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.'”
In her book “Calculated Risk: The Extraordinary Life of Jimmy Doolittle — Aviation Pioneer and World War II Hero,” the aviator's granddaughter, Jonna Doolittle Hoppes, described the preparations on deck before launch: “Deck crews had repositioned the planes as far back as possible, but the runaway still looked critically short. (Doolittle) opened the hatch to inspect their supplies. Survival equipment included Navy gas masks, .45 automatics, clips of ammunition, hunting knives, flash lights, emergency rations, first aid kits, canteens, compasses, and life jackets — enough for each crew member.”
On April 18, about 200 miles short of the intended launch point, the task force was spotted by civilian Japanese picket ships, who radioed their position to the Japanese fleet. Unwilling to risk a naval engagement, Doolittle and the task force commander agreed the bombers would launch early — even if it meant the pilots not reaching the safety of China. Facing poor weather conditions, Doolittle and the other pilots managed to get their 16 planes in the air, an amazing feat in and of itself, and set course for Japan.
In addition to Tokyo, Doolittle's Raiders bombed Yokohama, Kobe, Yokosuka, and Nagoya. The damage done by this raid was relatively light when compared with the massive bombing campaign against Japan in the years to come. Nevertheless, the action had profound consequences on both Japanese and American morale.
Underestimating American anger, resolve, logistical ability and gift for improvisation, the Japanese high command had completely rejected the possibility of an American bombing campaign against the home islands. Now, the Japanese people suffered from their lack of foresight. Conversely, Americans celebrated at the humbling of an enemy that claimed to be impervious to American weapons.
The next month saw the massive carrier battle at the Coral Sea, the first naval battle in history where surface ships never saw each other — the fighting conducted entirely by planes from opposing carriers. In June, America won the critical Battle of Midway, which destroyed four Japanese fleet carriers and transferred the strategic initiative of the war from Japan to the United States.
Most of the Doolittle Raid pilots had to ditch early, many in Japanese-occupied China. Of the 80 men who participated in the Doolittle Raid, 69 escaped capture and death, largely because of the efforts of the Chinese people to shelter and conduct the pilots to India. A few were killed during the raid, and several more taken prisoner by the Japanese. At least two of the captured pilots were executed by the Japanese.
Doolittle won the Medal of Honor for his part in the mission, as well as a promotion to general. He died at the age of 96 in 1993 at his home in California.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: email@example.com