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Improvise, adapt, overcome

  • Published
  • By Col. David Been
  • 379th Expeditionary Operations Group commander
We recently eclipsed an important anniversary not only in the U.S. Air Force, but in the great heritage of joint operations.

Sixty-eight years ago, then-Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, avenged the Japanese attack on the U.S. by leading 16 B-25s off the deck of a carrier and on to his famous raid against Japan.

The odds were stacked against that joint team from the start.

Colonel Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor for the audacious operation and set an example for all warriors, challenging them to set out and achieve feats that others would call impossible.

One of Clint Eastwood's most memorable movie characters, Gunny Highway, compelled his Marines to "improvise, adapt and overcome." I believe "Doolittle's Raiders" personified that phrase to pull off that mission. I know that mission focus continues today in the units here on base.

At first glance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's orders to lead a massive bomber formation over the Japanese homeland seemed impossible to Colonel Doolittle. The U.S. Army Air Forces didn't have a base close enough from which to launch bombers, and the U.S. Navy didn't have long-range strike aircraft capable of such a tasking.

The mission had to continue, so Colonel Doolittle knew he had to improvise.

He took the smallest USAAF bomber, traded extra fuel tanks for most of their defensive machine guns, and trained his crews to launch their bombers from 500 feet of runway - the exact distance needed to take off from an aircraft carrier.

The United States now had a way to carry out President Roosevelt's mission.
Colonel Doolittle loaded the B-25s onto the carrier, the USS Hornet, and steamed west for Japan.

The bombers would have to launch off the Hornet from within 400 miles of Japan to strike Tokyo and other cities then land at friendly bases in China. But the carrier was spotted by Japanese lookout ships and Doolittle was forced to "adapt" his plan.

He decided to launch the bombers early; more than 600 miles from Japan.

All aircraft launched successfully and each made it to their assigned targets, despite navigating over open sea over the extra 200 miles (without GPS!), enemy fighters and stiff headwinds.

In launching 200 miles early, Doolittle's Raiders knew they couldn't make it to their planned landing bases in China. The bombers ran out of gas and the crews were forced to bailout, crash-land or ditch in the ocean off China's coast.

With Chinese assistance, most of the crews made it back to America, although seven men died in the ordeal.

Doolittle's men had done what they had to do to overcome - overpowering adversity every step of the way on this almost impossible tasking. The important lesson for us today is that they did what they had to do to get the mission done.

We must ensure that the legacy of "Doolittle's Raiders" lives on here in this deployed environment. We must continue that fervent desire to "improvise, adapt and overcome" to get the mission done for America, as we join our Coalition partners to defend our freedoms.