“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Waste Land.” April has certainly seen its share of tragedies through the centuries. But 79 years ago, on April 18, combat aviators training here at Pendleton Field helped lift the spirits of a town and nation in shock from a war they hoped never to see.
As the 1940s dawned in America, the world situation was perilous. Nazi Germany had conquered Europe, Mussolini’s forces threatened North Africa and Japan was creating a colonial empire in the Pacific. Despite these looming threats, the ongoing Great Depression kept Americans preoccupied with domestic affairs. But President Franklin Roosevelt was quietly preparing the country for what he knew would come. It is safe to say few Pendletonians suspected that their town would play a key role in this process.
Aviation became a major priority for military planners as World War II began. First utilized in World War I primarily for reconnaissance, it had made great — and deadly — strides by 1940. During Nazi Germany’s conquest of Poland and Western Europe, its air force had used bombing with devastating effect and supplemented frontal assaults with airborne infantry. As the U.S. ramped up its own efforts, the War Department searched for suitable training and operations facilities.
Pendleton got the nod on Nov. 29, 1940.
The city’s designation as an Army Air Corps base surprised some locals, but it made sense. The city had a working airport, having offered United Air Lines passenger service for a few years already, and it was close to major Pacific Northwest cities, yet far enough inland to avoid becoming a target for surprise attacks.
In the next few months, the base took shape — runways underwent expansion, construction of housing commenced and personnel began arriving, including members of the 17th Bombardment Group. Flight operations were well underway when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Just days later, Nazi Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. The country grimly braced itself to fight on two fronts.
After Pearl Harbor, crews of the 17th group began to fly patrols along the Pacific Coast, hunting for Japanese submarines. In February 1942, they were abruptly transferred to Columbia Air Base in South Carolina. Officially, they would continue with patrols along the Atlantic Coast, but in fact something bigger was in the works. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had sent the Royal Air Force to bomb Germany during the Blitz, so President Roosevelt ordered a raid on Japan, to boost morale in the U.S. and shake the confidence of Japanese citizens in their leadership.
The man charged with this mission specialized in the difficult and daring. He had been the first pilot to cross the United States in 12 hours. Then-Col. James Doolittle recruited 79 Pendleton-trained volunteers for what he described only as a dangerous undertaking.
Unaware of the operational details, the crews likely wondered why they were practicing takeoffs from short runways. On April 2, the crews and 16 B-25 bombers were all on board the aircraft carrier Hornet and steamed west from San Francisco with Task Force 18. Only after departure did crew members learn that they would launch from the carrier to bomb the Japanese mainland.
Grainy footage from the April 18 launch shows Col. Doolittle piloting the first of 16 heavy bombers into strong winds from the Hornet’s deck, farther from Japan than planned owing to fear of detection. His comrades followed and headed for Japan, where they dropped bombs on industrial sites in Tokyo and nearby major cities.
The raid itself proved to be the easy part. Afterward, the crews were to go to China — a dicey task since Japan occupied much of China — to land near a safe Nationalist Chinese stronghold, but bad weather and depleted fuel supplies scrambled these plans. Doolittle and his crew ditched their bomber over Eastern China and fortunately reunited quickly, with the help of Chinese civilians. The other crews met various fates, but nearly all survived to be repatriated to the U.S.
Doolittle initially believed the raid had failed. Damage to Japan was minimal and the Americans had suffered losses of men and materials. The nation disagreed, newspapers announcing in bold, enthusiastic headlines the news of this daring mission. And when Pendleton learned that all the raiders, save Doolittle, had trained at Pendleton Field, citizens were elated — and newly hopeful that the tide of war would turn.
Pendleton’s flyers had struck the first blow against Japan. As one of the speakers memorably declared at the city’s celebratory parade, this “would not be the last rodeo” for Japan’s opponents in the Pacific.
The road to Tokyo remained long and hard, but Pendleton’s intrepid aviators had demonstrated it was not impossible.