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#21 Lieutenant Colonel Harold Watson, NU ’40, Pilots B25 on Doolittle’s Raid

Bicentennial Admin 200 Things about Norwich, Norwich Was There

LtC Harold WatsonIn the months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt was looking for something to give the American people a boost in morale for what was expected to be a long war both in Europe and the Pacific. The Navy and Army Air Corps presented a plan that became famously known as “Doolittle’s Raid.” It was a yet untried combat mission where sixteen short range bombers were to launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier to attack mainland Japan. The pilot of plane #9, the Whirling Dervish, was Harold Watson, Norwich Class of 1940.

After months of specialized and secretive training, the sixteen bombers were loaded onto the deck of the USS aircraft carrier “Hornet.” Because of the distance and fuel available on each plane, the mission had a one-way flight plan to a designated target on the Japanese mainland. The tail guns had been replaced with wooden sticks to reduce the weight of the planes and accommodate extra fuel. The Norton bombsights had been removed so that the new and sophisticated technology would not fall into the hands of the Japanese. This required the bombers use an improvised and very simple sighting device.

Harold Watson and 4 others on the deck of the USS Hornet

LtC Harold F. Watson (second from left) on the deck of the USS Hornet

On April 18, 1942, the sixteen planes launched from the Hornet toward Tokyo. The mission was led by LTC Jimmy Doolittle who would later rise to the rank of Lieutenant General. The squadron successfully bombed a Tokyo electrical plant and then flew toward China where each plane was expected to land or crash. Colonel Watson and the rest of his five-man crew parachuted out, coming down in mountain wilderness. He was injured when his arm got caught in the chute’s lines, severely dislocating his shoulder. Taking refuge in a Chinese farmhouse, he was eventually rescued and admitted to Walter Reed Army Hospital from June 1942 until May 1943. While there, General Doolittle presented Colonel Watson with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Of the sixteen bombers that took part in the mission, thirteen were abandoned in mid-air and three crash-landed. One airman died bailing out of his plane and two drowned. Three were executed by the Japanese and one died as a prisoner. Twelve died in combat during WWII.

General Doolittle held an annual reunion with the survivors of the raid. A special case carried 80 silver goblets, one for each Raider. The goblets representing the men who had died were turned upside down and saluted by those who gathered each year. An agreement had been made that when there were only two remaining members they would open a bottle of 1896 Cognac, the year that Doolittle was born, and drink to all the other Raiders. Colonel Watson died in September 1991. On Veterans Day 2013, with three of the four remaining survivors in attendance, it was decided to open the bottle of Cognac and drink the final salute to the Doolittle Raiders.

Submitted by George H. Kabel ’70