Airman Edward Saylor didn't expect to come back alive when his B-25 set off for the first U.S. bomb attack on Japan during World War II.
Saylor and the other 79 "Doolittle's Raiders" were forced to take off in rainy, windy conditions significantly further from Japan than planned, straining their fuel capacity. None of the 16 planes' pilots had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier before.
"Some of the group thought they'd make it," Saylor said. "But the odds were so bad."
Saylor and two other raiders, Maj. Thomas Griffin and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher — all in their 90s now — recalled their daring mission and its leader, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, at a commemoration Saturday aboard the USS Hornet in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco.
Doolittle's mission has been credited with boosting American morale following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But it did not come without a price.
Three raiders were killed while trying to land in China. Eight were captured by the Japanese, of which three were executed and a fourth died of disease in prison.
The Japanese also killed Chinese villagers suspected of helping many of the airmen escape.
Griffin recalled ditching his plane when it ran out of fuel after the raid and parachuting to the ground in darkness.
"I got out of my airplane by jumping real fast," he said. "It was a long, strange journey to the land down below."
Griffin landed in a tree and clung to it until daybreak.
Saturday's event was held in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the raiders' April 18, 1942 mission. It also included: Doolittle's granddaughter, Jonna Doolittle Hoppes; two seamen aboard the carrier the raiders left from, the USS Hornet CV-8, Lt. Cmdr. Richard Nowatzki and Lt. j.g. Oral Moore; and a Chinese official who as a teenager helped rescue the raiders, Lt. Col. Chu Chen.
The American airmen remembered Doolittle as a great planner who knew his aircraft and fought alongside them.
Hoppes said her grandfather, who was born in Alameda and died in 1993, was very proud of the men on the mission.
"I grew up with 79 uncles in addition to the ones I really had," she said. "He was just very proud of how they turned out."