Bill Bower, last surviving bomber pilot of WWII Doolittle Raid, dies at 93

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 10:30 PM

Bill Bower, 93, the last surviving bomber pilot of the audacious Doolittle Raid, a morale-boosting strike against the Japanese months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, died Jan. 10 at his home in Boulder, Colo.

He died of complications from a fall that occurred in July 2009, said his son Jim.

As a 25-year-old first lieutenant, Col. Bower commanded one of the 16 Army Air Forces' B-25s in the top-secret mission under the direction of then-Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle. Col. Bower and the 79 other men who participated in the bombing run came to be known as the Doolittle Raiders.

Their story began April 18, 1942. That morning, Col. Bower's twin engine B-25 took off from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier loaded with four 500-pound bombs, three extra fuel tanks and five parachutes.

Leaving the Hornet culminated months of planning on behalf of the military, which had sought to retaliate against the Japanese for the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack.

But returning to the ship was not an option; the deck was too small for the massive bombers to land on. The mission was planned as a one-way trip, and there was no turning back.

After skimming the waves during the 600-mile flight to Japan, Col. Bower directed his plane toward Yokohama and was stunned by the island's natural beauty.

"I had the impression that, my gosh, what peaceful, pretty countryside that was," Col. Bower later said. "What do they want war with us for?"

When Col. Bower arrived over his target in Yokohama, about 25 miles south of Tokyo, he encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire. His crew dropped the plane's 2,000 pounds of ordnance on Yokohama's dockyards and an oil refinery.

Col. Bower then throttled on toward China, where the Americans had tentatively planned to land and regroup in Chuchow, 200 miles south of Shanghai.

But plans changed. The planes encountered strong headwinds and stormy weather that burned fuel.

By 11 that night, one of Col. Bower's engines died before his plane had reached Chuchow.

Col. Bower pulled the aircraft to 10,000 feet and ordered each of his men to jump out in intervals.

When everyone else had parachuted into the dark air below, Col. Bower approached the plane's escape hatch. The second engine died.

As he prepared to jump, he checked his pockets for his compass, his father's World War I-issue .45-caliber sidearm and, most important, two packs of Lucky Strikes and matches. Then he said goodbye to his bomber, which Col. Bower had dubbed the Werewolf, his son said.

"I patted the old boat, and out the hatch," Col. Bower wrote in a war journal. "Whish, bang, and gently down to Earth I came."

When he touched down, he wrapped himself in his parachute and slept till daylight. The next morning, he hiked for several hours until Chinese villagers took him in and fed him.

He later met up with more Doolittle Raiders who had parachuted to safety and began to make his way home, flying mainly on commercial airliners.

Although the bombing run had resulted in minimal damage, the Doolittle Raiders returned to the United States as heroes, hailed as having delivered a symbolic blow to the Axis powers early in the war.

For his integral role, Col. Bower received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"It was our mission to do it," he later said of the raid. "We were to show the world it could be done. And we did."

William Marsh Bower was born Feb. 13, 1917, in Ravenna, Ohio. His interest in flight was sparked after his first trip in an airplane at age 10 with a barnstormer.

He attended Hiram College and Kent State University, both in Ohio, and served in the Ohio National Guard from 1934 to 1938. He received his pilot's wings in 1940. In 1942, he married the former Lorraine Amman. She died in 2004.

After the Doolittle Raid, Col. Bower flew missions in England, North Africa and Italy. He became an officer in the Air Force when it was formed in 1947. He served as the commander for an Air Force Arctic supply unit and later commanded Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga. He retired from the military in 1966.

In Boulder, Col. Bower became an expert fly fisherman and elk hunter, his family said. He attended many Doolittle Raider reunions that honored the surviving members and saluted those who had died.

Thirteen of the 16 American planes had been abandoned in midair, and three crash-landed.

One man died bailing out of his plane, and two drowned. Three were executed by the Japanese. One man died of disease as a prisoner. Twelve raiders later were killed in combat during World War II.

With Col. Bower's death, his son said, only five Doolittle Raiders remain.

In addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross, Col. Bower also received the Bronze Star Medal and two Air Medals.

On one occasion, Col. Bower returned home and saw that his children had found his medals. They were playing with them and had slightly damaged some of the awards.

"At first I was angry with them, but then I realized something: That's all the medals are - just things for little kids to play with," Col. Bower told the Rocky Mountain News in 2004.

"Why be known for the medals," he continued, "when you can be known for the kids?"

Survivors include four children, Jim Bower of Arvada, Colo., Bill Bower of Chapman, Kan., Mary Brannaman of Sheridan, Wyo., and Mindy Bower of Kiowa, Colo.; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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