Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid: one of the greatest aeronautical feats in military history.
On April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 Mitchell medium bombers led by U.S. Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet and dropped their bomb loads on the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Yokosuka, Yokohama, Kobe, and Osaka.
Although the tactical and strategic damage inflicted on the Japanese was negligible the raid reaped enormous psychological and symbolic benefits for the United States and its Allies during the early months of 1942—when the Allied war effort was reeling from a series of crushing blows.
The Japanese Empire had bombed the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor resulting in the loss of many of our nation’s battleships. American forces at Bataan in the Philippines had surrendered nine days before the raid and the sole American garrison at Corregidor would fall soon afterward. Most of the Southern and Central Pacific along Southeast Asia was under Japanese occupation.
In the Atlantic Allied shipping was being sunk at a horrific rate by German U-Boats. In Europe the Germans (although stymied at the gates of Moscow) still occupied significant amounts of Russian Territory and were also getting ready to threaten Libya and Egypt in North Africa once more.
The United States military despite being at war for four months was still woefully unprepared to undertake any major offensive operations against Germany, Italy, or Japan.
The situation was very bleak.
Unable to mount any major offensives, the U.S. military was forced to resort to a symbolic act of defiance in the face of the enemy. The Doolittle Raid was that act.
The idea was to launch an aerial assault on the capital of Japan, Tokyo but using conventional carrier based planes was too risky. The carriers would need to come close to the Japanese islands and thus expose themselves to land-based and carrier plane attack from the Japanese air force and navy. But what if medium bombers could be used? Was it possible to launch a medium bomber off a carrier flight deck armed with bombs; fly to Japan and drop them; and then proceed onward to friendly air fields in Nationalist China?
The best and the brightest in the Navy and U.S. Army Air Corps tackled the problem and determined that the B-25 Mitchell bomber could be used and the carrier U.S.S. Hornet was the perfect carrier to launch the bombers.
The question remained: who was to train the pilots and aircrews involved in the mission and lead this hazardous mission?
James “Jimmy” Doolittle was already a living legend long before he led the raid that bears his name. He was one of the true pioneers of early aviation and made aeronautical by demonstration that pilots could take off, fly, and land their planes on instruments alone without any visual frame of reference. Before he led his mission he had served as a trouble-shooter regarding the B-26 Martin Marauder medium bomber which had teething problems and had killed several pilots and crews in flight. The plane was nicknamed the “Widow Maker” but Doolittle proved that the plane was a good plane and the pilots were not receiving the proper training on how to fly the planes. His recommendations solved the problem and the B-26 played a vital role in American military aviation during World War Two.
Doolittle accepted the command and began the special training needed to launch a bomber using a short, pitching runway. The B-25s Doolittle and his aircrews were flying were specially modified for the mission: excess equipment was removed to lighten the planes; the engines were modified for greater fuel consumption. It took two months for Doolittle to train his aircrews for the task ahead.
On April 1, 1942, sixteen B-25s were placed on the deck of the Hornet and the following day the Hornet and the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise took to sea on the historic mission.
The task force was to close within 480 miles of Japan before launching the planes and returning home but on April 18, a Japanese picket boat sighted the task force and was able to radio a warning to Japan before being sunk by escort vessels protecting the carriers.
Doolittle and Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey both agreed to launch the planes despite the fact that they were beyond their effective range and would probably have to ditch short of the airfields in Nationalist China.
What followed was the result of American ingenuity, doggedness, and courage. All 16 B-25s launched safely and proceeded toward their targets. By mid-day on the 18th the planes scattered towards the target cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Yokosuka. Although there was some anti-aircraft fire and some harassment from Japanese fighter planes; no American bomber was shot down over Japan. All the bombers dropped their bombs and proceeded to China.
Because they launched prematurely none of the B-25s landed safely in China. All had to crash-land save for one bomber that landed in Vladivostok, Russia (which was neutral in the war against Japan) and were interned by the Russians.
The Doolittle Raiders suffered eleven casualties: one man was killed while parachuting to safety. Ten were captured and held in Japanese prison camps—where they were treated brutally. Three of the captured airmen were later tried in a mock trial and executed.
But for those who parachuted safely in China they (including Doolittle) were led to safety and made it back to the United States where they continued the fight against the Axis forces of Japan, Germany, and Italy.
The morning after his historic mission, Doolittle deemed himself a failure and was convinced he would be court-martialed and sent to the stockade. Instead he received American’s highest military accolade: the Congressional Medal of Honor; a promotion to Brigadier General (he would rise to Lieutenant General by war’s end; and new commands in North Africa and, later, England; all the while continuing to serve his country with brilliance, valor, and honor.
In terms of tactical and strategic damage the Doolittle Raid did little but in terms of symbolic and inspirational value the raid worked wonders. It was a blow against the Japanese leadership which promised that no enemy would ever attack the Japanese homeland. It provoked the Japanese to launch the ill-fated Midway campaign that resulted in a dreadful defeat for their Navy and changed the course of the Pacific War.
The Doolittle Raid demonstrated American resiliency in the face of extreme crisis; its willingness to accept risks, devise new tactics and strategies to strike at its foes; and its eagerness to attack the enemy.
Seventy years on (a lifetime for some) the Doolittle Raid exemplifies the triumph of the American Spirit; its noblest and bravest virtues of its citizens; and the inspirational hope that inspires future generations to emulate and surpass.