Half a century ago, Moorpark resident Howard Sessler boarded a B-25 bomber headed for the unfriendly skies over Japan. He didn't know whether he would ever make it back.
Organized by Gen. James H. (Jimmy) Doolittle, the 80 men who would later be called the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders gathered on the aircraft carrier Hornet in April, 1942, and received an ominous warning.
"Doolittle called us all on the deck," Sessler recalled this week, "and said: 'If there's any of you who don't want to go, just tell me. Because the chances of you making it back are pretty slim.' And nobody batted an eye."
The bombing raid on areas around Tokyo early in World War II was aimed at boosting America's ebbing military confidence, and at showing Japan that it was vulnerable to air attack.
Historians say the effort did both.
On Saturday, Sessler and the rest of Doolittle's Raiders will be awarded the Spirit of Flight Award at the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.
"It's pretty good to have the recognition," said Sessler, 74. "It certainly doesn't hurt anything and it revives the memory of the raid because, my God, 50 years ago, who remembers the thing anymore?"
Sessler, who owns a construction company, said he and his wife, Anna Bell, will be unable to attend the ceremony because of work obligations. He said he is looking forward to a planned reunion of the surviving Raiders next year in Fresno.
"I really don't think about it too much," Sessler said of his role in history. "I really associate it with a bunch of real wonderful guys and the memory of those guys stays with me because we were real close and still are."
Sessler, who joined the service in 1940, was stationed in South Carolina when Doolittle arrived, seeking volunteers for a dangerous mission.
The men signed on without knowing exactly what they would be asked to do. They were trained in Florida and then shipped out from Oakland with the 16 B-25 bombers to be used in the raid. Forced to take off prematurely after their carrier was spotted by a Japanese boat 700 miles off the coast of Japan, it seemed unlikely the Raiders would have enough fuel to complete their mission and continue on to land in China.
If not for an unexpected tail wind and a decision to break formation and fly individually, Sessler said it would have been impossible for the crews to ditch their aircraft close enough to the China shore to make their way to safety.
Seventy-three of the 80 men who took part in the mission survived, including Doolittle, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leadership of the effort. He now lives in Northern California. Fewer than half of the Raiders are still alive.
Mike Jackson, executive director of the hall established in 1962, said the group deserves the award, which has previously been bestowed on the Mercury Astronauts, the Air Force Thunderbirds and the crew of the Voyager.
"When they did their thing off the carrier, morale in the United States was at an all-time low," Jackson said. "We had taken it on the chin in Pearl Harbor and in a string of battles after that."
Jackson said the raid didn't deliver a tide-turning level of damage to the area around Tokyo. But it showed Japanese officials that they could be hit, and it showed Americans that the war didn't have to be a one-sided affair.
"The country was in the dumper," Jackson said. "It was a needed ego boost."
Sessler left the Air Force in 1946 and moved to Southern California, living in Huntington Park, Downey and Bellflower before settling in Moorpark around 1973.
He speaks proudly of his role in the mission, which was commemorated by the 1944 film, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," but says it's not something that comes to mind too often anymore.
"It's been 50 years and I've done all the thinking I'm gonna do about it," he said.