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Doolittle vet recalls famous WWII raid


White House honors Doolittle Raiders with gold medal

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - James Hattan holds a favorite photo of him and James Doolittle in a B-25 bomber, taken by an Oregonian photographer in 1974. Hattan, 96, lives in the Grove and Gardens assisted living center in Forest Grove. Forest Grove resident James Hattan didn’t know why he was told to get into a B-25 airplane and take off from a chalked line on a military runway in Florida.

He didn’t know why he was instructed to remain silent on these practice drills. He just knew the takeoff distance was perilously short — as evidenced by the damaged tails and landing gear incurred by some of the planes.

It was only after Hattan and his fellow volunteers for the secret mission boarded the USS Hornet with their B-25 bombers that they began to put two and two together, staring at the vessel’s short runway as they steamed west across the Pacific Ocean.

Once the Hornet departed, Army Air Corps Lt. Col. James Doolittle broke the news: They were going to bomb Japan — the first attack since the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor a few months prior. The raid, carried out on April 18, 1942, was meant to boost American morale and shake faith in Japanese leadership. It became known as Doolittle’s Raid.

The crew wasn’t afraid, even after realizing the danger involved, he said, because “You weren’t coming home; that’s just the way it was. People in war are never afraid because you are going to die.”

For Hattan, now 96, some memories are fading, while others are as clear as if they happened yesterday.

According to the website doolittleraider.com, out of 80 original raiders, there are four left with stories to tell, in addition to a handful of supporting crewmen who were aboard the USS Hornet. The handful includes Hattan, who lives in The Grove and Gardens assisted living center in Forest Grove and was an army mechanic in WWII, rising to the rank of sergeant.

While Hattan trained for the air raid, he was not one of those who flew on the mission. The Army had planned to take 20 planes, but could only fit 16 onto the Hornet. But “they wouldn’t dare leave us ashore because we knew too much,” Hattan said. So the entire crew went along.

The fliers were chosen in a lottery system. After the 16 aircraft took off, the remaining crew members, including Hattan, returned to Pearl Harbor, where they were stationed for nine months, unable to discuss their mission or receive payment, according to Hattan’s grandson, Dennis McGriff Jr.

Hattan noticed the impact the raid had on Americans’ morale, recalling that after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, people wanted the government to retaliate and were angry at the military for what seemed like inaction.

Before Doolittle’s Raid, Hattan wouldn’t walk on the same side of the street as his sister if he was wearing his uniform because he didn’t want people to know she was related to a soldier.

But after they bombed Japan, the raiders became military heroes. Doolittle received a Medal of Honor. And last Friday, the 80 members of Doolittle’s Raid received the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest honor a U.S. civilian can receive — when President Barack Obama signed a pair of bills honoring the veterans’ contribution to American history.

The medal will be stored at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Hattan enlisted in the Army in 1936 at age 23 because, he said, “I was hungry” and his family couldn’t support him. He served for more than 14 years, earning a pilot license and an airplane-mechanic license.

While there are annual Doolittle Raiders reunions, Hattan has only attended one, the 65th, with his grandson, McGriff, in San Antonio, Tex. McGriff said the reunion was bittersweet, as Hattan told him he’d never felt like a true raider since “he never put his life on the line,” McGriff said. However, McGriff added that he could tell by his grandad’s tears that the old man was happy to meet his former crew members again.

Hattan has some memorabilia from his time spent in the Army. He keeps a picture of himself and Doolittle, taken by an Oregonian photographer in 1974. according to his daughter, Bonnie McCormick. He has fond memories of his time working with Doolittle, noting “he was half my life.”

Additionally, a U.S. Air Force ring adorns the ring finger of his right hand. While he wasn’t in the Air Force — it wasn’t established until 1947 — McCormick said it’s the closest thing he has to a physical symbol of his time in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

After the war Hattan worked as a mechanic, construction worker and rancher. He raised his family of four children in Oregon and has lived in Forest Grove for eight years.