by Michael W. Vogt
“I don’t think there was a man leaving who really believed he would complete the flight safely,” surmised twenty-seven year old U.S. Army Air Force pilot Captain Charles Ross Greening of Carroll, Iowa. As waves crashed over the pitching wind-blown deck, Greening watched tensely, lying prone to maintain his position beneath the wing of his B-25B Mitchell bomber nicknamed Hari-Kar-ier.
All eyes were on the first fourteen ton, twin radial-engine bomber piloted by mission leader and world renowned aviator Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle as it rolled down the allotted 495-foot flight deck of the USS Hornet at full power on the morning of April 18, 1942. For two of three Iowans watching and waiting their turn to launch, it would be the last flight of their lives.
The all-volunteer crews of the Army Air Force 17th Bombardment Group waiting to take off in poor weather that morning began their mission training at isolated Elgin Army Airfield, near Pensacola, Florida, in early 1942. Unknown to the crews until at sea aboard the Hornet, the mission of top secret “Special Aviation Project #1” was to bomb the home islands of Japan in retaliation for the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – and to elevate American morale at a time when the United States was enduring a string of losses in the Pacific war.
However, the United States Navy lacked long-range carrier aircraft capable of a strike beyond 300 miles. A unique solution – the brainchild of U.S. Navy submarine officer Captain Francis Low – was to train sixteen army bomber crews to fly their B-25 medium bombers off the ground at fifty miles per hour within 500 feet, instead of the conventional 1,000 foot plus take-off roll at 110 miles per hour.