Lt Col Frank A. Kappeler USAF (RET)
Dinner Speaker for August 28, 2003
* Doolittle Raider, Navigator, Crew #11 (18 April 1942)
* Stayed in CBI Theater after RAID until August 1942, flying the "Hump"
* Served in ETO from November 1943 to June 1944, B-26 Bomb Group
* After WWII served in Texas, Ohio, California, North Dakota, Japan, ...
* Earned Masters Degree in Engineering, Air Force Institute of Technology
* Deputy Commander, Minuteman Site Activation Task Force, Minot, ND
* Born in San Francisco; lives in Santa Rosa
Four months after Pearl Harbor, the United States was looking for retaliation, for a victory. The Navy had been stung at Pearl and the Army had suffered defeats in the southwest Pacific on the ground and in the air. Both services, President Roosevelt and the entire Allied war effort, needed a victory against a Japan building an empire through conquest.
A hero of the Golden Age of Aviation would step up to lead 79 Army Air Corps crewmen flying sixteen Mitchell bombers, to deliver World War Two’s first blow against the capital of Japan. His name was Jimmy Doolittle. And one of the 79 men who followed Doolittle on the daring Tokyo Raid was the Golden Gate Wing’s guest speaker in August.
Frank Kappeler was born in San Francisco, January 2, 1914. After graduating from high school, Frank attended Polytechnic College of Engineering in Oakland, earning his B.S. degree in aeronautical engineering.
In 1936 Frank enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in Oakland. He then transferred to the Army Air Corps, and received his rating as a navigator in June, 1941.
Kappeler and his navigating skills were put to use with the 17th Bomb Group, based in Pendleton, Oregon, which was flying scouting patrols over the Pacific Northwest coastline after the Pearl Harbor attack.
In the meantime, plans were brewing to strike back for the Pearl Harbor attack.
Navy Captain Francis Low offered an innovative idea of using Army Air Corps bombers to take off from carriers 500 miles off Japan’s coast to bomb Tokyo. Admiral Ernest King told another Navy Captain, Donald Duncan, to work on the plan, and Duncan selected the B-25 Mitchell as the airplane for the mission. The B-25 was small enough for a carrier launch and, with extra fuel tanks, could range to Tokyo and escape to China.
Army Air Corps Gen. ‘Hap’ Arnold selected Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle to lead the raid. Doolittle was a legend in air racing and had performed many aviation feats. His ‘can do’ attitude was backed by a doctor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT. Most importantly though, he was a leader.
The 17th Bomb Group, with most of its crew fully qualified in B-25s was then chosen as the unit to fly the mission.
“We had the planes and the pilots, who were checked out in B-25s. They picked a new aircraft carrier, the Hornet, which had just been commissioned on the East Coast.
“Jimmy Doolittle had to get all the B-25s modified. They had to get additional gas tanks - - a crawl way tank over the bomb bay and in the bomb bay they put in a special tank. They took out the lower turret and put in a tank, doubling the B-25’s capacity for fuel at about 1150 gallons.”
The 17th BG was headed for Columbia, South Carolina. Some crews had already left and Frank was making arrangements for his car and his dog, causing him to miss a meeting about an urgent request for volunteers for a very dangerous mission. Frank says some of his fellow crew members made it possible for him to be part of what would become a historic mission. “They knew I’d probably want to go so they volunteered me.”
Training began immediately on the short take off roll required to launch a B-25 from a carrier. Kappeler remembers that the first pilot for his bomber wasn’t really up to the task.
“He was having trouble with the crew and he was unhappy. We were making some takeoffs and he said we were moving around, throwing off the center of gravity and he couldn’t make a good take off. In a day or two one of the senior pilots of another squadron heard about it and replaced him. That was Ross Greening, and he was one of the best pilots we had.”
Two dozen B-25s and crews then moved to Eglin Field, Florida to master 500 foot take offs. “After four, five, six days, some of the pilots we had got off in 270 feet.”
Technical changes to the planes’ carburetors boosted performance at sea level, new props were to be added and further modifications made when the B-25 reached McLellan Field, California. Yet Frank says it was the flight west that was most memorable.
“They told us, ‘En route to California, practice your low level flying because you need practice.’ So, coming up from Florida, we scared a lot of chickens and cows.”
Kappeler says the secrecy of the mission frustrated ground crews. Mechanics at McLellan started tearing apart and rebuilding carburetors that the Wright tech reps had modified at Eglin, until someone told the crews the mods were needed.
Within two weeks, the 17th had flown to Alameda Naval Air Station, to be loaded aboard the Hornet. “We took advantage of the situation, flying under the San Francisco Bay bridge to get to the air station.”
