Doolittle’s Raiders avenged Pearl Harbor by hitting the Japanese where they least expected it—at home
IN EARLY 1942, even apart from the horrific losses suffered at Pearl Harbor—2,403 men killed and 1,178 wounded, the backbone of the U.S. Navy battle fleet seemingly destroyed—the geopolitical scene could hardly have looked darker for the newly forged Anglo-American alliance. The Japanese war machine had run up the most stupendous, and swift, totality of conquests in the history of war. The tiny island nation’s reach now extended from Hong Kong to the Philippines, from Malaya to impregnable Singapore, Indo-China, and Burma. Two of the most powerful ships in the Royal Navy, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, had been sunk off the coast of Malaya in a matter of minutes. The whole Indian Ocean as far west as Ceylon (Sri Lanka) looked painfully vulnerable, with the Japanese roaming its waters and sinking British ships, including the aircraft carrier Hermes, at will. Even distant Australia was at risk.
Having lost strongholds like Wake Island, and with Midway threatened, America had painfully few assets available to strike back at Imperial Japan. Indeed, it was rapidly becoming clear that the true queens of the chess game at sea were the newfangled aircraft carriers: A single one could sink a line of battleships or win a sea battle without firing its guns. And after Pearl, while Japan had six carriers, the United States had only two to cover the entire Pacific.
Winston Churchill was later to recall his reaction to the news of Pearl Harbor: “In all the war I never received a more direct shock. As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor who were hastening back to California. Over this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme and we everywhere were weak and naked.”
Still, there was a blessing hidden in the Pearl raid. At a time when no more than half the nation supported intervention against Hitler, the treacherous nature of the attack persuaded Americans to wage war with relentless ferocity, self-sacrifice, and a dedication that might well have been absent had the country slid into war reluctantly or half-heartedly, as Britain and France had in 1939.
ON DECEMBER 21, 1941, only two weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt, intent on bolstering America’s battered morale, summoned his armed forces commanders to the White House to demand a bombing raid on Japan as soon as possible. Admiral Ernest J. King, who had just been appointed commander in chief of the U.S. Navy, favored an aggressive stance in the Pacific and supported Roosevelt’s audacious proposition of an air attack on the enemy homeland. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who would have to provide the few ships he had available as chief of the hard-pressed Pacific Fleet, was rather more cautious.
The practical question for King’s plan was—how? How could they bomb the islands of Japan with the aircraft they had? The nearest land base was the tiny atoll of Midway, the farthest west of the Hawaiian group, perched 1,300 miles from Oahu but still 2,500 miles away from Tokyo—out of range of any 1942 bomber. The only alternative was a carrier-based attack, but the short-range, single-engine bombers then aboard the two U.S. Pacific carriers had far shorter range and carried very little bomb-weight (some 500 miles and 1,000 pounds) compared to a land-based bomber (2,400 miles and 2,000 pounds). They would have to launch within 250 miles of the target. That was unacceptably risky; Nimitz could not afford to lose a single carrier. He was also well aware that the Imperial Navy’s commander in chief, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, hoped to lure the U.S. Navy’s main fleet to the Japanese seas, then seek a decisive engagement to destroy it—just as his predecessors had wiped out the Russian fleet at the historic 1905 Battle of Tsushima. So, what to do? How to answer the president’s demand?
A captain on King’s staff, Francis Low, proposed a simple solution: fly twin-engine army bombers off a carrier deck. To test the idea, various planes tried taking off a runway in Norfolk, Virginia, painted with the dimensions of a carrier deck. It was determined that the North American B-25B Mitchell medium bomber was the most suitable plane for the mission. Though never flown in combat, the B-25, with a 2,000-pound bomb load, had a range of 2,400 nautical miles at 230 miles an hour. Tolerance figures were tight, with the Mitchell’s 67-foot-6-inch wingspan just barely able to clear a carrier’s island (the offset superstructure rising above the deck that contains the ship’s command and control centers).
The 20,000-ton Hornet, a sister carrier of the USS Yorktown, was tapped for the mission. A lightweight compared with Japan’s Akagi and Kaga, both nearly 35,000 tons, the Hornet was a brand-new ship undergoing sea trials off the Virginia coast.
It had a green crew, many no more than 18 years old. Some had never seen the ocean until they boarded the carrier. On February 2, 1942, the Hornet’s sailors were stunned to see two experimental B-25s loaded on board, and then, once they were out to sea, to watch them lift off—the first ground-based medium bombers to take off from a carrier in the history of aviation.
