Crew No. 10: 89th Reconnaissance Squadron, Lt. Richard O. Joyce, pilot; Lt. J. Royden Stork, copilot; Lt. Horace E. Crouch, navigator/bombardier; Sgt. George E. Larkin Jr., flight engineer; SSgt. Edwin W. Horton Jr., gunner.
Today has been a hard one for those of us who follow history: First thing this morning, I learned that Alex Vraciu, America’s highest-scoring surviving ace, had died. Then, several hours later, a press release lit up my screen letting me know that Lt. Col. Edward Saylor had died, and the number of surviving Doolittle Raiders was reduced to three of the 80 men involved in the raid. History is slipping away from us at an alarming rate. And, of all the things over which we have control, life itself isn’t one of them. No one outlives their time.
I had never met either man. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to have known and been friends with dozens and dozens of World War II combat aircrewmen. Some had profound effects on my life—especially in my love for flight and history. Seeing that we had lost another Raider, however, reminded me again of how all of us slip through life never knowing for sure with whom we’re rubbing shoulders or what opportunities we’ve missed.
I was born and raised in a small Nebraska town about 25 miles west of the “big city” of Lincoln, state capital and where our family went for the rare pizza dinner. That was a big deal for us. It was also the focus for much of Nebraska’s business and the source for things we just couldn’t get at home.
My father owned and operated what was basically a traditional general store on steroids. He had built his business on being able to supply farmers and townsfolk with anything they needed, and most of his advertising was in the form of sometimes-bizarre promotions. In supplying farmers, he was tangentially attached to the hardware business, so he had a good relationship with what was probably the biggest hardware supply operation in the state, Henkel And Joyce Hardware. It was, if I remember correctly, located on “Q” street, or somewhere close, in Lincoln.
I clearly remember dad’s trips to that part of “the city.” In my mind’s eye, it was semi-industrial with a lot of red brick buildings. More important, when you walked in the door of Henkel And Joyce, you were hit with a wonderful blizzard of hardware varieties. I was a nuts-and-bolts kid almost from birth, so hardware stores held a particular fascination for me as soon as I was able to walk. In fact, one of my earliest presents from my dad was a box of various-sized nuts, bolts and pipe fittings that I spent hours screwing and unscrewing. Sort of a rural version of Legos, I guess.
Invariably, when we’d make a big-city hardware run, dad would be greeted by one of the owners, usually Mr. Joyce. He’d smile and shake my hand and, as I came into my teenage years, he asked me what I was building.
I can’t say I knew Mr. Richard O. Joyce well. He was just one of the adults who floated through my youth. I suppose I was probably 16 or 17 the last time I saw him, and the fact that I was learning to fly came up. He obliquely mentioned that he flew, and that was the extent of our conversations.
I didn’t know until my mother forwarded me his obituary in 1983, that yes, he flew. He definitely flew! He was on the airport board in Lincoln, but far more important to me, he had been at the controls of a B-25, airplane No. 10, as it thundered off the deck of the carrier Hornet into an overcast sky on the way to Tokyo, April 18, 1942. He had been a Doolittle Raider.
As I read that obituary, I felt a mixture of emotions well up. First, I was proud that I had shaken the hand of a Raider. Then I was profoundly sad that I hadn’t known his history at the time. The opportunities that I had missed overwhelmed me. What had been just another person in my past now loomed as someone who could have contributed so much to my knowledge of a time I was too young to remember. If only I had known.
In those days, the early ’50s, veterans were everywhere you looked. Even my tiny hometown had lots of aviators, and I’m certain I didn’t know them all. The ones who tolerated me covered the gamut from flying Mustangs as part of the first group to take the P-51 into combat (354th Fighter Group) to flying Corsairs and SBDs in the Pacific to A-20 Havocs in the ETO. But, no one made a big deal out of it. In fact, the war was almost never discussed. I remember my barber casually mentioning that when WWII started, he was 14 and figured it would be over before he was old enough to join. Only a few years later, he was in a foxhole during the Battle of the Bulge. WWII was a part of everyone’s past. It was done. We had won. Now it was time to get on with life.
As it turns out, Joyce wasn’t actually scheduled to continue to Tokyo. His original mission had been to take off from the Hornet as soon as it left California to verify that a B-25 could actually get off the deck safely. He was to return to land. That mission was scrubbed, but he wanted to continue on, so he and his crew were assigned Tokyo’s Special Steel Company as their primary target, which they apparently hit dead center.
The actual damage the Raiders inflicted was minor compared to the psychological damage they had done to an enemy that previously considered itself invincible. The damage also didn’t compare to the huge wave of national pride and confidence the mission inspired in a nation that had been in the dumps since Pearl Harbor, barely four months earlier.
Oddly enough, in later years, and too late to do anything about it, I found that there were two other Raiders in Lincoln. Fred Braemer had been Doolittle’s bombardier and Donald Fitzmaurice was a 23 year-old flight engineer on Plane 6. Unfortunately, he had been killed on bailout.
I don’t know that, had I known Joyce had been a Raider, we’d have become friends. But, I would like to think we would have. I type-rated in the B-25 long before we lost him, so we would have had at least that in common.
We just never know who’s standing next to us, so it behooves us to strike up a conversation. Anyone who carries the mantles of both veteran and age have a story worth listening to and remembering.
I saw the last two surviving Civil War vets on one of the first Johnny Carson shows in the very early ’60s. Now, I may live long enough to see the last WWII vet interviewed. That’s so indescribably sad that I don’t have the words to explain the emotion.