Men such as these

Like most denizens of Washington, I pay too little attention to the sites other Americans make sacrifices to visit. Earlier this month, though, prompted by reading James Scott's Target Tokyo, a comprehensive history of the famous Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942, I strolled through Arlington National Cemetery in search of three graves.

They were in Section 12, side-by-side, each marked with a headstone identical in its simplicity to so many thousands of others: William G. Farrow, Dean E. Hallmark, Robert J. Meder. Hallmark was the pilot of the sixth B-25 to take off from the pitching deck of USS Hornet 73 years ago; Meder was his co-pilot on the plane they dubbed Green Hornet. Farrow was the pilot of Bat Out of Hell, the last of the 16 planes to roar down the flight deck of what President Franklin Roosevelt later called "our secret base at Shangri-La." Captured in Japanese-occupied China, Hallmark and Farrow were shot by their captors Oct. 15, 1942, after months of torture, deprivation and a bogus "trial"; Meder died of starvation in a Japanese prison Dec. 11, 1943. All three were cremated, their names deliberately falsified on the urns that bore their ashes. The urns were properly identified after the Japanese surrender and returned to the United States, where they now rest, sheltered under a tree, down the hill from the equally simple grave of the flyers' commander, Jimmy Doolittle.

Target Tokyo is harrowing in its description of what these men, and four of their fellow airmen, whose death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, suffered in Japanese prisons. One day, however, the imprisoned Doolittle Raiders were given an old Bible, which they began to share, taking turns reading in their cells. As Carroll Glines, another historian of the Doolittle Raid, writes, "Up to this time, each man resorted to various methods to pass away hundreds of lonely hours. … (But) it was the Bible, they admitted unanimously later, that had a profound impact on their respective outlooks. … None of the four men would have called himself religious, and none had ever read the Bible through before … (Yet) they attributed their survival to the message of hope they found in its tattered pages."

That hope, I suspect, would not have been nourished so well, had the imprisoned, emaciated Raiders been given The Origin of Species or the Critique of Pure Reason; a death-defying hope might not even have been nurtured by David Copperfield or Pride and Prejudice. It was the Psalms, the Hebrew prophets, and the Gospels that inspired in these men, living under extremities of cruelty that beggar the imagination, a life-sustaining hope; a willingness to forgive their captors; gratitude to God for their survival - and for one, a new vocation. Jacob DeShazer, the bombardier on Farrow's plane, became a Methodist missionary, returned to Japan, and converted Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese pilot who led the attack on Pearl Harbor, to Christianity.

Where did America get men like the Doolittle Raiders? Jimmy Doolittle was already a world-famous pilot (with a doctorate from MIT) when he talked his way into leading the raid that will forever bear his name. The 79 other Raiders were known to few others except their families, friends and fellow soldiers. The Hollywood gloss of "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" notwithstanding, they weren't all handsome, and they weren't angelic. But they believed their country was worth defending and that its defense was worth risking their lives on a volunteer mission that wasn't even disclosed to them until Hornet passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, steaming west in harm's way.

I think it's safe to say that none of the Doolittle Raiders thought America an ill-founded republic or the source of the world's ills, although many of their families had struggled through the Great Depression. They were brave men and patriots, the products of an imperfect but intact public culture that nurtured millions of heroes like them. Standing under that tree in Arlington, I could only wonder what Bill Farrow, Dean Hallmark, and Bob Meder might say about American culture today.

Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and the author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015