America Strikes Japan – The Doolittle Raid, 70 Years Ago

On April 17, 1942, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey‘s Task Force 16 was approaching the Japanese home islands in heavy weather. The task force, comprised of aircraft carriers USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8), along with escorting cruisers USS Salt Lake City (CA-25), USS Northampton (CA-26), USS Nashville (CL-43), and USS Vincennes (CA-44), had refueled from their accompanying oilers and headed for Japan. The oilers and the task force’s destroyers withdrew back towards Pearl Harbor.

Aircraft from Enterprise flew search missions ahead of the task force. To this point, having maintained complete radio silence, they were undetected by the enemy. Hornet‘s planes were all stowed below deck in the hangar and couldn’t fly because she was carrying 16 North American B-25 Mitchell bombers from the United States Army Air Forces. The bombers were commanded by then-Lieutenant Colonel James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle. Soon after Hornet was commissioned, Army pilots successfully flew a loaded B-25 from her deck in February, 1942. The B-25 was chosen for the mission because not only could it take off from the short length provided by the carrier, it could carry an appreciable bomb load to Japan with enough range to reach friendly airfields in China.

April 18, 1942 would be a day that would change the course of the war in the Pacific.

At 0312, two Japanese ships were detected by radar and their lights spotted by lookouts aboard the American ships. General quarters (battle stations) was sounded aboard the task force. Halsey ordered a course change to avoid contact. They remained undetected. About four hours later at 0715, one of Enterprise‘s search planes sighted an enemy patrol ship. The Japanese patrol vessel, Nittō Maru, radioed an attack warning to Japan at 0738. At 0744 the task force sighted the enemy at a distance of 10,000 yards. Nashville was ordered to sink the enemy with gunfire. Minutes later, her 6-inch main battery sent the ship to the bottom.

However, the damage was done. The task force had been discovered, and one of the few things that could protect Doolittle’s 16 bombers from enemy defenses was surprise. Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle, Hornet commander Captain Marc Mitscher, and Vice Admiral Halsey conferred. The task force was still hours of sailing and over 400 miles away from the planned launch point. They faced the possibility of enemy interception and counter-attack if they waited. If they launched now, the bombers probably couldn’t make it to a safe landing in China; they wouldn’t have enough fuel. If they waited, the two precious carriers would be in severe danger. They made their decision. Just after Nashville‘s guns had silenced the Japanese patrol ship, the order came over Hornet‘s loud speakers:

Army pilots man your battle stations for take off!

The bomber crews knew they weren’t at the launch point yet. Many of them thought it was a drill, even though they had heard and seen Nashville‘s gunfire. It wasn’t a drill. The time to strike had come. The navigators then learned that they were 823 miles from Tokyo and would likely face heavy headwinds all the way to their targets. They all knew that making it to China probably wouldn’t happen.

The task force turned into the wind. The gusty conditions, combined with Hornet churning through the Pacific at 27 knots, gave the Army bombers more than 50 knots of wind over the deck. While all of the pilots had trained in secret for the ridiculously short takeoff they were about to attempt, none of them, not even Doolittle, had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier.

At 0815, Doolittle’s plane was ready to go. It was positioned just 400 feet from the end of the flight deck at Hornet‘s bow. The Navy aircraft launching officer was trying to time the heaves of the ship in the swells. Each plane had to reach the end of its takeoff run as the bow was rising. If the timing was off and one of the B-25s got to the end of the deck as it was dropping, it’s likely the plane would crash into the sea. The takeoff signal was given and Doolittle’s plane started down the deck.

Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle begins his takeoff roll

Slowly, the B-25 gained speed. Everybody aboard the Hornet held their breath. Would they get airborne heavily laden with fuel and bombs?

A B-25 airborne from Hornet

A B-25 takes off from Hornet, as seen from Enterprise

Success! Doolittle’s launch at 0820 began America’s first direct retaliation mission against Japan. The cheers of the Hornet‘s sailors were said to be so loud they could be heard over the roar of the Army bombers’ engines.

It took almost an hour to get all 16 bombers in the air, with the final takeoff at 0919. Eight minutes later, Task Force 16 turned and headed for Pearl Harbor at maximum speed. The Army bombers were on their own with a long over-water flight ahead.

The first ten planes had Tokyo as their target. Two planes targeted Yokohama, two Nagoya, and one each to Kobe and Yokosuka. The flight to Japan took hours. En route, the bombers spotted other enemy ships and some aircraft. Miraculously, no defensive forces engaged them. A few hours into the mission, Doolittle’s planes descended as low as they dared to avoid further detection.

Doolittle’s tiny force made landfall. Just over five hours after takeoff, Doolittle’s plane dropped its bombs on their Tokyo target at 1330. Each of the planes was armed with just 2,000 pounds of weapons: four 500-pound bombs (For comparison, a present-day US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet can carry over 17,000 pounds of weaponry!). Three were high explosive, the last incendiary. Five of the bombs received extra-special modifications: they had Japanese medals that had been presented to American servicemen before the war welded to them!

