American sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and her escorting task force saw something strange on the morning of April 12th, 1942. They had just rendezvoused with the carrier USS Hornet north of Hawaii and were startled to see her deck crammed with strange airplanes, bigger than anything ever seen on the deck of a carrier. As they eventually learned, the airplanes were US Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, on a secret mission destined to shape the war in the Pacific.
Defeat After Defeat Delivered from Rampaging Japanese
Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, shocked America to its core. In just a few hours on a quiet Sunday morning, hundreds of Japanese warplanes devastated the US Pacific Fleet as it lay at anchor. All eight battleships at the naval base, plus three cruisers, three destroyers, and five other ships were sunk or seriously damaged, and hundreds of airplanes were destroyed. About 2400 US servicemen and civilians were killed, and another 1200 were wounded. The United States was thrust into World War II in the most abrupt way possible, and to say that Americans were hopping mad and itching for payback would be an understatement.
Unfortunately, in the months after Pearl Harbor, it became clear that a wide chasm lay between America’s desire to hit back at Japan and its ability to do so. Indeed, as far as hitting back, it was the US and her allies who found themselves absorbing blow after blow from the rampaging Japanese. In short order, the forces of Japan conquered Hong Kong, overran the Philippines, seized the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, took the Dutch East Indies, forced the surrender of the US Marine garrison at Wake Island, and chased the British out of Burma. At sea, they shocked the British Royal Navy by effortlessly sinking the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse and dealt an allied fleet a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Java Sea.
That drumbeat of setbacks was infuriating and unnerving. Most of all, it was demoralizing to seem so helpless against Japan’s depredations. Until Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were seen as second-rate mediocrities who would never dare take on America, which would thrash them in short order if they dared do so. Yet, here they were, dishing blow after unanswered blow, and making the US look like a giant with feet of clay. America’s leadership realized that it was vital for America to hit back – and be seen hitting back – at Japan, and soon. It would take time before sufficient forces were gathered to take the offensive. Until then, however, couldn’t American airplanes at least bomb Japan?
Indeed, on December 21st, 1941, just two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, FDR told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Japan should be bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale. The problem, though, was how to bomb Japan. The US Navy had bombers that could be launched from aircraft carriers, but their range was short. So carriers would have to come within 200 or so miles of Japan, putting them within range of Japanese land-based bombers. The risk to scarce carriers – the linchpin of America’s war effort in the Pacific – was too high for what was ultimately a symbolic strike. The US Army Air Forces had long-range twin and four-engine bombers, but it had no airbases close enough for them to take off, bomb Japan, and return.
It seemed like an insoluble obstacle until one day, US Navy Captain Francis S. Low flew over Chambers Field at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia and looked down. Below was a runway painted with the outline of an aircraft carrier’s deck. In of itself, that was not unusual; carrier pilots routinely practiced takeoffs and landings on such simulated ground decks. That day, however, there were some twin-engine Army bombers parked nearby. In one of those sudden insights that strike military men from time to time, Low linked the Army bombers to the adjacent painted deck outline. Why not, he thought, meld the assets of two services to launch long-range Army bombers from a Navy carrier’s deck?
Picking the Right Man for the Job
On January 10th, 1942, Captain Low, Assistant Chief of Staff for antisubmarine warfare, took his idea to Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the US Fleet. King thought the idea had merit, so he ran it by Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the US Army Air Force. Arnold liked the idea, and planning began for a top-secret mission to launch long-range Army bombers from an aircraft carrier to hit Japan. To organize the raid, Arnold picked Lieutenant Colonel James Harold “Jimmy” Doolittle, who had been a famous airplane racer, test pilot, and aeronautical engineer before the war.
Among other things, Doolittle had revolutionized aviation by pioneering instrument flying, which allowed pilots to take off, fly, and land airplanes regardless of visibility. However, in addition to being a reservist rather than an active-duty officer, Doolittle had no combat experience – during World War I, he had been kept behind in the US as a flight instructor. For Hap Arnold to select him to organize such a vital mission despite such perceived shortcomings, instilled high confidence in the man. Doolittle immediately set out to demonstrate that the trust of the USAAF’s commanding general in him was not misplaced.
The first task was to pick the right bomber for the job. It needed to have a range of roughly 2400 nautical miles while carrying a 2000-pound bomb load. Among tested airplanes, the options included the Douglas B-18 Bolo, the Douglas B-23 Dragon, and the Martin B-26 Marauder. However, the B-18 and B-23 had significant wingspans, which was problematic for carrier operation: the risk of hitting the superstructure was high. They took up a lot of space, so the number that could be taken aboard a carrier was low. The B-26 did not have that problem, but its takeoff characteristics were not well suited for a carrier deck. So Doolittle considered an untested airplane, the North American B-25 Mitchell.
