By Jug Varner

In April 1942, Army Air Force Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led a 16-plane flight of B-25s from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to bomb Japan and crash land in China. The daring raid was the first U.S. air attack against the Japanese in WWII.

Forty-eight years later in September 1990, Doolittle's navigator, retired Col. Henry Potter of Austin, Tex., accompanied an expedition to Zhejiang Province, People's Republic of China, to locate those aircraft remnants.

One plane landed in Russia and its crew was interned there for two years. The other B-25s crashed in the water off the China coast or the mountainous terrain of the Chinese mainland. All of the 80 crew members parachuted safely, although eight were captured by the Japanese, who executed three of them. Another airman died in captivity. Bad weather and low fuel prevented their plan to land the aircraft at a predetermined China destination.

The war mission was so secret, Potter said, that even President Franklin Roosevelt was not informed until the mission was successfully launched. The heroic flight was a great morale builder for the American public during the dark days following Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

Forty-four of the original raiders are still alive and meet annually. Doolittle is 93 and lives in California. Some members of the group had previously discussed trying to find their planes but the 1990 search was the first ever attempted.

Minnesota artist history buff Bryan Moon, led the small expedition to the Chinese crash sites to locate remnants of the aircraft. The former Northwest Airlines VP will create a painting to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Doolittle raid and will use the experience gained during the China search as background information. Moon has been on other such expeditions. One was to East Africa to find the lost grave of Joy Adamson of “Born Free.” He also served as artist on Will Steger's North Pole and South Pole expeditions.

Other members of the Doolittle aircraft search were photographer Arthur Gibson, publisher Joyce Olson, personal fitness trainer Heidi Olson and aviation buff Dr. George Weir.

Moon made arrangements with the provincial government and the Peoples Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries through the Consul General in Chicago. The group arrived Shanghai by air, then drove 1200 miles to the interior by bus and car. They were greeted at every stop by large numbers of curious but friendly Chinese, most of whom had never seen an American.

Col. Potter was reunited with several Chinese who befriended him in 1942 after he and other crewmen bailed out and regrouped on the ground. He also met two Chinese men who helped rescue crewmen from the B-25s that landed off shore, and hid them from the Japanese military then occupying the area.

Potter and the search party found several of the sites, including Doolittle's, but found no actual remains of his aircraft. However, they located armor plating, miscellaneous aircraft parts, an American Army issue razor and other items identifiable as the authentic remains of American aircraft and personnel equipment at other sites.