The April 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid on Japan early in World War II bolstered American spirits just months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the loss of the U.S. territories of Guam and the Philippines.
The other goals of the mission were to bomb Japanese war industries and to lower the morale of the Japanese people.
The problem was that the U.S. didn’t have long-range strategic bombers that could take off from Hawaii on their bombing run to Japan and then return. So with the help of the Navy, a plan was hatched.
In choppy, frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean and more than 10 hours out from their planned takeoff, the Doolittle Raid task force was spotted. Not wanting to jeopardize the mission, the command was given and each of the modified bombers slowly crept off the Hornet’s flightdeck — one of the most daring aerial missions in American history was underway. Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Forces, and Vice Adm. William F. Halsey Jr., U.S. Navy, were to lead a joint bombing operation on the Japanese mainland aimed to inflict both material and psychological damage upon the enemy following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
This attack against major Japanese cities — Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya and