Seventy-five years ago, 16 B-25 land-based bombers took off from the US CV-6, the aircraft carrier Hornet and bombed Tokyo and other major Japanese cities. They did little material damage but the repercussions felt from their tiny pinprick against the Japanese homeland would have a far lasting impact later.
Shortly after the debacle at Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt gave the task to the military to bring the war to the Japanese and wanted their homeland bombed. The Japanese in the following months would sweep across the Pacific, taking the Philippines, Burma and were flush with victory.
Roosevelt’s order to bomb Japan was met with skepticism, how could the US launch an air attack when they had no bases close enough to launch. Roosevelt wanted a victory to stimulate the morale of the American people. The Doolittle Raid was born.
The plan was to launch land-based B-25 bombers off an aircraft carrier, something that had never been attempted. The fact that the Japanese would see B-25s over their skies would be confusing. The Chinese had no air force to speak of and the Japanese military would not expect the Americans to risk their few precious carriers to launch short-range carrier aircraft at Japanese targets so far from home.
LTC Jimmy Doolittle was picked to lead the raid. Doolittle had always been a maverick in the military, he was perhaps the only General never to have attained the rank of Captain or Colonel. When he left the active military after World War I, he was a 1LT, but when he was called back to duty, he was brought in as his reserve rank as a Major. After the raid, he was promoted to Brigadier General skipping over the Colonel rank.
Doolittle selected 24 aircrews from the 17th Bombardment Group and immediately sent them to Eglin Field, Florida where they began practicing taking off a heavily laden bomber off a short runway that a carrier would provide.
The B-25 was the best choice for the job, but they had to lighten them up a bit. The tail machine gunner was removed, and black broomsticks were put in their place. Three auxiliary fuel tanks, a collapsible 360-gallon bladder and ten five-gallon gas cans were added. The bomb load was small, just three 500-pound bombs and one incendiary cluster bomb was the payload. The Norden bombsights were removed and a specially designed one for low-level bombing was installed. Called the “Mark Twain”, it was designed by CPT C.R. Greening, USAAF.
The pilots were not told what the targets were, only that it was a dangerous mission. The only hint was that they were being trained by US Navy Lieutenant Henry L. Miller; so, from this clue, the pilots concluded they were heading to the Pacific. Many assumed wrongly at the Philippines, while Doolittle told them to keep their mouths shut, with the secrecy of the mission taking precedence.
The plan was for the bombers to take off from the carriers, bomb Japan and then fly to China, and become the backbone of General Chiang Kai-Shek’s air force. A total distance of 1200 miles. But as all military operations, snags were hit.
On April 1, 16 B-25 bombers were lifted on board the Hornet and lashed to the flight deck. North of Midway, Admiral Halsey’s carrier the USS Enterprise joined the Hornet, as well as four cruisers, eight destroyers, and two oil tankers. The task force headed to Japan.
The pilots finally learned what their target was. “Our destination is Tokyo,” Doolittle said, “we’re going to bomb Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya.” The Army pilots cheered. “It’s going to be a pretty tight squeeze”, Doolittle said. “But it’s all been worked out the best possible way, he added.”
Because he had brought the eight reserve aircrews along, Doolittle asked if any of the men wished to back out of the mission now that they targets had been revealed; none did.
Doolittle’s plan was to sail within 450 miles of Japan, launch the aircraft, bomb Tokyo and then make the 650 miles to China. But on the morning of April 18, the task force was sighted by a Japanese picket ship, the Nitto Maru. Rather than risk the carriers so far from home, the order was given to launch the aircraft, 823 miles from Tokyo. This was a full ten hours before scheduled launch. Originally the raid was supposed to take place in hours of darkness. Instead, it was to take place around noon time.
The B-25s all managed to take off without incident and headed to their targets. Their surprise was complete. There were few Japanese interceptors in the sky and the anti-aircraft fire was light and ineffective. Only one bomber received damage from anti-aircraft fire.
