We improvise, adapt, overcome

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David Been
  • 37th Bomb Squadron commander
This month marks an important anniversary not only for the U.S. Air Force, but also for Ellsworth Air Force Base. Sixty-five years ago on April 18, 1942, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle avenged the Japanese attack on the U.S. by leading 16 B-25s on his famous raid against Japan. 

Two of the four squadrons used in that raid live today here at Ellsworth in the 34th and 37th bomb squadrons. Colonel Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor for the audacious operation and set an example for all Airmen to achieve what some may call impossible. One of Clint Eastwood's most memorable movie characters often used the phrase "improvise, adapt and overcome." I believe Colonel Doolittle did that very thing to pull off that mission and I know this unfailing spirit continues today in all squadrons at Ellsworth. 

At first glance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's orders to lead a massive bomber formation over the Japanese homeland seemed impossible to Colonel Doolittle. The U.S. Army Air Forces didn't have a base close enough from which to launch bombers and the U.S. Navy didn't have a long range strike aircraft capable of such a tasking. The mission had to continue, so Colonel Doolittle knew he had to improvise. 

He took the smallest of USAAF bombers, traded extra fuel tanks for most of their defensive machine guns, and trained his crews to launch their bombers in just 500 feet of runway--the exact distance they would have if they took off from an aircraft carrier. The United States now had a way to carry out President Roosevelt's mission. 

Colonel Doolittle loaded the 16 B-25s on the carrier USS Hornet and steamed west for Japan. The bombers would have to launch off the Hornet from within 400 miles of Japan for them to strike Tokyo and other cities then land at friendly bases in China. But the carrier was spotted by Japanese lookout ships and Doolittle was forced to adapt his plan. He decided to launch the bombers early; more than 600 miles from Japan. All the aircraft launched successfully and all made it over their assigned targets despite having to navigate over wide-open sea over the extra distance (without GPS!), and despite enemy fighter and stiff headwinds. 

But, by launching 200 miles early, Doolittle's Raiders could not make it to their planned landing bases in China. All the bombers ran out of gas and the crews were forced to bailout, crashland, or ditch in the ocean off the China coast. With Chinese assistance most of the crews made it back to America, although seven men died in the ordeal. But Doolittle's men had done what they had to do to overcame; overpowering adversity every step of the way on this almost impossible tasking. But the important lesson for us today is that they got the mission done. 

So I trust the "Doolittle Radiers" of 2007 right here in the 28th Bomb Wing continue that fervent desire to "improvise, adapt and overcome" to get the mission done for America as we fight to win this Global War on Terrorism.