Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of three articles on the 75th anniversary of the raid over Tokyo immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Tuesday, the last surviving Raider, Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole will drink the final toast to the Doolittle Raiders, whose actions bolstered American confidence as the nation entered World War II.

“Let’s Avenge Sgt. Spatz” became the battle cry in Lebo and Lyon County for the days of April 26 - May 5, 1943.

Sgt. Harold “Skinny” Spatz had been one of Doolittle’s Raiders, the heroic men who volunteered to fly in the first raid over Tokyo four months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The Emporia Gazette, a year later, roused the people of this area to avenge his death by purchasing war bonds in memory of Sergeant Spatz. Sergeant Spatz Bond Week raised substantial funds as purchasers were listed town by town in the newspaper.

“This is the only way you can get revenge,” The Gazette encouraged. “Out of every $18.75 you loan to the United States, the treasury says $18 goes immediately into planes and guns and equipment. Give our boys these things — they’ll avenge the brutal murders.”

Harold “Skinny” Spatz was a popular Lebo boy who enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force shortly after graduation from high school in 1939. After training as an aircraft mechanic, Spatz eventually became a ground engineer and gunner who volunteered and was selected as one of 80 crew members for the secret mission in 1942.

Flying B-25 bombers, crew members endured intensive training in practicing take-offs in less than 500 feet. On April 18, raiders learned that their mission was to take off from the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier with only 462 feet of runway. This carrier was intended to launch much smaller fighter planes, but on this miserable, stormy day, 16 B-25s lumbered off their carrier, each carrying a payload of four 500-pound bombs intended for Japan’s aircraft factories, naval shipyards and oil storage tanks.

The USS Hornet was to position itself close enough to Tokyo so that its B-25s would have remaining fuel to fly on to China with the intent to land beyond the coast in an area controlled by Chinese forces, not Japanese-occupied China. Unfortunately, the Japanese spotted the location of the carrier several hundred miles further off-shore than planned, and all the planes had to leave earlier than anticipated, making their flights short on fuel once beyond Japan.

Harold Spatz’s plane “Bat Out of Hell” was the 16th and last plane to leave the carrier, and after the bombing, his plane ran out of fuel, as feared. Bailing out over a part of China under Japanese control, Spatz was captured by the Japanese and became a prisoner of war. Six months later, on Oct. 15, 1942, he and two others were executed. His brother, Robert Spatz, maintained that the charges were trumped up claims that the plane had machine-gunned children.

On May 22, General James Doolittle wrote Spatz’s father, confidentially informing him of his son’s capture. It wasn’t until a year later that President Franklin Roosevelt announced that some of those captured had been executed. The town of Lebo, which sent 200 young men to fight in the war, shuddered at the possibility that one of its own, the only Kansan in the raid, might be dead.

After the war, confirmation of Spatz’s death was announced in September of 1945. The three men executed by the Japanese on October 15, 1942, were Lt. William G. Farrow, Lt. Dean Hallmark and Staff Sergeant Harold Spatz. They were made to kneel, bound to crosses in Shanghai’s Public Cemetery No. 1. Their hands bound behind them and their eyes covered, they were killed by a firing squad. Their bodies were cremated and reports disclose the ashes were turned over to the International Red Cross. Further research reveals that the remains were taken to the International Funeral Home in Shanghai, where they remained on a shelf until the end of the war. The box containing Spatz’s cremains identified them as EL Brister, a deliberate falsification. An official list verified that the fictional names on the boxes corresponded to the executed men, according to a September 1946 issue of “The Stars and Stripes.”

People in the city of Lebo were horrified. Their worst fears had been realized. The years between 1942 and 1945 had been filled with mixed dread and hope. Some in town remained hopeful until the end, while others, noting the length of time with no word at all about Skinny, became fatalistic. At the end, Spatz’s father, Robert Spatz was gratified to receive his son’s watch, transferred through a Catholic priest in Shanghai to the Catholic priest in Waverly, who finally presented it to Spatz. The young airman’s family was posthumously awarded his Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and Aerial Gunner Badge.

Sergeant Spatz’s ashes now rest in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, sometimes called the Punch Bowl Cemetery in Honolulu. Family members have visited it several times.

