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Doolittle Raider in league of his own

Northwest Guardian

Published: 03:03PM May 16th, 2013
Doolittle Raider in league of his own

Airman 1st Class Jacob Jimenez

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Saylor, 93, receives a U.S. flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. from Rep. Dave Reichert.

Ed Saylor is in a league of his own that was once 80 Army Airmen strong.

Now, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel is one of only four remaining Doolittle Raiders crew members, those responsible for the first American strike against Japan after Pearl Harbor.

Saylor, 93, returned to McChord Field Monday where his then-Army Air Corps career began in 1940 to receive the personal gratitude of U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, himself an Air Force veteran. Both are local and national heroes, but for very different reasons. One is grateful to be alive; the other is just grateful.

A one-way trip

Saylor joked about why he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939: a newspaper advertisement promoting a monthly salary of more than $70 — good wages for a country still in the Great Depression. He realized after enlisting he hadn’t read the fine print — his pay was only $21 per month.

He worked and studied aircraft maintenance well enough to increase his salary and was promoted to corporal, named crew chief in the 17th Bombardment Group and rapidly became a sergeant. Saylor was soon making more than $70 a month.

Then, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle presented an opportunity for a secret mission. The Airmen didn’t know where, how or why they were going, but it was clear they were involved in something new. They sharpened their launch skills at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. on a field painted like the deck of an aircraft carrier. Launching bombers from a carrier had never been done before.

Saylor said he wasn’t aware until he was sailing toward the Japanese coast before the April 18, 1942 attack, that once the stripped down B-25 bombers left the deck of the carrier, they weren’t expected to return.

With just enough fuel to carry their one-ton bombs to their Japanese targets, the Doolittle Raiders would have to ditch their planes in the ocean or attempt a crash landing — and hope for survival.

“We didn’t fret. We just did what we had to do,” Saylor said. “We didn’t know it was a one-way trip.”

Staying alive

The crew of Saylor’s plane, the “TNT,” successfully dropped its bombs, but the B-25 began to sputter and run out of fuel. The pilot spotted an island and headed for it, landing the plane in the China Sea. But this presented another problem — Saylor couldn’t swim.

His crew mates helped him to safety, dragging a half-inflated raft to land, and Chinese fishermen helped them escape the island onto mainland China. Then they walked.

Saylor told the Washington Times that his crew met an orphaned Chinese teenager who spoke basic English. The boy’s entire family had been killed in the bombing of Shanghai, and he became the crew’s guide and food scavenger. They spent three weeks dodging Chinese Army fire along the coast and escaping other close calls with enemy troops. He managed to finally get far enough inland to message the U.S. military for an attempted rescue.

When the plane arrived to pick them up, the Chinese boy was told he couldn’t go.

“The crew said no civilians. I was going to take him home ... take care of him,” Saylor said. “But I left him standing on the runway. I’ll never forget him.”

Saylor tried to find the boy after the war was over, but was never able to track him down.

The connections

Reichert’s gratitude for Saylor’s service was evident as the congressman listened to his experiences. The men have many connections.

Both served in the Air Force, worked as mechanics, were stationed at McChord Field and now reside in Western Washington. Although 40 years apart, they underwent military training at Chanute Field, Ill.

The two formed a bond in recent months; Reichert never misses an opportunity to thank Saylor for his service.

“We need to continue to remember his sacrifice,” Reichert said. “The Doolittle Raiders knew they weren’t going to be turning around and going back to the carrier, and the mission sent a signal that we weren’t going to take (Pearl Harbor) lying down.”

The former sheriff of King County, famous for identifying and arresting the Green River Killer in 2001, presented Saylor a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol, a congressional coin and a certificate of appreciation.

“He’s a hero to me,” Reichert said.