On March 4, the Hornet slipped out of Norfolk, heading for the Panama Canal, and then San Francisco. From the moment it departed, every move of the Hornet was cloaked in the most rigid secrecy. Even its captain, Marc A. “Pete” Mitscher, himself a prewar flying buff, knew next to nothing about the operation until the carrier left the Pacific Coast, bound for Japan.
MEANWHILE, back on the East Coast, the B-25 crews were assembling. In January, the chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps himself, Lieutenant General Henry “Hap” Arnold, had appointed an officer on his staff, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, to take over preparations for the Tokyo operation, now labeled Special Aviation Project #1. Forty-five years old and standing only 5-foot-4, Jimmy Doolittle was no ordinary staff officer. Though too young for active service in World War I, Doolittle was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for making the first cross-country flight, in 1922, crossing America in 21 hours, 19 minutes. In 1929 he became the first pilot to take off and land “flying blind,” relying solely on instruments. He went on to break almost every air-speed mark worth having, including a world record of 296 miles an hour in 1932.
A daredevil, Doolittle delighted in such pranks as flying under low bridges. Once, on the eve of a demonstration flight in Chile, he broke both ankles in a fall after trying to do a handstand on a balcony while drunk. The next day, he insisted on flying, his feet in casts and strapped to the pedals. Though retired when World War II came along, Doolittle rejoined the army as an instructor with the rank of major.
Demanding but congenial, Jimmy Doolittle “could be a very tough man when the need required,” according to his navigator, Lieutenant Henry Potter. He seemed a good choice for what was now required.
Doolittle’s first task was to recruit 140 flyers, enough to form 24 five-man crews, plus reserves. They all came from the 17th Bombardment Group, which had the most experience flying the B-25s. Once the group was assembled before him at Eglin Field in the Florida Panhandle, Doolittle asked for volunteers for an “extremely hazardous” but unspecified mission; in fact, he said, it would be “the most dangerous thing any of you have ever done. Any man can drop out and nothing will ever be said about it. This entire mission must be kept top secret.” Not one man stood back from volunteering.
There followed a month of intensive, hush-hush training at Eglin. Under the supervision of Lieutenant Henry Miller, detached from the naval flight school at nearby Pensacola, the army crews had to master the art of taking off in the heavily laden B-25 in as little as 287 feet. Counter to all their previous training, the volunteers had to learn to rev their engines to peak power before releasing the brakes, then still take off at what was virtually stalling speed. Two planes crashed and were scratched from the mission.
(The story of the run-up to the raid, and the training, is well told in the 1944 movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Doolittle, as portrayed by a grim-jawed Spencer Tracy, comes across as more dour and humorless than he probably was. The scenes of at-ease conviviality, dances, sing-alongs of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and an underlying love story don’t neatly fit, but the movie was made at a time when the country’s morale was everything. It remains one of the most outstanding films to come out of wartime Hollywood.)
While training continued, the B-25s underwent radical modifications. Weight was reduced by removing the lower gun turret and replacing the guns in the tail with wooden broomstick dummies. (Doolittle declared after the raid that these actually scared off Japanese planes.) To prevent the B-25s’ top-secret and highly accurate Norden bombsights from falling into enemy hands, they were replaced by makeshift sights costing 20 cents each. (Because the bombing was to be carried out at only 1,200 feet, nothing more sophisticated was required.) Three extra fuel tanks were mounted in the bomb bays, increasing capacity from 646 to 1,141 gallons; to further extend the raiders’ range, each plane would also carry several five-gallon jerry cans of fuel to top off the tanks by hand—a fire hazard that would shock today’s flight safety monitors. As a security measure, crews would hang on to the empty cans and then chuck them out all at once, so no trail could be traced to the Hornet.
Why did the planes need so much fuel? The answer reveals the most dangerous aspect of the mission, and one that would be fatal for some of the raiders. The original plan had the B-25s, unable to land on the Hornet after completing their bombing run, overflying Japan to land in Russian Siberia or China. But the nearest friendly airfield was in Vladivostok, Siberia, and the Soviet government—unwilling to get embroiled in war with Japan—refused the raiders permission to land. To reach China, the bombers were going to need every last drop of gas.
By the end of training, the bombing force had been whittled down to 15 B-25s, each with five crew members. But at the last moment the navy squeezed in one more plane, as a spare. Against Hap Arnold’s wishes, Doolittle wangled himself aboard that 16th plane, insisting that—as commander—he lead the mission in the first plane off the carrier. This meant, among other things, that he would have the shortest takeoff run—a bold decision in keeping with his daredevil past.
