Yet, amid all the heartfelt celebration of Cole’s heroic participation in the lightning raid, something was forgotten: the importance and suffering of a U.S. ally, China, under the government of Chiang Kai-shek.
In April 1942, the best troops of Chiang’s Nationalist Army were in Burma, under the command of Gen. Joseph Stilwell. They were fighting and losing ground. About a week before the Doolittle Raid took place, U.S. liaison officers informed Chiang of the plan to bomb Japan and then land the 16 B-25B Mitchell medium bombers in China afterward. Chiang was aghast. With his best troops in Burma, Chiang feared that a successful attack would spur Japan to take vengeance on China. Chiang pleaded to delay the attack until the conclusion of the Burma campaign, but the Americans would not wait. To appease the generalissimo, they promised that China could keep the bombers once they landed in China.
Following the attack on installations in Japan, one plane landed in the Soviet Union. The rest went down over China or along its coast. In all, Chinese soldiers, guerrillas and civilians saved more than 60 of the 80 Raiders.
The Doolittle Raid was a smashing success — for U.S. self-esteem. It led the papers from coast to coast. President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded James H. Doolittle, the aviator who led the mission, the Medal of Honor. The raid was the inspiration for at least three flag-waving films.
But America’s ally reaped the Japanese whirlwind. Following the raid, Japan launched its largest and most sustained offensive in China since 1939, attacking cites, towns and villages along China’s east coast. The Nationalist Army fought back in a desperate attempt to protect civilians and defend the air bases that had been used so successfully by the U.S.-led Flying Tigers. The Japanese ended up killing 30,000 Chinese troops and an estimated 250,000 civilians.
On June 11, 1942, Japanese forces marched into Nancheng, a walled city of 50,000 where several of the Doolittle Raiders had been sheltered, and began a reign of terror that U.S. missionaries would later call “the rape of Nancheng,” similar in its horror to the 1937-1938 “rape of Nanking.”
“For one month the Japanese remained in Nancheng, roaming the rubble-filled streets in loin clothes much of the time, drunk a good part of the time and always on the lookout for women,” wrote a missionary, the Rev. Frederick McGuire. “The women and children who did not escape from Nancheng will long remember the Japanese — the women and girls because they were raped time after time by Japan’s imperial troops and are now ravaged by venereal disease, the children because they mourn their fathers who were slain in cold blood for the sake of the ‘new order’ in East Asia.”
In July, Japanese troops burned the city to the ground.
Keepsakes given to the Chinese by Doolittle’s men became evidence for the Japanese. “Little did the Doolittle men realize,” wrote the Rev. Charles Meeus, “that those same little gifts which they gave their rescuers in grateful acknowledgement of their hospitality — parachutes, gloves, nickels, dimes, cigarette packages — would, a few weeks later, become the telltale evidence of their presence and lead to the torture and death of their friends!”
Chiang took the operation as proof that the United States did not value its allies or their sacrifices — a complaint that resonates today.
“The Japanese slaughtered every man, woman and child in these areas,” Chiang wrote to Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army’s chief of staff. Nor did Chiang’s air force ever get any of the promised bombers. They were damaged beyond repair.