Friday, June 01, 2001

Film's fictions startle true heroes

Doolittle Raider sees his Tokyo bombing run re-created in 'Pearl Harbor'

        Shock waves washed over Tom Griffin as he watched Pearl Harbor.

        He saw a replica of his old plane flying toward him.

        Tom's a former B-25 navigator. As an Army Air Corps lieutenant in World War II, he flew with Jimmy Doolittle's Raiders. They bombed Tokyo in 1942.

        The bomber Tom flew over Tokyo was named the Whirling Dervish.

        “Three times in that Pearl Harbor movie, they showed a B-25 with "Whirling Dervish' painted on its nose and headed for Tokyo Bay. That surprised the heck out of me.”

[photo] Tom Griffin of Westwood bombed Tokyo months after Pearl Harbor. At home, he shows a picture of his B-25 bomber with the Thunderbird Squadron symbol.
(Michael Snyder photos)
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        Tom's 84. The retired accountant lives with his wife, Esther, in Westwood.

        We talked about his war experiences before he left town to participate in today's 11 a.m. groundbreaking for a new wing of the United States Air Force Museum at Dayton's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

        In my book, Tom's a hero. He risked his life volunteering for a secret mission, taking off in a B-25, a land-based bomber, from the heaving flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. The surprise attack on Tokyo came just four months after Pearl Harbor.

        Out of gas after the bombing run, he bailed out over China.

        Making his way to friendly territory, Tom would bomb the enemy again during the invasion of Italy. Shot down over Sicily on the Fourth of July, 1943, he spent the rest of the war in German prison camps.

        “I'd do it all over again,” he said. “That's what makes our country great. People are willing to stand up for it.”

        Still, Tom insists he's no hero.

        “I just did my job like we all did.”

        That's what I like about Tom's generation. These guys don't brag. There's no need. Their truth is better than fiction.

        Too bad Hollywood missed this point with Pearl Harbor. The film's mushy make-believe love story gets in the way of a story about a generation's love of its country.

[photo] Mr. Griffin's group reunion pin signifies the four squadrons of Doolittle's Raiders.
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        That's the impression I had after talking with Tom about the film. I'll take his word for it. He's seen Pearl Harbor. A squadron of fighter planes on the attack couldn't force me to watch this movie.

        Tom saw Pearl Harbor at the Hawaiian naval base of the same name. Disney, the entertainment giant behind the $135 million epic, paid his way to screen the film and treated his two sons, John and Gary.

        Joining Tom in the screening's audience were 16 fellow Raiders.

        “Of the 80 men who took part in the raid,” Tom said, “25 are still alive.”

        The Raiders watched the movie's version of the attack on Pearl Harbor “with great fascination.” Contrary to the film's plot, none of the Raiders was in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.

        They were training to fly bombers in Pendleton, Ore.

        “The day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we were playing records — big band music on old 78s — at a friend's house.”

        A neighbor knocked on the door and started going on about Pearl Harbor. Tom and his fellow flyers were stunned.

        He forgets the tune on the turntable at the time. But he still remembers the name of the big band's leader.

[photo] Doolittle's Raiders toasted Jimmy Doolittle (front, third from left) at a reunion in 1943 in Algeria. Tom Griffin is on the far right.
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        “Glenn Miller.”

        At the screening, Tom and his fellow Raiders laughed at the way they were depicted.

        “They missed some things, little picky things,” he said. “Things I know about just because I was there.”

        Things such as having the bombers fly in formation, the crew members talk on radios and the planes with rear gun turrets armed and manned.

        None of that happened in real life. The planes couldn't waste a drop of gas. So, flying in formation — a fuel-inefficient way to fly — was out. Radios and tail guns were removed. Gasoline took their place.

        Tom admitted the movie “hokes up” a great story.

        But he refuses to knock the film.

        “Disney,” he explained, “was so nice to us.”

        Disney should have been even nicer. Tom Griffin and the rest of his generation are heroes. They won a war to keep us free.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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