Sunday, February 15, 2004

War stories more thrilling for being true

Peter Bronson

Maybe it was just my imagination. But as I listened to Tom Griffin unreel his gripping story in his aw-shucks style, I thought I could almost see the blue skies over Tokyo in his eyes.

He was telling me about the first time he jumped out of a crashing bomber.

"We had no more instructions than 'make sure your harness is snug, and count to eight before you pull the cord,' " he recalled. On April 18, 1942, Griffin's B-25 was ninth off the deck of the carrier Hornet in the famous Jimmy Dolittle bombing raid on Tokyo at the start of World War II.

His life is like a classic-movie channel. He lived 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. He flew over Patton in North Africa. He was held prisoner in Stalag Luft III, scene of the original Great Escape.

And he shakes his head at the way history was shot full of holes in Pearl Harbor.

In North Africa, his plane crashed into the sea and he backstroked for an hour and a half to help tow a wounded pilot to shore. Over Sicily, he bailed out of a B-26 Marauder and dangled from a parachute as a German fighter buzzed him six times. "I figured he was trying to shoot me, but his guns were jammed. Why else would an ME-109 come straight at me like that?''

He found out later from his German captors that the pilot was taking propaganda photos. "Boy, would I love to have that picture," Griffin laughed.

When Griffin was young, good and evil were in sharp focus. He volunteered for a secret mission after Pearl Harbor, and wound up aboard a B-25 that was sloshing with gasoline and crammed with high explosives. "We were 1,500 pounds more overloaded than the book said a B-25 should have for takeoff."

They lumbered into the air from a slippery carrier deck, with only 400 feet to fly or flop into pitching seas. "It really made us happy to see that first plane (piloted by Dolittle) take off."

Griffin navigated to the target, where his plane missed a tank factory and bombed a power plant, then they flew into China until their gas ran dry and they jumped out. Some were captured and tortured. Griffin's crew made it home.

"It was a tremendous success for American morale," he said. But the raid also was an underrated strategic victory. It provoked Japan to launch a fleet to Midway, where they lost the battle, their carriers and hundreds of top pilots.

"From that point on, they were on the defensive mode. We started the ball rolling."

"I went through the whole war and never got a scratch,'' said the retired Cheviot accountant. "The good Lord has been very good to me.''

Only 17 of the 80 Dolittle Raiders are still alive. Fewer than 10 will attend the annual reunion this April in Tucson. Griffin, a fit and sharp 87, thinks he has a good shot at being one of the last two guys to open a bottle of 1896 Cognac.

He has traveled from Georgia to South Dakota to tell his story. On Feb. 24, he will speak to Tim Donovan's American History class at Cincinnati State (call 569-1420 for details).

"You can read about Paul Revere and Julius Caesar and they are dim, distant figures," Donovan said. "When Tom walks in, he has been there and done it."

Griffin says he enjoys it too. "People keep asking me to tell this story,'' he said. "Hell, I haven't got anything else to do.''

And off we went again, flying through the clouds of six decades, deep into the wild blue yonder in those eyes.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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