After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 the Japanese rampaged throughout the Pacific and across Asia. Guam fell on December 10, Wake Island fell after a heroic fifteen day defense, Hong Kong on Christmas Day. The Prince of Wales and Repulse, sent to strike against the Jap amphibious force invading Malay were sunk by Japanese aircraft on December 10th, leaving just 3 American aircraft carriers as the only allied capital ships to try and stem the Jap tide. While the Japanese rampaged across Malaya, they invaded the Philippines and began pushing the unprepared American and Filipino defense forces down Luzon towards the Bataan Peninsula. The impregnable British fortress city of Singapore fell in February, it’s mighty guns facing the wrong way. Burma was invaded, the Dutch East Indies conquered, and the Chinese Sixth Army collapsed. Palau, the Bismark Archipelago and the Solomons fell also, pointing a dagger at Australia’s jugular vein.
By April of 1942, only three months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Empire expanded across the Pacific, spanning 7 time zones and swallowing up 400 million people. On the west coast of the United States nervous civilians and ill equipped and under trained soldiers, sailors and Marines braced for an expected Japanese invasion. For the only time in American history foreign bombs fell on the US mainland when a submarine launched float plane bombed a California vineyard. The Japanese were unstoppable, undefeated, and the American populace was scared and demoralized.
In these desperate and dire times one man stepped forward with an audacious plan to staunch the hemorrhaging of public confidence and morale. Navy Capt. Francis Low had observed Army twin engine bombers landing and taking off at an airstrip in Norfolk that had the outline of a carriers flight deck painted on it. He was convinced that the right plane could launch off an aircraft carrier and strike the Japanese home lands. Lt. Col. James Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Corps was given the job of planning and executing the raid.
The as yet combat unproven B-25 Mitchell was chosen as the best plane to carry out the mission. It had the right combination of range and bomb-load and it’s wingspan was short enough to allow it to clear a carriers island superstructure. Plus, it was fast and agile, qualities it need would to evade enemy fighters. 25 Mitchells were extensively modified by stripping excess weight and installing extra fuel tanks to increase their range to 1100 miles. As a precaution their secret Norden bomb sights were removed and replaced with a crude aiming stake. Crews were trained in carrier take offs, over-water navigation, and low level and night flying.
On April 1 sixteen B-25’s, their crews and support personnel embarked aboard the USS Hornet CV-8 and sailed west. Up until this point the pilots and flight crew had been training for a strike against an unknown target. 24 hours after the Hornet had sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge her CO, Captain Marc “Pete” Mitscher, announced “This force is bound for Tokyo”.
The Hornet was not yet 5 months old, having been commissioned just 6 weeks prior to Pearl Harbor, and her crew were mostly young and inexperienced. Now she was sailing into the heart of the Japanese Empire.
Since the Hornet’s fighters were stowed on the hangar deck to make room for the B-25’s on the flight deck, the USS Enterprise battle group escorted Hornet’s Task Force 18 to the launch point in Japan’s home waters. The plan was to launch the aircraft 400 miles from Japan at 1730 on Saturday April 18th. This would allow the raiders to sneak in under the cover of darkness and have enough fuel to fly to friendly bases in China. The initial plan to fly to closer Russian bases in Vladivostok and turn the planes over to the Soviets as part of Lend-Lease had been scrapped when the Russians, who had signed a non-aggression treaty with Japan, refused. Instead the B25’s would fly to a nationalist base in China where they would be refueled for a final leg to British controlled India.
But at 0738 that morning klaxons blared General Quarters when a Jap patrol vessel spotted the task force. The 70 ton picket Nito Maru was quickly sunk by the USS Nashville, but it was too late; she had radioed a warning. Rather than turning back in failure, Doolittle and the Hornet skipper decided to launch immediately. They were 650 miles from Japan, 250 miles more than planned, and they would now need to fly into Japanese air space unescorted in broad daylight, without the fuel needed to make it to China.