On March 31, the B-25s and their crews (56 officers and 28 enlisted men) touched down at the Alameda Naval Air Station on San Francisco Bay. From there the planes were lifted by crane onto the Hornet and lashed down securely in the launch order. The curious were told that the bombers were being shipped to reinforce Hawaii. The Hornet and its escorts sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge on April 2. It was not until the carrier was well clear of the California coast that either its crew or its Army Air Force passengers were informed of their real destination. The secret had been remarkably well kept.
A few days after leaving California, the raiders’ flattop rendezvoused north of Hawaii with Vice Admiral William Halsey’s Task Force 16, drawn up around the carrier Enterprise, whose planes would scout for the Hornet and protect the ship in case of a Japanese air attack. With its own fighters stowed below decks, the Hornet was in effect defenseless.
Sailing in radio silence, the expedition comprised two carriers, four cruisers, eight destroyers, and two fleet oilers. For just over two weeks the task force sailed west in lonely and silent splendor through the empty seas of the North Pacific.
Then, early on the morning of April 18, one of Doolittle’s and Halsey’s worst fears was realized. A Japanese picket boat, the 70-ton Nitto Maru, spotted the American ships. Gunfire from the cruiser Nashville promptly sank it—not, however, before the Nitto Maru signaled to base that an enemy naval force “with three carriers” was close to Japanese waters. Astoundingly, the Japanese did not react; perhaps, arrogantly, they could not believe that an American force would dare strike at Japan or that carrier-borne planes had the range to reach their home.
Nevertheless, the mission seemed imperiled. Doolittle and Captain Mitscher, the Hornet’s commander, launched the B-25s on their own initiative, even though they were roughly 670 nautical miles from the target, some 170 miles farther away than they had planned. Respecting radio silence, Halsey on the Enterprise ratified the order, blinkering: TO COL. DOOLITTLE AND HIS GALLANT COMMAND, GOOD LUCK AND GOD BLESS YOU.
At 8:20 a.m. Doolittle’s B-25 lifted off. The wind, typical of the vile weather of the North Pacific, was gusting up to 31 miles an hour as the others followed off the pitching deck, one by one, over a wild sea—conditions that would have tested even trained carrier pilots. By 9:19, all 16 planes (each assigned a number denoting order of takeoff) were safely in the air—a testament to the thorough training of the crews and their meticulous maintenance of the engines. There was one casualty, a sailor blown into the propeller of one of the bombers. His arm was badly injured and later had to be amputated.
With the planes now aloft, the task force turned about and streaked for Hawaii.
THE SIX-HOUR FLIGHT to Japan must have been tense: The bomber crews would have realized that the premature start of the mission severely hurt their chances of reaching the China airfields safely. Along the way, crews of Japanese fishing boats waved cheerfully at what they assumed were friendly aircraft. At one point, Doolittle spotted nine Zero fighters high above, in V formations. But the deadly planes flew on, mistaking the B-25s for Japanese bombers.
Finally, at noon Japanese time, after flying all the way at wave-top level to avoid detection, the B-25s reached the coast of Japan. In single file, and still at low altitudes, Doolittle’s planes dropped their bombs on military targets in Tokyo (principally), Yokohama, Kobe, and Osaka. None was shot down; only one, No. 10, piloted by Lieutenant Richard O. Joyce, sustained minor damage from Japanese fighters. Another, No. 4, piloted by Lieutenant Everett W. Holstrom, was forced to jettison its bombs before reaching the target after being set upon by fighters. The raid was all over in a matter of minutes.
The damage inflicted on Japan was minimal, as each stripped-down B-25 could carry no more than four 500-pound bombs or clusters of incendiaries. But the 80 American airmen had achieved their mission. Japan had raided the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor; the United States had responded by bombing Japan’s capital.
The planes flew west toward China. After 13 hours of flight, night was approaching and all were critically low on fuel, even with crews manually topping off the fuel tanks.
Having flown a record 2,250 miles in 13 hours in the No. 1 plane, Doolittle knew that he could not reach his designated Chinese airfield. He ordered his crew to bail out, then followed them into the night and the unknown. Miraculously he landed unhurt in a rice paddy (recently fertilized with human excrement), and the following day managed to find a Chinese military patrol. Had it not been for a god-sent tailwind, few of the planes would have made it to territory not occupied by the Japanese. But most did, and a few days later Doolittle and the lucky ones were ferried safely to Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Chinese headquarters at Chungking, and then homeward.
