Doolittle Airman Was a Different Kind of War Hero


By Mel Barger


    How do people forgive when they have endured hideous cruelty from oppressors who have no desire to be forgiven?  And can there be a good outcome when such forgiveness is made?

    The man who may have made the strongest case for true forgiveness was Jacob DeShazer, an airman in the famous Doolittle raid over Japan on April 18, 1942.  He not only achieved it for himself, but went on to touch the lives of thousands with his message of hope and redemption.

    Under the heading of “War and Forgiveness,” The Wall Street Journal on March 25 published an editorial tribute to the “heroism and remarkable forgiveness” of DeShazer, who had died ten days earlier at his home in Salem, Oregon, at age 95.  “It is one of life’s safer bets that he is restimg in peace,” the Journal concluded. 

    Any of us who served in World War II would acknowledge DeShazer’s heroism in joining the legendary Jimmy Doolittle in that first bombing raid over Japan.  As the Journal noted, “The Doolittle bombing raid was close to a suicide mission, a one-way trip to bring the war to the Japanese homeland for the first time. Coming not long after Pearl Harbor and before the Pacific island victories to come, the raid was a huge boost to domestic morale.”

    Though all of the 80 men who manned the 16 North American B-25 bombers used in the raid were soldiers in the then Army Air Corps, and subject to orders, their service on this special raid was entirely voluntary.  They were personally requested to serve by Doolittle, who in addition to being a lieutenant colonel was a famous racing pilot from the 1930s.  DeShazer said later that he was too much of a coward to refuse Doolittle’s request.

    The story of the famous raid has been told many times in both print and film.  The planes and crews took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in a turbulent sea and flew into history, bombing Tokyo and other major cities.  Corporal DeShazer, a bombardier aboard a B-25 called Bat Out of Hell, dropped incendiary bombs on Nagoya before the plane ran out of fuel and they were forced to bail out over a Japanese-held section of China.  He was soon captured and spent the next forty months as a war prisoner, beaten, starved, and tortured by his Japanese captors.  His pilot, Lieutenant William Farrow, and engineer-gunner Sergeant Harold Spatz, were executed by firing squad.

    The same harsh punishments were doled out to hundreds of other Allied soldiers and sailors captured in the early months of the war.  Some of them were killed or died from malnourishment and brutal treatment, others barely survived to come home filled with hatred for those enemy guards who had abused and taunted them.  But DeShazer’s story had a different outcome. That was the “remarkable forgiveness” noted by the Journal. 

    DeShazer, amid the misery of imprisonment, turned to religious teachings he had learned as a child.  “I begged my captors to get a Bible for me,” he recalled in “I Was a Prisoner of Japan,” a religious tract he wrote in 1950. “At last, in the month of May 1944, a guard brought me the book, but told me I could have it only for three weeks. I eagerly began to read its pages. I discovered that God had given me new spiritual eyes and that when I looked at the enemy officers and guards who had starved and beaten my companions and me so cruelly, I found my bitter hatred for them changed to loving pity. I realized that these people did not know anything about my Savior and that if Christ is not in a heart, it is natural to be cruel.”

    This was his profound spiritual awakening that would stay with him for life.  Corporal DeShazer gained the strength to survive, forgave his captors without reservations,  and became determined to spread Christian teachings to the people who had almost killed him.

    Upon returning home, he enrolled at Seattle Pacific College (now Seattle Pacific University) and received a bachelor’s degree in biblical literature in 1948.  In late December of that year, he arrived in Japan with his wife Florence, also a graduate of Seattle Pacific and a fellow missionary in the Free Methodist Church.. A few days later, he preached his first sermon there, speaking to about 180 people at a church in a Tokyo suburb. He and Florence eventually helped start 23 churches in Japan   The DeShazers would spend 30 years in Japan doing missionary work. Their five children helped.

     In 1950, they gained a surprising convert, a Naval officer as honored in Japan as Doolittle was in the U.S.  Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese naval flier who had led the Pearl Harbor attack and had become a rice farmer after the war, came upon DeShazer’s tract.

    “It was then that I met Jesus, and accepted him as my personal savior,” Fuchida recalled when he attended a memorial service in Hawaii in observance of the 25th anniversary of the attack. He had become an evangelist and had made several trips to the United States to meet with Japanese-speaking immigrants.

    DeShazer met several times with Fuchida, who died in 1976.“I saw him just before he died,” DeShazer once told The Salem Statesman Journal. “We shared in that good wonderful thing that Christ has done.”

    Retiring to his native Oregon after their work in Japan, Jake and Florence lived quietly in Salem until his passing.

    The slight war damage inflicted by the Doolittle raid did nothing to impair Japan’s warmaking capability.  But it provoked the Japanese assault on Midway, which turned out to be a disaster for them and marked the beginning of American victories in the Pacific.

    The more lasting victory, however, may have been DeShazer’s rebirth and forgiveness in the midst of hellish conditions.  No wonder The Wall Street Journal called it “remarkable.” 


From:  Mature Living, Toledo, Ohio, October, 2008