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The Incredible True Story Behind “Midway”: An Audacious American WWII Raid and the Price China Paid

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Jimmy Doolittle was in the shit. The American pilot had just led an audacious raid over Tokyo and, with no place to land, parachuted along with his crew out of their crashing B-25 bomber. Now, Doolittle was up to his waist in human waste, having landed in a paddy full of fresh night soil in Lin’an County, in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang.

The plan, part of a US military effort to reclaim some momentum following the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been to launch bombers from the deck of US carrier and strike select targets near Tokyo and Osaka. The challenge was how to hit the targets without surrendering the element of surprise. Carrier-based bombers had limited range and would require the US carriers to travel too close for safety to the Japanese coast. The solution was to use land-based bombers launched from the deck of a carrier who would remain outside of the Japanese main defensive perimeter. With skilled pilots, the B-25s could take off from the deck of a ship, but there was no way for them to land back on the carrier safely. The only option: keep going and attempt to land in China.

Unfortunately, nobody told the Chinese about the plan. And it was heroic people on the ground in China, at considerable risk to themselves and their families, who would make it possible for Doolittle and most of the other raiders to make it home safely.

A still from Midway, which tells the story of US pilots in China during WWII

A Daring Raid

On April 18, 1942, Doolittle and 80 other specially-trained crewmen took off in sixteen bombers from the deck of the USS Hornet. The raid began earlier than expected after a Japanese patrol had spotted and reported the USS Hornet and its escorting vessels. Still a few hundred miles from their optimal take-off point, the bombers took to the skies and headed west toward Japan.

With only sixteen planes, the raid itself did little actual damage. Flying low over Japanese cities, the bomb crews destroyed some military targets but also hit hospitals, schools, and residential buildings. Bombers killed 50 people and injured about 400 others. The real impact was psychological. Japanese state propaganda had promised the enemy could never reach the Japanese homeland: the islands were sacred land protected both by Divine forces and, if those failed, the might of the Japanese military. So convinced were the Japanese people, that many on the ground greeted the first planes of Doolittle’s Raiders with waves and cheers assuming they were Japanese planes.

In the aftermath of the raid, Japanese authorities played down the impact of the attack, often having fun with their adversary’s name (“It should be Do-Nothing”), while playing up civilian casualties. Internally, however, the raids shook the Japanese military establishment who sought answers for how these planes could even reach Japan and, more importantly, how 16 American bombers could target Japanese cities and then disappear. Not a single plane had been shot down. It was an epic embarrassment for those units charged with defending the home islands.

Midway to Nowhere

For Doolittle and his raiders, however, bombing Japanese targets was just the beginning. The American planes had been modified to extend their flight range, but it became clear as they dropped their ordinance on the cities below that it would be difficult to reach the Chinese coast before they ran out of fuel. Once they got to China, it would be imperative to find a place to land outside of the zones controlled by the Japanese military.

Part of the plan called for US officials to prepare landing sites in South China for the arrival of the planes. US agents would work with local Chinese forces to prepare aviation fuel at airstrips for the aircraft to land, refuel, and then head to safety in Chongqing and Free China. At the same time, the US military was adamant they could not inform anyone in the Chinese government about the nature of the mission. General Joseph Stilwell, US liaison in Chongqing, did not trust Chiang Kai-shek or his staff to not leak the information to the enemy. The US military also had misgivings about Claire Chennault, the leader of the famous Flying Tigers. Chennault, with his extensive network of aviation contacts, could have been invaluable in guiding the bombers to safety.

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Still, the need for secrecy meant that only a handful of people were trusted to prepare for the arrival of Doolittle and the other raiders, and those people failed in their mission. The landing strips had no idea the planes were coming and no beacons or lights were set. Fifteen planes arrived in China without a place to land (one of the bomber crews, fearing that they couldn’t make the China coast, diverted against orders to land in the USSR).

And so in just 12 hours, Doolittle had gone from dodging anti-aircraft fire over Tokyo to wallowing in a pool of human waste without really knowing where he was or who might find him. Encountering a Japanese patrol would mean capture, interrogation, or worse.

Foreigners Who Fell From the Sky

On the morning of April 19, 1942, Zhejiang schoolteacher Zhu Xuesan was making breakfast when his neighbors burst through his door to tell him that “two big-nosed and blue-eyed foreigners had fallen from the sky.” The villagers weren’t sure where they were from but knew that Zhu, as a teacher, could speak some English. Zhu rushed to a local temple where he found Doolittle and Paul Leonard, Doolittle’s flight engineer and gunner.

Zhu’s arrival defused a tense situation — village militias were considering the wisdom of shooting the two foreign interlopers — and translated that Doolittle and his men had been involved in a bombing raid against Tokyo. Now welcome in the village as heroes, Doolittle and Leonard sat down for a breakfast of eggs cooked for them by Zhu’s mother.

Kenny Leu as Zhu Xuesan in Midway

Taiwanese-American actor Kenny Leu plays Zhu Xuesan in the big-budget Hollywood film Midway, which opens this weekend.

“Zhu Xuesan is the only Chinese character in Midway,” says Leu. “His story sets him up to be the perfect symbol of the heroism and sacrifice of the Chinese people. Zhu was a poor school teacher that placed himself in harm’s way to help Doolittle; the Chinese people didn’t have much but went out of their way to aid the Allies.”

