RED WING, MINN. -- The first time Griffith Williams and Zhao Xiaobao met he was lying in the pigpen behind her house trying to hide. First a lantern, then a face and then several people, including Zhao, came around the corner of the house, frightened and curious to learn what literally had dropped in on them from the sky.
It was the night of April 18, 1942, and since then Zhao and Williams have been indelibly linked in history. She was 19, the wife of a fisherman who lived on an island off the China coast. He was 21, an Army pilot from San Diego, and a few hours earlier he and his crew had dropped bombs on Japan.
It was one of the great adventures of World War II -- the "Doo- little Raid," named after its leader, Gen. James H. Doolittle. Sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet, flew 600 miles to drop bombs on Tokyo and four other Japanese cities and then headed for China. Low on fuel and caught in bad weather, most of the crews bailed out of their planes over the mountains of Zhejiang Province. A few, including bomber No. 15 on which Williams was the co-pilot, came down along the coast.
For 50 years, the men who flew on the Doolittle Raid have not seen the Chinese people who, like Zhao, fed and sheltered them and helped them escape through Japanese-occupied China to safety. But on Friday, in the St. James Hotel here, eight of the surviving airmen were reunited with five of the Chinese rescuers.
Each airman told a little bit about the day they bombed Japan, before the Chinese to whom he is linked was ushered into the room. The physical reunions were slightly awkward, suspended somewhere between the American instinct for a bear hug and Chinese formality. Williams and Edward Saylor, the engineer-gunner of bomber No. 15, clasped Zhao's hands, smiled broadly and nodded. She smiled and nodded back.
The reunion was put together by Bryan Moon, 64, a retired Northwest Airlines executive who lives near this picturesque town on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. In 1990, the British-born Moon, an artist and self-described adventurer, went to China in search of some of the missing Doolittle bombers. He found remains from three and met several of the Chinese rescuers. From that, the idea of a 50th anniversary reunion was born.
Each of the rescuers told his or her story through an interpreter. Chen Shenyan, 83, a physician, recalled how he had helped amputate the leg of the pilot of bomber No. 7, which crashed along the coast not far from where Williams and his crew came down. The pilot was Ted Lawson, who later wrote a book, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," an account of the raid that was made into a movie with Spencer Tracy as Doolittle and Van Johnson as Lawson.
Zeng Jianpei, 81, a postal inspector, remembered how one of the crew from bomber No. 11 asked for a beer, a scarce commodity in the mountains of China at the time. "I did manage to get some beer for the airman," he said proudly.
Zhu Xuesan was an 18-year-old primary school teacher when he encountered some of the men from Doolittle's bomber No. 1. He spoke some English. "Hi, how do you do?" Zhu recalled saying. "I saw their faces relax." Years later, during China's Cultural Revolution, Zhu was imprisoned because of his association with foreigners.
Over the years, the Doolittle Raiders have been reunited frequently. About a dozen of them held the first reunion in 1943 in North Africa, where they were flying missions against Nazi Germany. "We drank a lot," Williams recalled.
They are men mostly in their early to mid-seventies now, proud but taciturn and quick to say that others did at least as much and suffered more during the war. All Williams was told about the mission was that it involved "a long flight with some hazard against the enemy. They didn't tell us which enemy."
Why did he volunteer? "I guess because I was 21 years old," he said with a laugh. Recalling what it was like sitting in his aircraft waiting to leave the Hornet, the word Williams uses to describe his emotions is "apprehensive," nothing more.
As a military operation, it did not amount to much. But the Doolittle Raid was never meant to strike a heavy military blow against Japan. That could not be done with 16 planes.
Its real objective was psychological, and it succeeded brilliantly. What they did was astounding, lifting their heavy Mitchell bombers off the pitching deck of a ship in the North Pacific, guiding them at just a few hundred feet above the water to their targets and then fleeing for the China coast before the Japanese could down even one of them. Even half a century later, it is not difficult to understand the electric effect this had for a country still reeling from the devastating blow the Japanese had struck at Pearl Harbor just four months earlier.
"You'd think we won the war single-handed," Saylor said of the homecoming.
But the war went on for more than another three bloody years. The Doolittle Raiders were dispersed to other units to fight in other battles. In 1943, Williams was shot down over Sicily. He spent the last two years of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Germany.
The first half of the 1990s will be filled with 50th anniversary observances of the war such as the one held here. For the Doolittle Raiders, the next reunion will come next month in South Carolina, where the members of the 17th Bombardment Group were asked to volunteer for an undescribed mission. Eighty men were aboard the 16 aircraft that left the Hornet's deck. There are still 42 alive, including Doolittle, 95, who lives near Pebble Beach, Calif. But time is rushing by these men, accelerating with each passing year. The most recent to die, in January, was Lawson, the author.
"We're going fast," Williams said.
That is one of the reasons he and the others made the journey here, for probably the only chance to meet again the Chinese who rescued them. It was left to the oldest in the group to best express how they are linked. His name is Liu Fangchiao, an 85-year-old farmer who wore a knit hat and smiled a toothless smile.
In 1942 he sheltered and guided to safety two crew members from B-25 bomber No. 3. The only survivor of that crew, navigator Charles J. Ozuk Jr., was too ill to attend the reunion and was represented by his daughter. Before the ceremony, Liu told Moon how he still thought of the American he had helped 50 years ago.
"He is like the thumb on the hand," he said, "and I am like the finger on the hand and we are brothers together."