Doolittle Raider Lt. Col. Ed Saylor died Wednesday at his home in Sumner, leaving three surviving members of a famous bombing mission over Japan that rallied Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He often spoke about his role in history at engagements around the country. Here’s his last interview with The News Tribune, first published on June 16, 2011.
Ed Saylor has 28 years of stories to share from his career with the Air Force. None, though, compares with his first combat mission. As a 22-year-old flight engineer in 1942, Saylor was one of the 80 men aboard 16 bombers that took part in the Doolittle Raid on five Japanese cities, one of the most famous bombing missions in World War II.
Now 91, the Puyallup resident spent time Wednesday sharing some of his stories and checking out a B-25 Mitchell bomber similar to the one he flew in during the raid.
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Saylor came to Olympia Regional Airport, to see "Maid in the Shade, " a B-25 that will be featured at the Olympic Air Show Saturday and Sunday.
No longer able to fly, he watched as the crew prepped for a short flight and regaled visitors, show and airport staff members.
"Do those rocker boxes still leak?" he asked pilot Spike McClane as they shook hands.
He shook his head in resignation when told yes. "After all these years?"
"It's good to see one again, " Saylor said as he walked up to the medium bomber. "It was a good airplane. It was a workhorse.
"The only problem with it was it was noisy."
Asked if the noise was an issue on the 12-hour mission to Japan, Saylor smiled and said no.
"The little black puffs of smoke bothered me, " he said of the anti-aircraft fire encountered during the crew's bombing run over Kobe.
Saylor remembers being surprised as the twin-engine bomber passed over dozens of Japanese navy ships along the enemy coast that none fired at his plane, nicknamed TNT.
"If they had been ready, we would have been sitting ducks, " he said. "They thought they couldn't be hit. We got their attention pretty good."
The attack, led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, was the first American aerial attack on Japan itself. It came just four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Saylor was a sergeant, in charge of maintaining the plane, when the crew volunteered for a special mission. After training to make unusually short takeoffs at a base in Florida, the crews flew to the Bay Area, where the bombers were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.
"We didn't know anything about the mission. We thought they were just transporting the planes somewhere else, " Saylor said. "We were well out in the Pacific when they told us."
While a little surprised at their target, Saylor said he just went about his business of making sure his plane was ready.
"I hadn't seen any war movies, so I didn't know to be afraid, " he said.
It wasn't until his plane dropped its bombs that he grew concerned.
"I looked out the window and saw bombs going off behind us, " he said. "At 1,500 feet (altitude), we were worried about getting hit by one of the explosions."
After dropping its bombs, each plane was to make its way to landing fields in China. None of them made it. Forced to take off sooner than expected - about 550 miles from Japan after a Japanese patrol boat sighted the task force - all but one plane ditched in the China Sea when they ran out of gas. The other aircraft landed in Vladivostok, Russia, what is now a sister city of Tacoma.
Saylor's pilot landed in the water off a small island near Sangchow, China.
"I was floundering in the water. I was in the middle of the China Sea, and couldn't swim. That's not good, " Saylor said.
He remembered to inflate his life jacket, then crawled into a raft the crew had inflated. Soon Saylor was back in the water, the raft punctured by part of the wing as the plane sank.
The five crew members reached shore and were helped by Chinese villagers to escape capture by Japanese troops.
Throughout all this, Saylor's young bride, Lorraine, had no idea where her husband was. The two had married Dec. 13, 1941 - she was 16, he was 21. She had returned to Tacoma to stay with her parents.
"She went to a movie in Tacoma and a newsreel came on and they had film of the Tokyo raid, " Saylor said. "She looked up and saw me. 'That's Ed, ' she said. That was the first time she knew where I was."
Talking about the raid 69 years later, Saylor can find some humor in it.
"I should have put in for a Purple Heart, " he joked. "When I crawled out the window (to escape the sinking plane), I nicked my ear. So, I was wounded in action."
He did earn the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in the attack.
He also offered an approving critique of McClane's takeoff, with this caveat: "It was a couple thousand feet. We had about 350 feet on the carrier."
As preparations for the air show unfolded around him, Saylor was clearly the focus of attention.
"Pleased to know you, sir, " Ron Haws, a mechanic with "Maid in the Shade, " said as he and Saylor shook hands.
"I was a (10-year-old) kid when I heard about your mission, " he told Saylor. "That changed the attitude of the whole country. Before that, the whole mood was pretty bleak."
As one of just five living members of the raid, Saylor was given rock star treatment. People stopped just to shake his hand. Others offered words of sincere thanks. Some wanted a photograph with him. Some asked for an autograph. He accommodated everyone.
"It's an amazing story, " Saylor said without boasting, "even to me."