“Despite inflicting only light damage on the enemy, the raid electrified an American public still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
IT WAS 75 years ago this week that one of the most celebrated bomber strikes of the Second World War was carried out in the Pacific — the Doolittle Raid.
Named for the mission’s 45-year-old commander, Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, the attack saw 16 twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bombers take off from the carrier USS Hornet in broad daylight and strike a range of targets in and around the Japanese capital of Tokyo.
The stripped down, land-based planes, which were crewed by 80 Army air corps volunteers from the 17th Bomb Group, would fly more than 600 miles just feet above the wave tops to penetrate enemy airspace undetected. Once inland, the aircraft made for Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe and Nagoya where they delivered 16 tons of bombs on an assortment of industrial and military targets before flying 1,000 more miles to China.
Despite inflicting only light damage on the enemy, the raid electrified an American public still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor. The airmen who carried out the mission became national celebrities; their exploits a gold mine for War Department public relations.
Infuriated by the raid, Tokyo unleashed a ruthless campaign of reprisals against the Chinese for abetting the American effort. More significantly, the Imperial Fleet hoped to even the score against the U.S. by seizing the island of Midway — a move that would trigger one of the most decisive sea battles of the war and ultimately tip the naval balance in the Pacific in favour of the Allies.
With this week marking the Doolittle Raid’s 75th anniversary, MHN wanted to explore one of the Second World War’s most remarkable episodes. Here are 12 facts about the attack and its aftermath:
The raid took place just 132 days after Pearl Harbor
The Doolittle Raid was initially planned as payback for the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941. Within two weeks of what President Roosevelt called the “day of infamy,” the White House ordered the military to mount a retaliatory strike against Japan itself. It was certainly a tall order. With the enemy homeland located on the far side of the Pacific, just how to carry out FDR’s directive was unclear. Then in January, 1942, a navy captain named Francis Low stepped forward with a plan. He proposed sneaking an aircraft carrier laden with land-based bombers close enough to the Japanese home islands to launch an attack. It was a wild idea, but the brass liked it and quickly set about bringing it to fruition.
Nothing like it had ever been tried before
The plan called for a small task force, built around the carrier USS Hornet, to secretly cross the Pacific and close to within 600 miles of the Japanese coast. Once in position, the flattop would launch twin-engine army B-25 bombers from its flight deck (a feat never before attempted in history). The planes, each carrying four 500-pound bombs, would proceed undetected at low-level to a series of targets on the island of Honshu. With their payloads delivered, the bombers would be unable to land to the Hornet’s small deck, so they would make for pre-designated air strips in China. After landing, the crews would be smuggled out of the country.
Doolittle was no stranger to daredevil flying
Command of the raid was given to, James Doolittle, a veteran army barnstormer. The 45-year-old, who was called by some the “the Babe Ruth of flyboys,” first made a name for himself in 1922 by piloting a World War One-era De Havilland bomber from Jacksonville, Florida to San Diego, California. The record breaking 2,000-mile hop lasted 21 hours and 19 minutes and earned Doolittle the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later he’d help pioneer instrument flying and would make history by performing aviation’s first outside loop. After being tapped for the mission, Doolittle assembled 24 bomber crews to fly the classified mission. The volunteers had no idea what to expect other than the promise of hazardous duty.
The B-25 was not the first choice for the raid
While the Doolittle Raid would make the B-25 one of the most famous warbirds in history, mission planners initially explored using a number of other medium bombers before settling on the then unproven Mitchell. The Douglas B-23 Dragon, which had a longer range than the B-25, was initially considered. However, the pre-war bomber’s 92-foot wingspan was judged too unwieldy for a cramped carrier deck. The smaller Martin B-26 was also in the running, but it wasn’t clear if the plane could be modified to take off from a carrier. It was soon decided that despite its limited range and payload, the B-25 was small enough (and nimble enough) to launch at sea.
The planes were heavily modified
In order to fly the marathon 2,000+ miles required for the 13-hour raid, the bombers would need to stripped of hundreds of pounds of equipment. Armour plating and defensive machine guns were jettisoned. Even the pride of the American bomber corps, the top secret Norden bombsight, was stripped from every one of Doolittle’s planes. An ad hoc replacement, dubbed the Mark Twain sight, was improvised using two pieces of ordinary aluminum. To extend the B-25s’ 1,300-mile range, collapsible auxiliary fuel tanks were installed in the crew compartment. Once lightened, the feather-weight bombers relentlessly rehearsed white-knuckle carrier take offs on runways marked to resemble the USS Hornet’s 467-flight deck. None of the crews still had an idea where they were going.
The task force sailed with surprisingly little security
On April 1, 16 B-25s, emblazoned with names like Bat Out of Hell, Whiskey Pete and Whirling Dervish were loaded aboard the USS Hornet at Alameda naval base in San Francisco Bay. Despite being overloaded with bulky bombers, the carrier also sailed with a complement of fighter planes. The navy worried that the task force might have to fight its way back to friendly waters after launching the raid and would need all the defensive aircraft it could carry. But since the Hornet’s lower decks were jam-packed, the ship would steam beneath the Golden Gate with the bombers in full view. It would take the flattop 16-days to reach the waters off Japan. The Hornet was joined en route by a task force of escort cruisers, destroyers and the carrier USS Enterprise.
