POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 2, 2014
ENUMCLAW, Wash. » At age 93, Edward J. Saylor still works in his shop behind the house, making stained-glass art and retreating to a cozy armchair for some afternoon TV when the weather turns cold. He lives, he says, quietly in a quiet spot, among the pastures and fields of this community 40 miles south of Seattle.
But ask him about "the raid," and all those pieces of a seemingly ordinary life fall away. A chapter of World War II, it turns out, is hiding in plain sight here in Enumclaw, part of a living history that is rapidly fading away.
In April 1942, just a few grim months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Saylor, then a sergeant in the Army Air Forces, climbed aboard a B-25 bomber with four crew mates and helped open a new era in the war. The Doolittle Raiders, as they became known - 80 men in 16 bombers led by a swashbuckling lieutenant colonel, James H. Doolittle - launched themselves over the Pacific from the aircraft carrier Hornet, aiming to strike at Japan when few thought it could be done, at least with any hope of survival.
Saylor is one of only four Doolittle Raiders left. Across the nation, an average of 413 American World War II veterans a day died last year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, leaving about 1.1 million survivors - down by more than 40 percent since 2010. After many years of getting together annually to toast their raid, the last of the Doolittle men met in November for what they said was their final reunion.
"We just did what we had to do," Saylor said, sitting on his couch and speaking with the self-effacing humility not uncommon among service members steeled in combat. "It was a job."
Doolittle, who would later receive the Medal of Honor, was 45 at the time, but most of the men were in their 20s. They were sons of farmers, teachers and mechanics, and although their bombing run did little damage, it hinted at Japanese vulnerability and kindled hope for Americans in their dark early days of World War II, historians say.
The 1944 movie "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" captured the seat-of-the-pants brio of fliers and their mission. It showed the improvisations, the crash landings, the weeks spent in hiding in China after the raid, as Japanese soldiers searched the countryside.
"There were a lot of close calls," Saylor said.
He was a 22-year-old engineer-gunner in April 1942, when the raiders were ordered to fly much earlier than expected, hundreds of miles farther from Japan than planned. It seemed all but certain that they would run out of gas before reaching a safe place to land in China after the bombs were dropped.
As their plane bore down on the industrial waterfront at Kobe, their target, someone cracked open a bottle of whiskey to bolster their nerves, Saylor recalled. "Not enough to intoxicate," he said. "But it calmed us."
He and his crew had to ditch their B-25 off the Chinese coast after it ran out of gas a mile from a little island controlled by the Japanese. After reaching shore, on a life raft that had been partly punctured by their sinking plane, they found that their only Chinese phrase, "We're Americans," had been taught to them in the wrong dialect. A fisherman saved them, hiding them under mats on his boat, and a 14-year-old orphan became their guide and scrounger of food in the subsequent weeks as they evaded Japanese patrols on the mainland. The boy disappeared in the chaos of the war without a trace, Saylor said.
"I was going to bring him home with me," he said. "We owed him."
After the airmen made it to a safe area controlled by the Chinese military, they were reunited with some other crews from the raid. Saylor's wife learned he was alive from watching a newsreel about the raiders that included scenes of him receiving a medal from Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the wife of the Chinese leader.
Until their mission, no big land-based bomber had ever taken off into combat from an aircraft carrier. Much of their training, led by Doolittle (later a lieutenant general), who also piloted the lead plane off the deck, was conducted on a tiny practice airstrip in Florida.
Saylor also had been forced to disassemble and rebuild one of his plane's engines only days before on the pitching deck of the Hornet after he found trouble with the gear system. He had never rebuilt an aircraft engine before, and to his knowledge, no one had ever tried it on a flight deck, where every nut and bolt had to be carried into the plane's body as he worked, to prevent parts from rolling into the ocean. He keeps a gear arm of the type that broke as a memento.
"I didn't have any parts left when I was done, but I wasn't sure all the parts were in the right place," Saylor said.
Making do and hoping for the best defined everything about the raid, said Col. Mark K. Wells, a professor of history at the Air Force Academy. Unlike the specialized elite teams that are typically honed for dangerous, high-profile missions in today's military, Doolittle's fliers were mostly enlisted men and officers with ordinary training who had raised their hands at a time of national crisis and volunteered to go.
"It was a different time," Wells said. "None of these guys had any huge and significant selection process or training. They were just sort of the normal pilots."
Saylor was born on a Montana cattle ranch and enlisted before the war - partly, he said, to get away from cows. After serving 28 years in the Air Force, he retired in 1967 as a lieutenant colonel. He worked in real estate after that, and tooled around the country in a motor home with his wife of 69 years, Lorraine, who died two and a half years ago.
The Raiders' had their final reunion in November at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. Three of the four remaining survivors were able to attend, including Saylor. They uncorked a prized bottle of cognac from 1896 - the year of Doolittle's birth - and lifted a final toast. Their numbers had dwindled, and the appeal of brandy, however fine, had faded as well, Saylor said.
"None of us care to drink strong drink anymore," he said, his flannel shirt buttoned to the top, his sentences crisp and complete in the manner of the career military man he was.
Saylor described the raid as just one chapter in his long life, not its climax. "I didn't dwell on it," he said.
But he did express a certain pride through his art. Hanging against the window above his head, a stained-glass image of an American B-25 bomber, set against a Japanese flag, caught the light of a late winter afternoon.