The B-25s came in low, gaining altitude only to drop their bombs. Some of the planes were still so low that they observed debris from their bomb drops rising above the flight level of their planes. The Doolittle Raiders struck military and industrial targets in the five cities. Damage was light as the raid was with just sixteen planes and 64 bombs, but the United States had struck where the Japanese least expected it. One of the 16 had to jettison its bomb load before reaching its target because they had to evade enemy fighters. Overall, the Japanese defenses were caught completely off-guard and the B-25s faced little opposition from either fighters or anti-aircraft artillery.

After dropping their bombs, the sixteen planes made their way southwest along Japan’s coast and across the East China Sea towards China. Already in the air for nearly six hours, the crews now faced another seven hours to reach their landing sites.

One B-25 was critically low on fuel and decided to head for the Soviet Union instead of China. That plane landed 40 miles past Vladivostok. The crew and aircraft were interned as the USSR was neutral in the Pacific war at the time. Those five men were eventually returned to the United States in May 1943.

The other fifteen planes kept pressing for China. The bombers got a bit of good luck in the form of a strong tailwind that increased their speed and range. Were it not for the winds, none of the planes would have made it close to safety. Their luck was about to run out though.

The weather was deteriorating and night was falling. Furthermore, the Chinese were supposed to activate radio beacons for the bombers to home in on, but since the attack was launched early, the beacons weren’t operating. Twelve of the planes did manage to make landfall in China but couldn’t locate airfields. Their crews were forced to bail out and the planes crashed. The remaining three ditched into the sea near the Chinese coast.

The tactical impact of the attack was minimal. All the damage done by the Raiders’ bombs was quickly repaired. Strategically speaking, the raid was an enormous success.

First, the American people received word of a much-needed victory to replace news of defeat after defeat that had been heard since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Finally, there was something to cheer for rather than another setback to dread. When it was announced that the attack on Japan used Army medium bombers, people were understandably curious as to where they had flown from. The United States didn’t have any bases near enough to Japan to launch such a mission, and it was a closely-kept secret that aircraft carriers were involved. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in response to a reporter’s question, said the planes came from “Shangri-La”, a mythical Himalayan locale from the book Lost Horizon.

Jimmy Doolittle summed up the import of the attack on July 9, 1942:

It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological. Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production. The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction on the American people.

Second, the effect the raid had on the Japanese definitely altered the course of the war. They knew that Army, not Naval, aircraft had been the attackers and couldn’t figure out where they had come from either. They assumed that the planes could have somehow come from the closest American base on Midway Atoll. This directly led to the Japanese decision to attack there in June. The story of the Battle of Midway will be told here at its 70th anniversary in about seven weeks; it was the turning point of the war in the Pacific. At the time, Japan’s main carrier striking force, the one that had struck Pearl Harbor, was in the Indian Ocean inflicting severe losses and setbacks to Britain’s Royal Navy. It was recalled home. The Japanese assumed that attacks against their home islands would continue and diverted additional resources to fighter and anti-aircraft defenses that could have been better used elsewhere.

The Doolittle Raid was the only time during the war that Army aircraft operated from a Navy aircraft carrier. The significance of the raid certainly wasn’t lost on our Navy though. On February 24, 1944 the Navy launched the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La (CV-38), given the name taken from President Roosevelt’s quip about where the raid was launched from, at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The Shangri-La‘s christening sponsor was Jimmy Doolittle’s wife Josephine. Shangri-La commissioned on September 15, 1944 and made it to the Pacific in time to participate in the Okinawa campaign in April 1945. Her planes also struck directly at the Japanese home islands – including Tokyo – in June-August 1945.

On September 16, 1945 the USS Shangri-La sailed into Tokyo Bay in victory.

Eighty men flew off the Hornet April 18, 1942 on the mission that saw America strike back at Japan where the Japanese didn’t think they were vulnerable. They raised the hopes and pride of a nation. Their contribution to winning the war was so much more than sixteen planes over Japan in April 1942. Here in alphabetical order are the names of them all.