By noon on April 1st, sixteen B-25s were loaded aboard the Hornet . Three hours later the carrier was anchored in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
“Jimmy Doolittle told us we take off to San Francisco if we wanted to. I lived in Alameda, so I was a good boy and played pinochle with my folks.
“Quite a few of the crew members went to the Top of the Mark (at the Mark Hopkins Hotel) and they had a little bit of a problem. They could look down and see the Hornet out in the middle of the Bay with all the B-25s on board.
“The next morning, the second of April, my father took me out to the Navy dock in San Francisco and I caught a launch to the Hornet . And about noon we went under the Golden Gate Bridge. We had a blimp flying over us and everybody on the bridge could see we were leaving.”
The attack flotilla was composed of two task forces, the carriers Hornet and Enterprise (at Pearl Harbor), four cruisers, eight destroyers and two tankers. The two forces were to rendezvous on April 13th for the final leg of the journey to Japan’s coastal waters.
“The Navy at the time wasn’t too hospitable. They thought we (the Army Air Corps crews) looked pretty raunchy at that time. The Navy was a little reluctant to be too friendly until the afternoon of the first day we got into the ocean and Mark Mitscher, the skipper aboard the Hornet announced over the loudspeaker system that we were on our way to bomb Tokyo. All the Navy men put up a big cheer then and we were friends again.”
Kappeler says that after the two task forces rendezvoused, Doolittle met with the Navy brass to figure out options. If the task force was discovered by the Japanese before the bombers could launch, the B-25s would be pushed overboard to allow fighters to be launched in defense of the carriers. Should the bombers have to launch further than 500 miles from Tokyo the bombers would individually try to reach the coast of China, instead of making a planned landing at one of five airstrips in the Chuchow area.
The morning of April 18, Kappeler and the rest of the B-25 crews were waking up and having breakfast, when the guns of the heavy cruiser Nashville began booming. The Enterprise’s radar had spotted two Japanese fishing boats, and it was assumed crews on the boats had sighted the task force and radioed its position.
“I was on the deck and I was watching the Nashville fire at a Japanese picket ship miles away. It was having trouble hitting it because the small ship was going up and down with the waves. The Nashville’s shells would ricochet off the top of a wave and miss it. They fired for thirty minutes or so before they sank it. I figured I better get something to eat, so I went down to the officer’s mess.”
Kappeler says he wasn’t there too long before a voice came over the loudspeaker ordering the Army crews to man their planes for immediate take-off. Frank says as he got up to leave, a Navy officer told him he hadn’t paid his mess bill. Frank says he pulled out his checkbook tand took care of the tab.
On the Hornet’s flight deck, about 620 miles from Tokyo, Frank recalls weather conditions were far from perfect for the launch.
“It was raining and the sea was rough. The Hornet was going up and down and twisting sideways. Spray was breaking over the bow and sides. You had to go by a couple of turning props to get to your plane and it was a little tricky.”
Onboard the eleventh B-25, Kappeler discovered he was missing some of his navigation books. One of the spare navigators who wasn’t going on the mission said he’d put them aboard the bomber, but hadn’t.
“Fortunately, I had a couple of old books they’d given us in navigation school. And I guess it took about five times as much effort to work ‘em out. So all the way from take off into Japan I worked out sample problems, and after about three and a half hours I figured that night, in the dark, I could work on celestial, and I was satisfied.”
Heading toward Japan in loose flights of three, the B-25s flew 100-200 feet off the ocean’s surface.
“We were about eighty miles north of the course, but quite a few of the other planes were, too. I think maybe the Navy was a little off, since the Navy navigator used celestial navigation to determine where we were. We were in overcast for about three or four days before take-off.”
At about 100 feet off the ground, Kappeler’s B-25 crossed Japan’s coastline.
“Some of the Japanese farmers would see us and they waved at us, thinking we were Japanese. A few of them looked and ran to hide. After about ten minutes we flew by a training field, and had a few Japanese trainers tried to fly formation with us.”
Then, Frank says, a number of fighters appeared. He says they were probably Japanese Army Air Force ‘Nates’.
“They were so close I could look ‘em right in the face. Prior to that there were two others on on left hand side. We had two on each side. Our turret gunner started shooting at the two on our left side. He hit them both and one started smoking.
“I happened to look off to the right and there were two others. I tried to yell to the co-pilot that there were two more over here, but nothing would come out. I was speechless.
I had to reach out and grab the co-pilot to turn his head. He saw them and yelled.
