Wright-Patterson is the home of the National Museum of the Air Force, where the annual Raiders’ reunion is being held this week.
“We aren’t going until Thursday because we didn’t make our reservations in time,” Beverly said. “All of the (reunion) events sold out within two hours.”
I think that’s something.
Do you have an idea for Mike Pound’s column? Call him at 417-623-3480, ext. 7259, or email him at email@example.com.
JOPLIN, Mo. —
There were 80 then; now there are five.
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