Not everyone was fortunate. The story of Lieutenant Ted Lawson’s plane, the Ruptured Duck, provided a plot point for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. In darkness and blinding rain, Lawson ditched his plane in the sea just off the China coast. All but one of the crew were injured. Lawson, who had just married, suffered severe injuries to his leg. But they managed to locate the expedition’s doctor, Lieutenant Thomas White, who had bailed out from plane No. 15, and he was able to save Lawson, amputating his leg with only the most primitive instruments. Helped by friendly Chinese partisans they were all eventually repatriated.
The crew of another plane crash-landed near Vladivostok. They were interned by the Soviets for 13 months, but they eventually escaped through Soviet Central Asia into Iran and made their way home. The worst fates awaited two planes that came down in Japanese-controlled territory. Two men died in the crashes, and the pilots and another crew member were executed. Five others were imprisoned: One died a year later and the rest spent 40 months in Japan, much of it in solitary confinement. (They were repatriated at the war’s end, in 1945.)
Word of these war crimes quickly got out. When the B-29 Superfortresses started concentrated bombing of Japan in 1944, many crews declined to take parachutes; better to die in a crash than be taken prisoner, they reasoned. It was the Chinese, however, who suffered most from barbaric Japanese retribution for the Doolittle Raid. An estimated 250,000 Chinese from the areas that helped the downed airmen were reported to have been killed in reprisal.
Upon his return to the United States from China, Doolittle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt. (All 80 raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross.) He was then promoted in swift leaps to lieutenant general, commanding the U.S. Eighth Air Force with great distinction in the last years of the war in Europe.
As expected, all 16 of the valuable B-25s were lost. Ten thousand navy personnel were involved in the operation. Two of Halsey’s indispensable carriers were put at risk. Was it all worth it?
IN THE UNITED STATES, battered after months of unrelenting bad news from the Pacific, the boost to morale was, as I can personally testify, quite tremendous. Here, for the first time, America was hitting back at the very heart of the Japanese war machine. YANK FLYERS BLAST TOKYO, STRIKE DEADLY BLOW AT HEART OF JAPAN, screamed one newspaper headline.
The Doolittle raiders became instant heroes in an America longing for a break in the run of bad news. But in fact, because of the B-25’s somewhat limited bomb load, the actual damage by the raiders was slight—to power stations, oil tanks, and a steel plant. A few civilians were killed. And because it was wartime, there were no tickertape parades. Most of the crews, after rehabilitation, were immediately redeployed in combat roles. Ten men were subsequently killed in action in other theaters; four were shot down and imprisoned by the Germans.
On being promoted to brigadier general, Doolittle declared prophetically: “We’re going back to Tokyo, and we shall go in full array.” But it would be 26 months before American bombers could strike again at Japan. By then, with development of the B-29 Superfortress, each carrying 10 times the bomb load of a Doolittle B-25, the results would be devastating—culminating in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nonetheless the strategic fallout of the Doolittle Raid in Japan was considerable. A shamed Yamamoto—the Japanese navy commander in chief who had orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor but predicted the likelihood of raids on Japan—admitted that it was “a disgrace that the skies over the imperial capital should have been defiled without a single enemy plane being shot down.” He warned—with accurate foreboding—that the Doolittle Raid could be a “taste of the real thing” to come.
Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s raiding force, which had been sweeping the Indian Ocean as far west as Ceylon, was called back. Fighter units that had been earmarked for the Solomon Islands and the drive on Australia were withdrawn to protect the homeland.
More decisive to the course of the war was the raid’s effect on Japanese plans for attacking Midway Island—the nearest American base to Japan. Two weeks before the Doolittle raid, when Yamamoto presented his plan for Midway, the army had strongly opposed it. Now, persuaded by the potential threat to the homeland, the doubters stepped aside and the operation was brought forward, with urgency and excessive haste, to launch at the beginning of June. The result was the Japanese navy’s most disastrous defeat, perhaps even the war’s turning point. Within 20 minutes, four irreplaceable Japanese fleet carriers that had played a key role on December 7 would be sunk. In fact, the victory at Midway alone may well justify the courage and enormous risks taken by Doolittle and his raiders.
Sir Alistair Horne, an MHQ contributing editor, will next write about the Battle of Midway on its 70th anniversary.
Originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of MHQ.