“We had been cruising about 166 miles an hour. And about that time the pilot pushed the throttles forward and we went to 260, and started leaving these fighters behind us. The co-pilot indicated we’d gotten a couple of bullet holes in the fuselage, but no problems that were serious.”
The target options for Kappeler’s B-25 had been docks, oil refineries and warehouses between Tokyo and Yokohama, but a decision was made to climb up to about 1000 feet and drop bombs on an oil refinery and tank farm about sixty miles south of there.
“Twenty minutes later we could look back and see big towers of smoke and flame in the air.”
Pilot Ross Greening turned the B-25 toward Tokyo Bay and a welcome overcast extending toward the South China Sea. Kappeler says the crew was fortunate that a 27 mile an hour headwind battled on the way to Japan shifted after the bombs were dropped.
“Had the headwind remained with us for the rest of the flight, we’d have probably run out of fuel long before we reached China. However, after leaving Japan, the headwind became a 27 mile an hour tailwind.”
At about 8000 feet, the B-25 stretched its range to China, where the crew could see the ground and mountain peaks, but no airfields and virtually no lights.
“We climbed up to 10,000 feet and we all bailed out. I was the third one to bail out. I had candy bars, cigarettes and all kinds of goodies in my pockets that we were going to eat the next day and as soon as my parachute opened, everything disappeared. I clipped my flashlight to my belt, figuring I could use it on the way down, but that also disappeared. I could watch it go down in a spiral below me.
Kappeler says he was concerned that he’d tangled the shroud lines on his chute, and in trying to straighten them as he descended, he was spinning in circles.
“I got sick to my stomach... and all of a sudden my parachute wrapped into the top of a big tree and I came down very gently on my backside on a steep hillside. It was pitch black and raining. Every time I tried to stand up I’d slide down the mountain about 10-15 feet. I stayed there all night and pulled the parachute over me.
“The next day I got up and went to a trail above me. After about ten minutes of walking I happened to see a soldier, either Japanese or Chinese, I wasn’t too sure. Aboard the Hornet they’d told us one way you can tell the Chinese from Japanese is that the Japanese always wore sandals and they had a space between their big toe and the next toe. The Chinese wore shoes and their toes were always together. Well this fellow had shoes on and I couldn’t tell which way his toes went.”
Kappeler says he tried to say, “I’m an American” in Chinese, the two men looked at each other, and Frank walked past him down the trail.
Frank came to a hillside house where an old man saw him, ran inside and slammed the door. Knocking on the door, Kappeler says a younger man came to the door, let him in and brought out a book with both Chinese and English language, which helped get some communication going. A few minutes later a group of five men with umbrellas began escorting Frank from village to village. Four or five men joined the group at each stop, until by noon Kappeler was in the company of about 50 Chinese. At one intersection of trails, Frank’s group met up with his engineer and bombardier, each similarly escorted by a throng of locals. Food and wine were offered at the stops, with the trek ending at a little hotel about ten o’clock that night.
Kappeler was up about seven o’clock the next morning, and he connected with his pilot, Ross Greening and co-pilot, Ken Reddy. They had also spent the night in a little hotel.
The whole crew, reunited, spent the following week at an airfield, ducking into an air raid shelter when Japanese bombers made their daily appearance. A charcoal powered bus took the crew to a railroad train, which only ran at night to avoid attack by Japanese planes. The final leg of the Chinese trip was a C-47 ride to Chunking, followed by a flight to Calcutta, India for ten days of Rest and Recuperation.
Kappeler says while napping in the hotel, he was awakened by Jimmy Doolittle, who asked if there was anything in the service he could help Frank with.
“I wanted to get back into pilot training. He tried to help me but I got too old before it happened. I was reassigned in Karachi and was over there a few months before I got home.”
Kappeler was a navigator in the China/ Burma/ India Theater of Operations, on trips over “The Hump” until August 1942.
As for the impact of the Doolittle Raid - - very little damage was inflicted on any targets, military or industrial. But, historians say the Japanese assumed the bombers had flown from Midway Island, and they prioritized an invasion of Midway to prevent any repeat raids. Also, Japan’s military brass made sure warning systems and anti-aircraft improved, diverting resources from the front lines of the Pacific battleground.
And, when word of the daring attack finally reached the American public by newspaper and radio, it was heartening to soldiers and civilians alike.
From November 1943 to June 1944, Frank Kappeler served in the European Theater as a navigator in B-26s with the 323 Bomb Group, and he became the Group navigator. After WWII Kappeler stayed with the Air Force, at postings in Texas, Ohio, California, North Dakota, and Japan. In the Korean War, he flew on 26 missions in B-29s - - for a career total of total of 81 combat missions.