Hiding in Plain Sight

23 September 2019

Following the Japanese Imperial Navy’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Station in Hawaii in December 1941, Lieutenant Colonel James H. (“Jimmy”) Doolittle planned a secret raid on the Land of the Rising Sun to avenge the men lost. On 18 April 1942, Doolittle and seventy-nine other United States airmen, including Donald G. (“Don”) Smith, a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant from Belle Fourche, South Dakota, launched the daring counterattack that would boost Americans’ morale and come to be known as the Doolittle Raid.

Author Paul Higbee chronicles this assault and the life of its participant from South Dakota in The First Strike: Doolittle Raider Don Smith, a new book from the South Dakota Historical Society Press. After weeks of preparation, Smith and the other airmen took off from the deck of the USS Hornet in sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers to deliver the first United States blow against Japan in World War II. All but one of the sixteen crews successfully dropped their payloads on Tokyo and four other industrial cities.

firststrike_coverimage.jpgFifteen crews, including Smith’s, crash-landed in China (the sixteenth landed in the Soviet Union to a more comfortable reception than their companions received). In China, they had to avoid the Japanese occupying forces and reach the safety of Chungking, the new capital for Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s exiled government. As the raiders attempted to traverse the inhospitable terrain without being discovered, they were surprised to find that news of their attack had spread throughout the countryside. Smith and the other raiders received an abundance of help from the local population. 

Chinese communities lavished attention on the bedraggled Doolittle Raiders, holding elaborate, highly public celebrations in their honor. At one of these events, only days after their crash-landing, Smith and his disheveled crew posed for photographs with dozens of villagers and local Chinese officials. One of these images now graces the cover of The First Strike. Higbee’s recounting of the journey of the Doolittle Raiders through the experiences of Don Smith offers unique insight into the risks taken by both the American aviators who volunteered for the dangerous mission and the Chinese locals who helped them return home safely.


In the image at top, Don Smith (seated at center) and his four crew members (from left), Edward J. Saylor, Thomas R. (“Doc”) White, Griffith Williams, and Howard Sessler, sit among local Chinese civilian and military leaders while local villagers from Sanmen County, Zhejiang Provice, bid them farewell. ww2db.com