Doolittle flew his plane at 100 feet AGL and once over his target, he climbed to 1500 feet and dropped his small bombload. Once his bombs were away, he again dove for the deck and sped south to confuse the Japanese where he came from and where he was going.
Despite having only 16 bombers and a light payload, Oil storage tanks, factory areas, military installations were bombed in Tokyo, Kobe, Yokohama, and Nagoya. One bomb slightly damaged the ship Ryuho which was in dry-dock and was being refitted as a carrier. Doolittle reported, “Damage far exceeded the most optimistic expectations.”
The Japanese tried to issue propaganda that the raid had lost nine planes had caused no damage other than hitting schools and hospitals but the word got out. It was a tremendous loss of face as the Japanese had tasted nothing but victory and now their capital had been bombed. The commanding officer in charge of Tokyo’s air defenses committed ritual suicide because he felt dishonored and ashamed by the American attack.
Argentinian commercial attaché to Japan Ramon Muniz Lavelle witnessed and documented the outcome of the raid and he had this to say dispelling the Japanese propaganda of little damage:
“I ran up to our roof and saw four American bombers flying in over the rooftops. They couldn’t have been more than 100 feet off the ground. I looked down the streets. All Tokyo seemed to be in panic…. I could see fires starting near the port…. That raid by Doolittle was one of the greatest psychological tricks ever used. It caught [the Japanese] by surprise. Their unbounded confidence began to crack.”
The pilots headed for China. One pilot flew northwest and landed at the Soviet island of Vladivostok. The plane was confiscated and the crew interned. The remainder headed for China. Aided by a strong tailwind they flew on thru the darkness, rain, and clouds until their tanks ran dry.
The Japanese captured eight crew members after two of the crew members drowned while ditching in the ocean. They were charged with war crimes and in October of 1942 three were executed. The remaining five spent the rest of the war in horrible conditions as POWs. One more died in captivity of disease. 50 more raiders bailed out over China, and 49 were rescued by the Chinese, one died in the parachute jump. The Chinese rescued another 10 more men that crashed landed near the coast.
The resultant morale boost for the American public was tremendous. But the effect the raid had on the Japanese was profound. They were shaken to their core and as a result changed their strategic plans.
They first sent additional troops into China and seized the airfields that the Americans were aiming to land on. They then took terrible reprisals against the Chinese people for helping the US pilots. Chinese estimates put the number of dead after being slaughtered is about 250,000. The amazing thing was that the Chinese people didn’t have hard feelings against the Americans for the reprisals suffered. They treated the pilots as heroes.
The Japanese thought the bombers came from Midway Island so they set out to take it with a diversionary attack in the Aleutian Islands. That took precious resources away from the attack on Port Moresby in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The resulting battle was a draw, but the Japanese navy withdrew.
The US had cracked the Japanese codes and because of this, knew what the operational plan was. The Battle of Midway was a crushing loss for Japan as they lost four of the top aircraft carriers but also all of the combat tested pilots as well.
Japan’s offensive power was crushed at Midway and they’d be forced to fight a strategic defensive battle from that point on.
All of the pilots on the mission received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their bravery. The few raiders that were captured also received a Purple Heart. Jimmy Doolittle was promoted to Brigadier General and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt after returning home.
Richard Cole is the last surviving Doolittle Raider, as was their custom on the anniversary of the raid, he went and toasted the men as well as the raiders that passed away since the last reunion. At 101-years old, Doolittle’s co-pilot toasted his comrades with the 1896 Hennessey Cognac (the birth year of Doolittle) that has been the tradition.
During those dark days of World War II, the Doolittle Raiders gave the American people the morale boost that they so sorely needed. It remains one of the most daring raids that the US has ever carried out. And it set the tone for later in the war when the US would fill the sky with 500 bombers over Tokyo.
Just a year to the day after the raid, the US intercepted a Japanese message that Admiral Yamamoto, the mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor would be visiting the Solomon Islands on an inspection.
The US scrambled long range P-38 fighters and shot down Yamamoto’s Betty bomber killing him in the crash into the jungle.
Photo courtesy of Doolittle Raiders