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Its mission accomplished, a B-25 heads west to safer skies.

For his fourth painting in a series depicting the famous Doolittle Raiders, artist William Phillips chose to show a solitary North American B-25B after it had completed its bombing run on Kobe, Japan, and headed toward the refuge of the Chinese coast and a reunion with fellow raiders and their leader. Westbound: A Date with the General illustrates what may have been a few guarded moments of respite for the crewmen as they recovered from their harrowing bombing run. Phillips has depicted the B-25 as it banks to avoid a looming thunderstorm on the way to the Chinese mainland—and a celebration promised by the mission’s leader, Lieutenant Colonel James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle.

“As they got close to China, they started getting into a frontal system that involved a lot of clouds and rain,” Phillips said. “They are dodging in and out of the rain showers, and also the light is beginning to wane.” He chose to add a ray of hope to the sobering scene, evoked by a symbolic double rainbow in the painting’s upper right-hand corner. “Had I done an all-gray piece, it would have been boring,” Phillips pointed out. “It would also have been too depressing.

“I was trying to capture the sense of being alone, bad weather and the day that is starting to pass,” Phillips explained. “They know they are not going to make the field they were assigned, and face the prospect of bailing out.” In contrast, an earlier painting, Evasive Action at Sagami Bay, depicts a Mitchell in full sunlight “probably 20 minutes from over the target,” he said, noting, “that work is entirely different.”

The Doolittle Raid was the result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s outrage over the attack on Pearl Harbor and his desire to strike the Japanese homeland. At the time, there were no aircraft capable of such a strike and no airfield close enough to carry out the raid. It seemed like an impossible mission. Impossible, that is, until Captain Francis Lowe, a submariner on the staff of Admiral Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations, visited the Norfolk, Va., shipyard in January 1942. As Lowe was leaving, he saw the outline of an aircraft carrier deck painted on a nearby field, used by Navy pilots to familiarize themselves with the limitations of carrier operations. Lowe asked his boss whether it might be possible for land-based Army bombers to take off from a carrier deck.

King called on Captain Donald Duncan, his air officer, to make preliminary calculations. Duncan thought it might be possible and presented the idea to U.S. Army Air Forces General Henry “Hap” Arnold. Arnold called in the newly promoted Lt. Col. Doolittle and asked him to check on the feasibility of such an operation. A nationally known pilot with a Ph.D. in science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Doo – little had encouraged the development of high-octane gasoline for aircraft engines. He also had experience in converting auto manufacturing facilities into aircraft factories.

Doolittle determined that the B-25 medium bomber with a crew of five could take off from a carrier with 2,000 pounds of bombs and fly 2,000 miles if modified to carry extra fuel. He chose the 17th Bomb Group as the source for the crews, specifying that anyone who participated must volunteer for the assignment. Two lightly loaded B-25s took off from the new carrier USS Hornet to prove the concept. Following that, the other planes designated for the raid were modified, and their crews practiced short field takeoffs. After several weeks of training, 16 B-25Bs were loaded on Hornet and steamed west from California to link up with the carrier Enterprise and form a 16-ship task force.

At 0300 hours on April 18, 1942, radar on Enterprise picked up a contact of a possible enemy ship, and the force turned north to evade the blip but resumed course after an hour. Three hours later a scout plane from Enterprise spotted a Japanese boat about 40 miles ahead of the force, and it was seen by lookouts at 0738. Radiomen intercepted a message transmitted from the craft to its home port a few moments later, indicating the task force had been spotted. As a result, the aircraft were launched earlier than planned.

The 16 B-25s designed for the raid were assigned targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya. The subject of Phillips’ painting is the 15th aircraft in the strike force, number 40-2267, destined for the port city of Kobe. Lieutenant Donald G. Smith piloted the Mitchell, with Lieutenant Griffith P. Williams in the right seat. Also on board was navigator/bombardier Lieutenant Howard A. Sessler, gunner Lieutenant Thomas R. White and flight engineer Sergeant Edward J. Saylor.

They made landfall north of Tokyo at about 1350 hours, and Smith turned south across Tokyo Bay, proceeded to Kobe and dropped four incendiary bombs, hitting a steel works, a dockyard, a small factory and the Kawasaki Aircraft Factory. They saw only light anti-aircraft fire and no aircraft intercepts. While the raid on the whole produced little damage, it did serve as a significant public relations tool and American morale booster, proving that the Japanese mainland was not invulnerable.

Smith eventually ditched his aircraft near an island off the coastal city of Hangchow, after which the entire crew made it to safety. But 16 other raiders were either captured or killed, and the party at Chunking promised by Doolittle never materialized.

William Phillips has a personal connection to Donald Smith and his crew. The artist’s father, who worked as an actor in Hollywood during the 1940s and ’50s, played Lieutenant Smith in the film 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, based on the Doolittle Raid.


Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here