On April 18, 1942, 16 B-25B Mitchell bombers attacked cities in Japan, the first retaliatory strike since the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor four months earlier. Led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, the bombing raid provided a major morale boost to Americans during some of the darkest days of World War II.
When the Japanese high command decided to go to war in December 1941 with the United States, a key factor in its decision was that no American bomber had the range to hit the Japanese home islands. This became a frequent propaganda tool that was used in the days after Pearl Harbor to reassure the Japanese people that the war would never be brought to their homes. What is more, it had the virtue of being true. American bombers did indeed lack the range or the forward bases to threaten the home islands.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the December sneak attack, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt demanded that the American military find a way to strike back at the Japanese empire. A plan began to develop that called for light bombers to launch from an aircraft carrier. The problem, of course, was that carrier decks tended to be far too short for bombers to successfully take off. Additionally, landing the same bomber on a carrier deck presented even more problems and seemed increasingly unlikely to succeed.
Despite these challenges, the military was keen to follow FDR's directive and hit back. Command for the operation was given to Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, a military and civilian pilot as well as an aeronautical engineer.
In his book “Flyboys: A True Story of Courage,” historian James Bradley describes the then 45-year-old officer, “(Doolittle) was a short, muscular fireplug of a man with a confident grin above his left chin. His nose was a little crooked from having been broken on his road to becoming a boxing champion. He was just five feet four inches tall and never weighed more than 145 pounds, but he was a giant who reached the clouds, a king of the sky.”
Doolittle selected a team of airmen to train for the raid, and tirelessly practiced short takeoffs to simulate carrier conditions. The task of preparing these pilots went to Lt. Hank Miller, who trained them at Eglin Field in Florida and McClellan Field in California.
In their article “Countdown to Tokyo,” historians Ronald H. Bailey and Susan Zimmerman wrote: “To learn how to take off with a 31,000-pound fully loaded bomber from a runway less than 500 feet long, Miller's students had to unlearn old habits. They were accustomed to taking off from runways up to a mile long and achieving plenty of airspeed before liftoff. Miller had to teach them to take off at a speed so slow the engines almost stalled as the plane lifted off in the short space of a carrier deck.”
Weight deemed non-essential for the mission had to be removed from the planes, and in some cases even defensive machine guns were pulled out, to be replaced only with long broom-handles painted black to deter Japanese fighters from attacking.
The plan would be to launch the planes from the deck of the USS Hornet close enough to the Japanese home islands to give the planes maximum range, but far enough away so that the fleet might avoid detection. The bombers would fly to targets in Japan, drop their payload, and then proceed westward toward friendly China. Once over China, the plan was for the pilots to land if possible, ditch and bail out if necessary, and then make their way home via India and the British empire.
Bradley wrote: “When Doolittle's Raiders and the sailors of the USS Hornet task force sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge headed for Tokyo, they still only knew that they were headed for somewhere 'outside the U.S.' When the ships were safely out into the Pacific, the loudspeakers boomed: 'The target of this task force is Tokyo. The army is going to bomb Japan, and we're going to get them as close to the enemy as we can. This is a chance for all of us to give the (Japanese) a dose of their own medicine.'”
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