‘I felt like a celebrity:’ Elmo Wojahn about the Doolittle Raiders reunion

Rural Houston resident Elmo Wojahn is shown with some of his WW II memorabilia. Photo by Charlie Warner

By Charlie Warner
Argus Editor

“I felt like a celebrity. We signed autographs two hours a day for three straight days. The line of people waiting to get our autographs went out the building, down the sidewalk and around the block.

“When I walked around the base, I was wearing my USS Hornet cap and landyard with my special VIP credentials. I got stopped so many times by persons wanting my autograph, my daughter finally told me to take off my cap or my landyard. It was really something.”

That’s the way Elmo Wojahn of rural Houston described taking part in the 70th anniversary reunion of the Doolittle Tokyo Raid.

Wojahn was one of just six Navy personnel that were part of the 1942 Doolittle Raid who attended the reunion held April 17 through April 20 at the United States Air Force National Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The Yucatan Township resident was one of two members of the USS Hornet aircraft carrier crew. They, and four of the five remaining B-25 bomber crewmembers, were the six men honored during the four-day reunion.

Wojahn, who has made nearly every reunion since they began shortly after the end of World War II, said this one was something special.

“I didn’t get writer’s cramp, but it was amazing how many people wanted our autographs. People had all kinds of things they wanted us to sign.”

Out of the 80 men that made up the five-man flight crews of the 16 B-25 bombers bound for the one-way bombing run on Japan, only five remain. Doolittle’s Raiders left the flight deck of the USS Hornet that was situated about 600 miles off the coast of Japan on April 18, 1942.

While the medium-sized bombers could take off the aircraft carrier, there was no way they could return and land on the carrier. Their instructions were to drop their bombs, fly their planes westward as far as their fuel would take them and either find a place to land or ditch the B-25s, hopefully over China, which was a U.S. ally during WWII.

“We knew we wouldn’t be seeing any of those crewmen anytime soon when they took off,” Wojahn recalled. “We were just hoping we’d see them some day after the war was over.”

All the aircraft involved in the bombing were lost and 11 crewmen were either killed or captured—with three of the captured men executed by the Japanese Army in China. One of the B-25s landed in the Soviet Union at Vladivostok, where it was confiscated and its crew interned for more than a year. Thirteen entire crews, and all but one crewman of a 14th, returned either to the United States or to American forces.

The raid caused negligible material damage to Japan, but it succeeded in its goal of helping lifting American morale, just four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The raid also cast doubt in Japan on the ability of the Japanese military leaders.

“After the B-25s flew off, we continued listening to a Japanese radio station,” Wojahn remembered. “All of a sudden, it went off the air. One of my shipmates said ‘well, I guess Jimmy got there.’”

Wojahn, who grew up in Comfrey, Minn., enlisted in the Navy on Aug. 19, 1941 when he was just 17 years old. He had been interested in aviation. Following basic training he took aviation training and was then assigned to a brand new aircraft carrier- the USS Hornet, which was commissioned for service on Oct. 20, 1941, less than six weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack.

The crew of the Hornet trained in the Gulf of Mexico and then was called back to Norfolk, Va. shortly after the attack on the Hawaiian Island. At Norfolk, the carrier was loaded with two B-25 bombers.

“We were instructed to go out to sea and find out if a bomber of that size could successfully be launched from a carrier. We were able to make it work.”

Little did Wojahn and crew have any idea why they were sent out on that maneuver.

With that mission a success, the USS Hornet set sail for the South Pacific loaded down with 16 B-25’s and a number of fighter planes.

“When we got closer to Japan, we were told to clear as much of the deck of the aircraft carrier as possible, so we could launch the B-25s. We took the wings off some of the fighter planes and hung them in the hangar bay under the flight deck to make more room. As soon as the B-25s all left, we worked 24 hours straight to get the wings back on our fighter planes and ready for combat.

“We had the USS Enterprise along side of us for protection. Without our fighter planes, we would have been a sitting duck.”

Wojahn said very little was known about their mission until they started preparing the flight deck for the launching of the B-25s.

“The 80 men of those 16 bombers were all told if they didn’t want to accept the assignment, they didn’t have to. They knew they wouldn’t be coming back to the Hornet. Not one of them backed out.”

After the Doolittle Raid the USS Hornet returned to Pearl Harbor and then the Coral Sea.

Wojahn and crew took part in the Battle of Midway, where they lost all 15 torpedo planes, their crews but one man, as well as a number of fighter planes and dive bombers.

Following the Battle of Midway, the USS Hornet returned to Pearl Harbor , got new planes and trained with their new squadrons. they returned to the Solomon Islands where they ran raids on Japanese Islands, trying to keep the Japanese from retaking Guadalcanal.

During a battle with a large Japanese task force at the Battle of Santa Cruz, the Hornet was sunk. Wojahn returned to the United States and in 1943 was assigned to the USS Solomons CVE 67. He spent the remainder of World War II in the Atlantic Ocean on submarine patrol, where they sank one German sub.

Wojahn remained in active duty in the Navy until 1962 and then was transferred  to Fleet Reserve in Minneapolis in 1962. On July 19, 1971, Wojahn retired from the Navy, after serving his country one month short of 30 years.

Over the past seven decades Wojahn has kept in touch with many of the bomber crewmembers, as well as the nearly 2,000 men who were aboard the USS Hornet. He figures there are about 100 crewmembers of the Hornet still alive.

Since leaving the Navy, Wojahn farmed in Yucatan Township with his wife Avis, where they raised six children.

Retired now from farming, the very spry 88-year-old still has a few cattle to fuss over and enjoys collecting WWII memorabilia.

You can contact Charlie Warner at [email protected]