The twin-engine B-25 had been designed in response to a 1939 Air Corps solicitation, which sought an airplane that could carry a 2400-pound bomb load for 1200 miles, at a speed of 300 miles per hour. North American Aviation came back with a plane that exceeded the bomb load and range requirements, with 3000 pounds for 1350 miles, and came close to the solicited speed at 272 miles per hour. It first flew in 1940 and entered service in 1941. The B-25 had not been tested in combat, but on paper, it seemed like it just might suit Doolittle’s needs. So he set out to test the bomber and see whether it was as good in practice for the mission as it seemed to be in theory.
Two B-25s were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and flew off its deck on February 3rd, 1942, without a problem. With proof of concept out of the way, Doolittle set out to find and train aircrews for the raid. He found them in the 17th Bombardment Group, flying B-25Bs on antisubmarine patrols off Oregon’s coast. The 17th was transferred to South Carolina, under cover of flying similar missions on the East Coast. When they arrived, Doolittle asked for volunteers for an “extremely hazardous” mission. Nearly the entire Group stepped forward.
A Raid That Changed History
Doolittle selected 24 volunteer crews, and two dozen of the 17th Bombardment’s Group B-25s were sent to a modification center in Minneapolis to make some changes. Chief among them was the addition of auxiliary fuel tanks and cells to increase capacity from 646 to 1,141 gallons. To make space and compensate for the added fuel weight, the lower gun turret was removed, as well as a radio, while the standard Norden bombsight was replaced with an improvised and lighter makeshift. When the planes were ready, the crews were sent to pick them up and fly to Eglin Field in western Florida.
There, starting on March 1st, 1942, Doolittle gave the volunteers an intense three-week crash course to prepare them for the raid. It focused on low-level night flying, low-level bombing, ocean navigation, and simulated aircraft carrier deck takeoffs. Two B-25s were wrecked in accidents, while a third was written off because of mechanical troubles. The remaining bombers flew to California and arrived at Sacramento Air Depot on March 27th. There, they were subjected to final modifications and inspections, and the best 16 bombers were flown to Alameda Naval Air Station on March 31st.
The following day, the B-25s, each with four 500-pound bombs, three high explosives, and one incendiary, along with their five-man crews and maintenance personnel were loaded aboard the USS Hornet. The carrier and her escort, Task Force 18, sailed from San Francisco on April 2nd. North of Hawaii on the 12th, they linked up with the USS Enterprise and Task Force 16, commanded by Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey. At first, the Hornet’s crew had resented their USAAF passengers, assuming that they were just ferrying them and their bombers. But when Halsey finally informed the task forces that they were headed to Tokyo, the sailors’ cheering shook the deck, and the airmen immediately went from zeroes to heroes.
A spanner was thrown into the works on the morning of April 18th, 1942, when the task force was sighted by an enemy picket boat 750 miles from Japan. It was quickly sunk but not before sending a radio message. Fearing the loss of the element of the surprise, the decision was made to launch the bombers immediately, ten hours earlier and 170 miles further from Japan than initially planned. At 08:20, Doolittle flew the first B-25 off the Hornet’s deck, and by 09:19, the other 15 bombers had followed him into the air. Flying low to avoid detection, they winged their way to Japan. They arrived around noon and bombed targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, and Yokosuka.
The B-25s could take off from a carrier but could not land on one. So, according to plan, 15 bombers continued westward and made it to China, where they crash-landed. Another made its way to Vladivostok, where it and its crew were interred by the Soviets. Three of 80 crewmen were killed. Eight were captured by the Japanese, of whom three were executed, and one died in captivity. The raid’s physical damage was slight, but the psychological impact was huge on both sides of the Pacific. It boosted American morale by demonstrating the country’s ability to hit back, and Doolittle was awarded a well-earned Medal of Honor.
Simultaneously, the Japanese high command lost considerable face. They worked off their frustration with a collective punishment campaign against the part of China where the B-25s had crash-landed, and the crews had been helped by the locals. In an orgy of rapine and murder known as Operation Sei-Go, the Japanese killed an estimated quarter-million Chinese. They also sought to regain face with an attempt to capture Midway Island a few weeks later. It backfired spectacularly and ended in a catastrophic Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, which turned the tide of war in the Pacific.
Sources and Further Reading
Doolittle, James H. – I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: An Autobiography (1991)
Encyclopedia Britannica – Doolittle Raid
Glines, Carrol V. – Jimmy Doolittle: Daredevil Aviator and Scientist (1972)
Groom, Winston – The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight (2013)
Lawson, Ted, W. – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (2002 Edition)
Public’s Library and Digital Archive – General Doolittle’s Report on Japanese Raid, April 18, 1942
Scott, James M. – Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor (2015)Smithsonian Magazine, April 15, 2015 – The Untold Story of the Vengeful Japanese Attack After the Doolittle Raid