None of Doolittle’s men, himself included, had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier, let alone launch a massive B-25 twin engined land based bomber off one. The Hornet turned into the wind and while being lashed by gale force rain and buffeted by white cap waves crashing over the bow, strained to milk every possible knot from her engines. Midway down the crowded flight deck, even with the ships superstructure, Col. Doolittle sat in the pilots seat of the lead B-25. He locked the brakes and pushed the throttle to the firewall, running the twin engines to maximum RPM. The planes landing gear flexed under the pressure until Doolittle slipped the brakes, and aircraft 40-2344 lumbered down the short flight deck. Watching from nearby escort ships the bomber seemed to hover as it cleared the deck, struggling to remain airborne and not plummet into the choppy ocean. As the props bit the cold north Pacific air the lumbering bomber gained altitude in a near stall inducing angle of attack until it slowly pulled away from the Hornet and turned towards the Japanese mainland.
The remaining 15 planes launched successfully and the entire raid formed up into flights of four aircraft for the low level run to Japan. They soon formed into single file and finished the run at wave top altitude. When they cleared the Japanese coast around noon many of the crew were shocked to see Japanese school children, mistaking them for Japanese aircraft, waving. The American roundels under the wings bore a red circle in the center of the white star. That alone may have been reason enough for the mistaken identity, but the unshakeable faith in the might of Japanese arms made the thought of enemy aircraft in Japan’s airspace as much heresy as denying the divinity of Emperor Hirohito. There was one man who saw the raiders though and stared in disbelief as he recognized them as American. General Hideki Tojo, Prime Minister of Japan, was airborne as Doolittle’s men made landfall and actually passed one of them midair.
The raiders split up and headed towards their targets. 14 aircraft struck for Tokyo, while one bomber each was tasked to hit Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya. The city of Tokyo, in an ironic coincidence, had just that morning completed an air raid drill, largely ignored by the civilian populace. As the first bomber flew over the disinterested people of Tokyo at around 1230, most thought it was just a part of the drill. Until the first bomb hit.
Included in the payload of high explosive and incendiary bombs was one bomb tasked to return “special delivery” to the Empire of Japan, four “Friendship Medals” which had been given to US servicemen by the Emperor prior to the treacherous raid of December 7th.
The crews were under strict orders not to bomb the Imperial Palace as it was believed that would only serve to enrage the Japanese people and steel their resolve to fight, the exact opposite of the intended results. They were not under orders to avoid using it as a navigational landmark however, and several made high speed, low level passes of Emperor Hirohito’s home. The implied threat was not lost on him.
It took approximately one hour for all the planes to make their bomb runs. There was at times substantial antiaircraft fire, and a few fighters chased after the quickly departing Mitchells, but no planes were shot down and no personnel lost. Now came the hard part, making it to China.
Night was rapidly falling, the weather was deteriorating and the planes were dangerously low on fuel because of their premature launch. If not for a fortuitous tail wind none of them would have made it to China. One plane, 40-2242 piloted by Capt. Edward York, was plagued by an unexplained high fuel consumption and diverted to Siberia where it and it’s crew were interred by the Russians. They would remain there until 1943 when they were “smuggled” out of the USSR and into Iran. There they made contact withe the British consulate and were eventually repatriated to the United States.
The other 15 made it to China, with three being forced to ditch at sea off the coast. Most of the crews were forced to bail out, not knowing if they were jumping into occupied or free China. Of the 80 crewmen, five were interred in Russia, three were killed when their plane crashed, and eight were captured. Three of these were executed by the Japanese while a fourth died in captivity. The remaining 66 all made it to territory held by Nationalist Chinese and eventually back to the United States. That number would have been a lot lower however if not for the bravery of local Chinese who played a cat and mouse game with the Japanese troops who were scouring the country side hellbent on vengeance on the brash Americans who dared to bomb the home islands.
The Chinese paid a heavy toll for their courage though. The Japanese murdered over 250,000 while searching for the Doolittle Raiders.
Doolittle expected to be court-martialed when he returned stateside. He had lost all 16 planes and inflicted minimal damage in return. To his surprise he was instead promoted to Brigadier General and presented the Medal of Honor. The raid had shaken Japanese confidence and gave American morale a desperately needed boost. In their country’s darkest hour the Doolittle Raiders had shone as a beacon of hope. A more practical, and strategically vital, result though was that the raid forced the Japs to pull valuable fighter forces back to the home islands to defend against another raid. Concerned about the ability of America to strike deep into Japans defensive perimeter, Tojo decided that Japan needed to expand into the central Pacific. This decision led to the monumental Battle of Midway, from which the Imperial Japanese Navy never recovered.
Seventy years ago today 80 men struck back at the heart of an undefeated and invincible foe. The bombs they dropped on the home soil of Japan were the first, but they would not be the last.