In Lebo, the family has erected a tombstone by his parents’ stones. There is a memorial in downtown Lebo and a park in town bears his name: the Harold “Skinny” Spatz Memorial Park. Another memorial stone gifted by Spatz’s sister, Reba Jean Spatz Barnett, from her Chase County farm, honors six local service men. This memorial is standing in Lebo Memorial Garden at the center of town.

A special honor in memory of Harold Spatz came from Colonel John F. Gaughan II, Vice Commander of the Department of the Air Force, when he sent a letter to Barnett stating, “It is my distinct pleasure to inform you of the intention of the United States Air Force to honor your brother Harold A. Spatz, by dedicating an enlisted dormitory in his honor. The unquestionable courage displayed by your brother during the Doolittle Raid, and while held captive by the forces of Imperial Japan in 1942, deem it fitting to have his memory enshrined to inspire current and future Air Force members. With your concurrence, the United States Air Force will proceed with plans to dedicate building 340 at McConnell Air Force Base (in Wichita) to honor your brother, Harold A. Spatz.”

This dedication of Spatz Hall took place on May 20, 2000, in Wichita. Family members receiving a military escort included Bob Spatz, Harold’s brother, and his wife Caroline; Reba Jean Spatz Barnett, Harold’s sister and her husband; Lt. Col Bob Hite, co-pilot of Harold’s plane, and Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator of Doolittle’s plane.

Nephew Dr. Jim Barnett, former Emporia physician, spoke at the dedication of the Harold A. “Skinny” Spatz Memorial Park in Lebo in November 2003. As he movingly spoke of his uncle’s life, he also credited Lebo’s long dedication to answering the call to defend the freedom of the United States. Dr. Barnett’s willingness to share documentation that his family has accumulated as members of the Children of Doolittle’s Raiders and correspondence with Chinese families who protected raiders who crash landed, often at risk of their own lives, is much appreciated.

In July 2009, brother Bob Spatz had the opportunity to take an honor flight in memory of his brother. A recipient of Jeremy Bloom’s Wish of a Lifetime, Bob traveled to Wichita to take off in a B-24 Liberator for a half-hour flight. Carolyn Spatz Davidson, cousin of Harold Spatz, has done invaluable research into the life and death of her cousin and many of the raiders who survived. She resides at Emporia Place.

As a special treat for those of us at Lyon County History Center, Phil George, 96-year-old high school classmate of Skinny’s, visited the center recently to tell of his memories of his friend. Skinny was popular, George said — the president of their senior class at Lebo.

The two had known each other since the age of 6 when they attended Sunday School together. George remembered that Skinny was on the basketball and football teams in high school, once scoring two touchdowns against Hartford High School. The basketball team during those years went to state, earning fourth place in the state tournament. On their graduation day after practice for the evening ceremony, a group of five young men went fishing. Later, Skinny returned to the gas station where his family lived and worked to take his shift.

Spatz’s mother had died in a traffic accident in Pennsylvania when Skinny and his brother and sister were young. His father had returned to Lebo to raise the children where they lived and worked at the Phillips 66 service station that his father had built. George said that he never saw Skinny after the evening ceremony. George attended a citizens’ military training camp that summer. Spatz and two others from Lebo enlisted shortly after graduation. If Spatz ever returned to Lebo on leave, George was in Manhattan at Kansas State, so their paths never crossed again.

Remarkably, George went on to serve in the Navy, flying off another aircraft carrier named USS Hornet. The carrier that Doolittle’s Raiders had taken off from for their mission had been destroyed by the time George was serving, but tradition maintained that the name was to be carried on in successive ships. George proudly wore his Navy USS Hornet cap when visiting us.

The Lyon County History Center will honor Harold “Skinny” Spatz during Veterans’ Week in November with a special showing of “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” the movie that ensured Doolittle’s Raiders fame for their heroic mission. Look for this event during the All Veterans’ Tribute Week.

Learn more

The Lyon County History Center will honor Harold “Skinny” Spatz during Veterans’ Week in November with a special showing of “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” the movie that ensured Doolittle’s Raiders fame for their heroic mission. Look for this event during the All Veterans’ Tribute Week.

Also, visit doolittleraider.com.

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