SSgt. Edwin V. Bain — Lt. George Barr — SSgt. William L. Birch — Sgt. Wayne M. Bissell — TSgt. Waldo J. Bither — Lt. Thadd H. Blanton — MSgt. Robert C. Bourgeois — Lt. William M. Bower — SSgt. Fred A. Braemer — Lt. Clayton J. Campbell — Lt. Robert S. Clever — Lt. Richard E. Cole — Lt. Horace E. Crouch — Lt. Dean Davenport — Cpl. Jacob DeShazer — Sgt. William J. Dieter — LtCol. James H. Doolittle — SSgt. Omer A. Duquette — SSgt. Job Eierman — Lt. Robert G. Emmens — Cpl. Leland D. Faktor — Lt. William G. Farrow — Lt. William N. Fitzhugh — Sgt. Donald E. Fitzmaurice — Lt. Thomas C. Griffin — Lt. Nolan A. Herndon — Cpl. Bert M. Jordan — Sgt. Melvin J. Gardner — Lt. Robert M. Gray — Capt. C. Ross Greening — Lt. Dean E. Hallmark — Maj. John A. Hilger — Lt. Robert L. Hite — Lt. Everett W. Holstrom — Lt. Travis Hoover — SSgt. Edwin W. Horton, Jr. — Sgt. Aden E. Jones — Capt. David M. Jones — Lt. Richard O. Joyce — Lt. Frank A. Kappeler — Lt. Richard A. Knobloch — SSgt. Theodore H. Laban — Sgt. George E. Larkin, Jr. — Lt. Ted W. Lawson — SSgt. Paul J. Leonard — Lt. James H. Macia, Jr. — Lt. Jacob E. Manch — Sgt. Joseph W. Manske — Lt. Charles L. McClure — Lt. Harry C. McCool — Lt. Edgar E. McElroy — Lt. Eugene F. McGurl — Lt. Robert J. Meder — Lt. Richard E. Miller — Lt. Chase J. Nielsen — Lt. Charles J. Ozuk — Lt. James N. Parker, Jr. — Sgt. David W. Pohl — Lt. Henry A. Potter — Lt. William R. Pound, Jr. — Sgt. Douglas V. Radney — Lt. Kenneth E. Reddy — Sgt. Edward J. Saylor — TSgt. Eldred V. Scott — Lt. Howard A. Sessler — Lt. Jack A. Sims — Lt. Donald G. Smith — Sgt. Harold A. Spatz — Sgt. Robert J. Stephens — Lt. J. Royden Stork — Sgt. David J. Thatcher — Lt. Denver V. Truelove — Lt. Harold F. Watson — Lt. Thomas H. White — Lt. Ross R. Wilder — Lt. Carl R. Wildner — Sgt. Adam R. Williams — Lt. Griffith P. Williams — Lt. Lucian N. Youngblood — Capt. Edward J. York

All eighty received the Distinguished Flying Cross. David Thatcher and Thomas White both received the Silver Star for their valor in helping their wounded and injured crew mates evade capture in China.

Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle was promoted to Brigadier General following the attack, skipping the rank of Colonel. The remainder of his story is the subject of my next post.

Seven of the Doolittle Raiders gave their lives as a result of the attack. Leland Faktor bailed out over China but landed roughly and was killed. Both William Dieter and Donald Fitzmaurice drowned when their planes crashed in the sea off the Chinese coast. Robert J. Meder was captured by the Japanese and died as a result of maltreatment during imprisonment on December 1, 1943.

The remaining three men killed – William G. Farrow, Dean E. Hallmark, and Harold A. Spatz – were captured and accused by the Japanese of having strafed civilians. They were placed on trial for war crimes on August 28, 1942 and convicted. The Japanese executed the three by firing squad on October 15, 1942. The Japanese’s wrath against China was both severe and criminal. The Japanese Army ruthlessly attacked the areas where Doolittle’s planes came down, killing an estimated 250,000 civilians during the search for the Americans and aftermath. Japanese soldiers committed countless atrocities, including the use of germ warfare.

Four other Raiders were captured and survived the horrific conditions the Japanese inflicted on their prisoners of war: Barr, DeShazer, Hite, and Nielsen. They were liberated by American troops in August 1945.

Of the survivors, ten were killed in action and fifteen died in non-combat flying accidents later in the war.

Five of the Doolittle Raiders are still living: Cole, Griffin, Hite, Saylor, and Thatcher.

Since the late 1940s, the Doolittle Raiders have held a reunion almost every year. The culmination of each reunion is the Raiders’ solemn toast using 80 silver goblets, one for each. Each goblet is engraved with the name of a crew member twice: once right side-up, the other upside-down. When a Raider is deceased, his goblet is inverted, but the upside-down engraving still allows his name to be read. When there are only two men left, they will meet and drink a final toast using a bottle of Hennessy cognac from 1896, chosen because that was the year of Jimmy Doolittle’s birth.

Today, the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH is hosting the five remaining Raiders who will have their toast as part of a four-day memorial and celebratory program. As part of the festivities, twenty-one B-25s will parade through the skies over the museum.

I wish I could be there.

The Doolittle Raid was dramatized in the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, starring Spencer Tracy as Doolittle. It was based on the 1943 book of the same name by one of the Raiders, Ted W. Lawson (played by Van Johnson). It is a true classic, very accurate (especially for a Hollywood movie), and I highly recommend it. The film features some actual footage from the raid. IT is also available in its entirety on YouTube – part one starts here.

In addition to the other links already cited, this post drew upon Wikipedia’s Doolittle Raid article, the official web site of the Doolittle Raiders, and the Doolittle Raid page and subsequent links from the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

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