The mission was almost blown in the 11th hour
The Doolittle Raid very nearly never happened. At sunrise on April 18, the task force was about 700 miles from the Japanese coast when the ships were sighted by an enemy patrol boat. The Japanese vessel, No. 23 Nittō Maru, was quickly destroyed by a barrage of shellfire from the destroyer USS Nashville, but not before its skipper radioed the location of the American flotilla. The entire mission in jeopardy, Doolittle and the captain of the Hornet made a fateful decision: begin the raid immediately, even though the carrier was still 10 hours and more than 100 miles from the planned launch point. It was hoped that the planes would still have the range to reach China. At around 8:20 a.m. local time, Doolittle’s B-25s began lifting off from the carrier’s deck. It took almost an hour to get them all airborne. Amazingly, not a single bird was lost during the scramble. By 9:30 a.m., the raiders had formed up and were hurtling towards their objectives. It would take them until the afternoon to reach their targets.
Japanese forces were unprepared
Despite the early discovery of the task force by the Japanese patrol boat, the American bombers faced little resistance from local air defences. Flak batteries remained mostly silent; only one of the B-25s was damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Three Japanese fighters attacked the bombers and were shot down by American gunners. Their mission complete, the raiders set a southwesterly course for China, which lay more than 1,000 miles to the south west.
Doolittle thought the raid did little
With night falling and their fuel reserves nearly exhausted, 14 of the 16 bombers crews crash-landed or bailed out over Japanese-occupied China. One of the planes never reached the mainland and was forced to ditch in the sea. Two of the crew members drowned. A raider from another plane died after his parachute collided with a cliff-face. Only one bomber in the flight landed safely after diverting to a Soviet airfield near Vladivostok. The Russians, who were not yet at war with Japan, impounded the aircraft and detained the crew. It would take months for Moscow to released them. The fliers were finally allowed to slip across the Iranian border in 1943 whereby they made their way to Allied forces in the Persian Gulf. Doolittle and his crew hit the silk too; the raid’s illustrious commander touched down unceremoniously in a pile of cattle manure. With all of his planes lost and having inflicted only light damage to the enemy, Doolittle imagined the brass would brand the mission a failure and have him court martialed. Only later would he learn just how successful he’d been.
Japanese reprisals were swift, furious
Although only light damage was inflicted, the fact that American bombers had struck Japan from seemingly out of nowhere was a huge embarrassment for the regime in Tokyo. Imperial troops were soon scouring the Chinese countryside for any trace of the American fliers. Eight were eventually captured. All were tried for war crimes and condemned to die; five of the sentences were commuted. An unlucky three were executed by firing squad six months after their capture. The Japanese held the remaining captives as POWs. One died of starvation; the remaining four were liberated in 1945. Tragically, Japanese commanders directed most of their wrath for the Doolittle Raid at Chinese civilians who were suspected of aiding the downed American fliers. An estimated 10,000 locals were murdered as part of the retaliatory Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign that ran throughout 1942.
The raid helped win the war in the Pacific
While largely a symbolic gesture, the Doolittle Raid would trigger a string of decisive events that would eventually lead to Imperial Japan’s downfall. Fearing heavier follow-up strikes, Tokyo moved quickly to capture outlying islands from which American planes might strike next. One such target was the U.S. airbase on Midway. Within weeks, a four-carrier task force was steaming for the postage-stamp sized atoll that lay between Hawaii and Japan. The objective was to seize the island and hopefully force the U.S. fleet into a decisive showdown there. Unbeknownst to Tokyo, a naval codebreaker had discovered the enemy objective and the American fleet rushed to ambush the Japanese armada. The ensuing three-day Battle of Midway saw U.S. dive bombers destroy four enemy carriers, irreparably crippling the Imperial Navy. It was just seven months into the war, but America suddenly had the upper hand in the Pacific.
The story became a national legend
The raid on Japan became one of the most celebrated American victories of the Second World War. Doolittle himself received the Medal of Honor and was promoted to general. The other 79 fliers were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses for their bravery. The raid became the focus of several books and films including the Oscar-winning wartime drama Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). The carrier USS Shangri-La, commissioned in the last year of the war, was named in reference to President Roosevelt’s famous quip to a reporter’s question about where exactly where the Doolittle Raiders had taken off from. “They flew from Shangri-La,” FDR remarked.
While most of the fliers were later assigned to combat duty in the Pacific, North Africa and Europe, the 61 who survived the war assembled annually after the war to recount their legendary mission and honour their lost comrades. These reunions continued uninterrupted until 2013. Only one raider is still alive at the time of this writing. Richard E. Cole, aged 101, was a copilot on Doolittle’s own plane. This very week, the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, which maintains a permanent Doolittle Raid exhibit, will be hosting Cole and his family at a commemorative event marking the 75th anniversary. And the Doolittle legend will continue to live on into the 21st Century – the U.S. Air Force’s planned B-21 stealth bomber, which will be manufactured by Northrop Grumman, is slated to be dubbed “the Raider” in honour of the famous mission.