It was 1942 and the world was at war for the second time that century. American morale was as low as it had ever been and Japanese forces began an all-out assault on United States and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula.
It was also the year when a pilot, Lt. Col. James Doolittle, would lead a famed raid designed to bolster American morale and provide an opportunity for the U.S. to retaliate against Japan following the deliberate attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
“The Doolittle Raid was this nation’s first return salvo against Japan after Pearl Harbor. Our nation was reeling – trying to get its wartime footing while simultaneously shaking off the national shock of a surprise attack,” said Lt. Col. John Martin, 34th Bomb Squadron commander. “National morale was exceedingly low and President Roosevelt needed a victory.”
The responsibility for planning the raid fell upon Gen. Henry Arnold, Army Air Corps chief, and U.S. Navy Adm. Ernest King, Navy chief of operations.
In January 1942, Capt. Francis Low, the operations officer on King’s staff, approached him with an idea. His idea was to launch an attack from an aircraft carrier using bombers assigned to the Army Air Corps. Alongside Low, Capt. Donald Duncan, an expert in carrier aviation, was assigned to investigate the possibility of such an attack. In less than a week, they presented King with a 30-page analysis – the conclusion being – it could be done.
Lt. Col. Brian Mead, 37th Bomb Squadron commander, said at that point in time, the Japanese felt their geographic isolation made them untouchable.
For the planes, Duncan choose the B-25, a two-engine medium range bomber capable, with modifications, of carrying 2,000 pounds of bombs, while flying 2,000 miles with extra fuel. Normally a B-25 required 1,200 feet of runway to take off, but it was possible that the aircraft might clear a carrier deck a third of that distance with the aid of the forward speed of the ship itself and headwind. Duncan started working on balancing the two most important factors – bomb load and extra gas – both of which meant additional weight and takeoff distance.
Duncan’s report recommended the newly commissioned USS Hornet as the vessel – the plan requiring the ship to be brought within 500 miles of the Japanese mainland before launching B-25s. It would be impossible for B-25s to return to the ship because the Hornet’s deck was too short, so provisions would have to be made for B-25s to proceed to an air base on land after dropping their bombs on target.
After Arnold and King were both convinced with Duncan’s plan, Arnold set out to find a pilot who was accustomed to doing the impossible with an airplane. In his search, he found Doolittle. A man, who Arnold believed was not only an experienced pilot, but a man who could inspire and lead by example.
From the moment Doolittle accepted the assignment, he immediately began selecting aircrews for training and working out logistical elements of the raid. With careful coordination with Duncan, Doolittle determined the B-25s would carry enough extra gasoline to provide an effective range of 2,400 miles. The bomb load would consist of two 500-pound demolition bombs and 1,000 pounds of incendiaries.
Target objectives were the military and industrial sites in Japan, including Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. After dropping their bombs, B-25s were to head westward across the China Sea and land at bases prepared on Chinese mainland southwest of Shanghai.
“The last time a foreign nation had attempted a direct attack on mainland Japan was over 700 years before, when Kublai Khan sent a naval armada from China,” said Martin. “Kublai Khan ultimately failed in his attempt due to a typhoon, and a lasting consequence of this failed raid was that the Japanese people felt their homeland was protected not only by favoring winds, but from divine winds known as the Kamikaze. Over time Japan would perceive that their island nation was quite simply an impenetrable fortress. “
Martin said Jimmy Doolittle set out to find and train a group of men, now known as the Raiders, to prove otherwise.
Aircrews for the 16 B-25s were selected from several Army Air Corps squadrons, including the 34th, 37th and 432nd Squadrons. The Doolittle Raid was a total secret to everyone who was involved. When the raiders volunteered, they were told they would be a part of a, “dangerous secret mission.”
The 80 flyers that were chosen began their training at Eglin Field, Fla., March 3. Due to maintenance problems and delays in B-25 modification, most of the crews received only 20 to 30 hours of actual training flying time, but they all learned to pull their bombers off the ground at near stall speed in the shortest possible distance.
The B-25s were ferried from Eglin Field to Alameda Naval Base in San Francisco, where each was towed to a pier and hoisted aboard the Hornet. Fueling of the carrier commenced at 6 a.m., April 2. At 10 a.m. the Hornet moved slowly out of San Francisco harbor with 16 B-25s on its deck.
Only after the Hornet was well under way, were the raiders were finally told what their target destination was. At that point, Doolittle offered each man the opportunity to withdraw from the mission. None of the 80 raiders did.
Around 600 miles from Japan mainland, a small fishing boat was spotted and destroyed by the Hornet and its crew. Doolittle felt that this small boat may have warned Japan, so he ordered the raid to proceed immediately. As a result of the early takeoff, B-25s would be short on fuel to reach safe zones in nearby China, despite desperate measures taken by engineers to give B-25s the maximum amount of fuel storage space available. The planes now had enough fuel to successfully reach the landing zones if they flew straight to them without errors in navigation or using evasive maneuvers.
“On April 18, 1942, all 16 B-25 bombers took flight from the deck of the Hornet, an inconceivable accomplishment only a few months before,” Martin said.
All 16 B-25s successfully bombed their targets. Most B-25s encountered anti-aircraft fire and some encountered enemy interception in the air. All of the B-25s except one either crash landed or the crews bailed out. The one plane that didn’t crash land, landed in Russia and the crew was taken as internees. After being held captive, an escape attempt was executed to Iran. British Consul helped the men back to the U.S. on May 29, 1943, more than a year after the raid.
“The most amazing thing about the raid was the bravery and determination behind the plan,” Mead said. “The raid itself actually had very little impact on Japan’s war fighting capability. However, the psychological impact on the Japanese military and Japanese society as a whole can’t be overstated. In one night, a very powerful empire transitioned from a feeling of invincibility to one of vulnerability.”
After more than 70 years, the bond between the Doolittle Raiders is still “tight.”
“We have the proud honor and distinct privilege of being Raider posterity – Jimmy Doolittle’s ‘own’ 34th, 37th and 432nd squadrons,” said Martin, referring to the fact that Ellsworth is now home to three of the four squadrons that participated in the raid. “Our heritage clearly defines us, motivates us and propels us forward against today’s threats.”
Martin added that B-1 bombers continue to provide critical around-the-clock close air support to ground commanders in Afghanistan to this day. He said as 2014 fast approaches – the date established for the end of combat operations in Afghanistan – Ellsworth B-1s continue to be an essential resource to theater commanders while they reduce boots on the ground.
“Something a lot of people may not realize is that the last two times the U.S. was attacked on our own soil, the 37th and 34th BS were called upon to deliver our nation’s initial response,” Mead said. “No other organization in the Air Force can claim that same distinction. It’s truly humbling to be a part of these tremendous organizations.”