Nolan A. Herndon, a member of the Doolittle Raiders who was held captive in, then escaped from, the Soviet Union after participating in the famous bombing raid on Japan, died of pneumonia Oct. 7 at the age of 88. He was the last survivor among the three Doolittle Raiders from South Carolina.
Herndon was a navigator-bombardier on the April 18, 1942, raid which historians have called a key event in World War II. It pushed the Japanese to make strategic errors and lifted the spirits of Americans when there had been little to cheer about in the months following the Dec. 7, 1942, Pearl Harbor attack.
Herndon’s plane was the only one of 16 B-25s to stray from then-Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle’s orders to fly to China after striking Japanese cities. Officially, the War Department blamed a shortage of fuel for the landing on a Soviet airstrip near Vladivostok, but late in life Herndon – by then the sole surviving member of his plane’s crew – expressed his own theory that the plane had been on a secret mission to catalog airfields that might be used for attacks on Japan, and to test whether the Soviets would allow the plane to refuel and continue onward to China.
Several unusual factors led Herndon to the belief that his B-25 had a unique assignment. They included the last-minute addition of a 16th plane, his, to the raid; the pilot and co-pilot later taking high-level positions in military intelligence; and the fact that pilot Edward York and co-pilot Robert Emmens both spoke fluent Russian, which always bothered Herndon, according to Tom Casey, manager of the Doolittle Raiders organization.
In any case, when the plane touched down, the Soviet Union, not then at war with Japan, held its five crewmen captive for more than 13 months. The airmen wrote a letter to Stalin asking for their release. It did not win their freedom, but it did get them transferred to a warm-weather area about 15 miles north of the Persian border, where they were assigned to work in a factory repairing training planes.
They escaped May 26, 1943, by paying an Afghan smuggler $250 to take them to a British Consulate in Persia, which now is Iran.
None of the Doolittle Raiders, who had launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet, reached the airfields in China where they were supposed to land. The other 15 crash-landed in China or their crews bailed out. All but four of the 80 airmen survived the raid. Captured by the Japanese, three were executed and one starved to death in a prison camp.
Herndon, a native of Greenville, Texas, raised cattle and ran a wholesale grocery business in Edgefield, South Carolina, after the war. He married Julia Crouch, a cousin of fellow Doolittle Raider Horace Crouch, and attended the annual Raiders reunions faithfully.
Today only 12 Raiders survive. Reunions still are scheduled, driven in part by an order given by Doolittle, who died in 1993. He said the group should continue to meet until only two survive. Those two are to uncork a bottle of cognac from 1896, the year of Doolittle’s birth, and make one last toast before disbanding.
When Herndon’s comrades raise their glasses at the 66th reunion in Dallas, he will be saluted in their toast: “Gentlemen, to our good friends who have gone.”