Fifty years ago, the United States became embroiled in another world war. In a yearlong series of weekly articles, the Deseret News is looking back on the major events of World War II with insight from Utahns who participated in them. If you have "war stories" you'd like to share, call Chuck Gates, Deseret News assignments editor, 237-2100.
At sundown, the young flier from Hyrum, Cache County, was blindfolded and tied to a wall. He heard the hobnail boots of a firing squad march down a gravel path and their rifle butts hit the ground.
Lt. Chase J. Nielsen thought, "Well, this is it." His life flashed through his mind. "The funny thing is, all the mean things you did go through first."What really bothered him was that when the Japanese killed him his parents back in Utah would never know what happened in far-off occupied China.
Nielsen, now 75, interviewed recently at his home in Brigham City, recalled his days of courage and terror, when he was a navigator on one of the 16 B-25s that dropped America's first bombs on Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack.
He was part of the Doolittle Raid, the daring bombing run organized by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle. When the bombers hit Tokyo on April 18, 1942, two countries caught their collective breaths.
Although the raid did some physical damage, the real impact was psychological. Japanese citizens realized they were vulnerable after all; Americans got a strong jolt of confidence and a morale boost when they were at last able to strike the enemy's home.
Nielsen entered the Army Air Corps - later the Air Force - while attending Utah State University. In August 1939, he was called up for active training.
On Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, his air wing moved from Pendleton Army Air Field, Ore., to Portland. "The next morning we were out on sub patrol on the West Coast."
In February, Doolittle showed up asking for volunteers for a mission "that was very dangerous." He wanted 16 to 20 crews of five men each.
Already famous for his flying records, Doolittle was a small, shrewd, concise man. "When he says something once, that's it, and you'd better listen," Nielsen said.
Nielsen immediately volunteered, as did many others in the wing. "To go with a man of his stature and intelligence, it would be a privilege," he said.
They trained at a remote air field in Florida, working to adjust their planes' carburetors to eke out more miles per gallon of fuel. The planes also carried extra fuel and flew more slowly than usual, attempting to stretch the B-25s' range by 600 miles beyond the usual 2,000.
Back on the West Coast, at Alameda Navy Base, the bombers and crews were loaded aboard America's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. On April Fool's Day, as he wryly noted, they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge.
"We were an elated bunch, I'll tell you," Nielsen said. "There were even crews, or crew people, who would offer you money for your position on your crew, to go in your place."
After a rendezvous near Midway Island with another carrier, the Enterprise, the convoy crept closer to Japan. The plan was to take off on the evening of April 18, 1942, and hit Tokyo around midnight.
They were not returning the way they came, because although they could lift off from aircraft carriers, the bombers were too big to land on carriers. Fuel had been buried at landing fields in free China so they could gas up and continue their flight.
But on the last day at sea, they ran into a Japanese picket ship on the morning of April 18, 800 miles from Japan. "We figured they'd radioed back to Japan."
Although the patrol boat was sunk by the convoy, they had to take off immediately. They were 160 miles farther away than they had anticipated, but between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., they lifted off.
The sea was rough. The flagman on deck would signal for a B-25 to start rolling when the bow was rocking upward. As the plane roared across the deck, the bow would plunge down the next wave and the crew would find themselves looking straight into the ocean. But as the plane neared the end of the deck, the bow would lift again and they'd sail into the air.
Tokyo was just one of several targets, but it was the destination of the Green Hornet, Nielsen's plane.
"We used the `bird dog' - the radio direction-finder - to home in," he said. They followed the beam of a commercial radio station into Tokyo.
"We came in over the north end of the bay," he said. Until that point, they had little resistance. But now anti-aircraft fire began. They gained altitude, rising to 1,500 feet for their bombing run.
"We could see our steel mill and smelter area, and we put three 500-pound bombs in there. Then we circled and came back and came down the bomb run again, and released the incendiary cluster" on the mill and smelter.
Nielsen thinks that if they could have flown another 40 minutes, they would have made it to free China.
"We crashed right out here on the coast, and there was a lot of them that went down," he said, pointing to a map. "Fuel ran out. Thirteen hours and 10 minutes, and the fans quit."
They had been flying 50 to 100 feet above the East China Sea. They ditched four miles from shore, hitting so hard the bombardier was crushed and the rear gunner badly injured by a machine gun butt plate striking his forehead.
Only three of the Green Hornet's crewmen made it to shore; the two injured men drowned. Nielsen bobbed alone in the nighttime sea, supported by his life vest.
"Finally, I got tangled up with some Chinese fishing nets," he said. He washed onto a beach, but the waves were so heavy he was knocked around. He swam beyond a spit of land, climbed onto the rocks, and collapsed.
Next morning, he walked around the end of the bay, relieved to find he was only bruised. He could see a Chinese fishing village, docks, a couple of patrol boats with the Japanese rising sun emblem. He came across the bodies of his two comrades who drowned.
He was discovered by a resistance fighter, a Chinese man who spoke some English. The guerrilla took Nielsen to a compound a couple of miles from the village and the other two from the Green Hornet were taken there soon afterward.
For three days, Chinese guerrillas smuggled the fliers down the coast in a junk. "We were boarded once by a Jap patrol boat," but the Americans hid under rice sacks and escaped detection.
However, at the river town, before they could transfer to a motor launch, they were captured. They were loaded aboard a PT boat and taken to Shanghai.
There, they were put through mock executions. The first was at sundown, and at the last minute, the interpreter said the military policemen were members of the Knights of the Rising Sun, who only executed prisoners at sunrise.
The Americans were separated and tortured. Nielsen refused to give any information except his name, rank and serial number, despite the pain.
Altogether, the Japanese captured eight Doolittle raiders. Eventually, they were ordered executed, but after three were killed, the sentences of the rest were commuted to life in prison.
Nielsen, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said his strong religious beliefs helped him survive.
"I think (the religion) was very important because it kind of kept me in the right perspective," he said. "Vengeance is not mine; vengeance belongs to the Lord."
Nielsen spent 40 months in Japanese prisons, nearly all of the time in China. During that time, 34 months were passed in solitary confinement.
At war's end, Nielsen and three other surviving Doolittle raiders were rescued by American paratroopers.
When Nielsen identified himself as a raider, one of the paratroopers said, "You'd better watch him - he's off his trolley. They were all executed."
In early 1946, Nielsen testified at war crimes trials in Shanghai. He then followed a military career, serving at several Air Force bases before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1961.
He and his wife, the former Cleo McCrary, have three children and six grandchildren. He says he is not inclined to Japan-bashing, but he will never forgive the executions of his fellow fliers.