All around the area, similar acts of heroism saved the downed American crews. Bomber Number 7, piloted by Ted Lawson, crashed in the surf near Sanmen Bay in Zhejiang. Lawson was severely injured with massive face lacerations and a badly wounded leg, which would eventually be amputated. Lawson’s navigator Charles McClure broke both his arms. The two were saved by their gunner David Thatcher who carried the wounded men to the beach. On the beach, they encountered two local fishermen staring at them.

Thatcher asked, “Should I shoot them?”

“Hell, no,” answered McClure. “They’re Chinese fishermen.”

“How do you know?”

“Well,” said McClure, “I’ve read the National Geographic.”*

Using phrases taught to the airmen by Naval Intelligence, the crash survivors communicated they were American, and the two Chinese fishermen began carrying the injured crews to safety. It was an unbelievable act of bravery and selflessness, even more so because McClure was nearly twice the size of his rescuer.

Risky Rescues

A short distance away, on Tantaoshan Island, newlyweds Ma Liangshui and Zhao Xiaobao heard a noise in their pigsty and sheep pen. Ma went out to investigate and found Donald Smith, Griffith Williams and the rest of the crew from Bomber 15 huddled among the animals. The couple invited the flyers into their house, where Ma’s parents boiled eggs and heated rice and tea. Their kindness almost cost them their lives when Japanese patrols, now alerted to the presence of downed enemy pilots, searched the village while Ma hid his guests inside a wall of his home. Later, Ma would dress the Americans in old fishermen clothes and smuggle them to the mainland, where they would join Lawson and the crew of Bomber 7.

Ted Lawson’s injuries were life-threatening, and he would have died before reaching safety if not for the help of Dr. Chen Shenyan. Dr. Chen and his father ran a hospital in Linghai, Zhejiang. With the help of local Chinese militias and resistance fighters, Dr. Chen managed to get Lawson to his hospital, where he and Thomas White, an army surgeon and designated medical officer of the Doolittle mission, amputated Lawson’s left leg and saved his life. Lawson would later recount his ordeal in the book — and movie — 30 Seconds over Tokyo.

Despite losing all 16 bombers, almost all of the 80 Doolittle Raiders survived their mission. Three died during the crash landings or in failed attempts to bail out of their planes. Eight were captured by the Japanese, of whom four survived the war, three were executed, and one died of disease during his captivity. The crew of the plane that landed in the USSR was held as prisoners by the Soviet army until the Americans managed an escape to Iran in early 1943.

China Pays the Price

This remarkable survival rate was only possible with the help and sacrifice of Chinese citizens who found the downed Americans and helped them to reach the safety of Chongqing. The Chinese would also be the ones to pay dearly for the Americans’ audacious assault on Japan. In the weeks and months following the Doolittle Raid, humiliated Japanese military officials sought revenge for the raid. When Japan’s plan to crush the US carrier fleet at Midway failed in June 1942, Japanese authorities turned their wrath on China.

The Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign in the Summer of 1942 claimed the lives of over 250,000 Chinese civilians. What began as a search for any of the airmen still hiding in Eastern China metastasized into a campaign of terror. Japanese troops burned towns and villages, slaughtered families, used sexual assault as a tool of terror, and even deployed germ warfare. In one instance, Japanese “aid workers” handed out 3,000 rolls of bread laced with typhoid to starving citizens hoping to infect and depopulate entire areas.

US military officials had considered the possibility of Japanese reprisals against Chinese civilian populations when they planned to use China as a landing zone for bombers. It was one of the reasons why US officials kept Chinese government officials, including Chiang Kai-shek, in the dark about the raid. Ultimately, American planners decided to proceed. The Doolittle Raid gave America a much-needed morale boost in the early years of the war, but it was China who paid the cost in blood.

“As I dove deeper into my preparation for the role as Zhu Xuesan,” says actor Leu, “I became filled with the desire to tell Zhu’s story accurately. I am thankful that Midway was never intended as a feel-good Hollywood blockbuster; it realistically depicts the Americans, the Japanese, and the Chinese, as simply brave souls fighting for the futures of their countries. It shows tremendous discipline in honoring all of the people involved, no matter their point of view. Because of this, its size and quality of filmmaking, Midway became an incredible opportunity for me to set the record straight. Zhu couldn’t fight, like the under-equipped and under-trained Chinese army of the time. Zhu eventually paid a large price for lending his help, just like tens of thousands of Chinese people who were slaughtered in retaliation.

“I found that Zhu’s story was the Chinese people’s story, so I researched and researched and researched, to get every detail right. I was so moved that even after filming, I will continue to share Zhu’s story because I want people to know and understand.”

The story of the Doolittle Raid continues to inspire and amaze nearly 80 years after Jimmy Doolittle and 79 other American airmen risked their lives to take the fight to the Japanese in the harrowing months following Pearl Harbor. Kenny Leu wants to be sure that the sacrifice made by the Chinese heroes who rescued Doolittle and his men is remembered as well.

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*Conversation recorded in the excellent (and highly recommended) book by James M. Scott, Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor

Jeremiah Jenne
    Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.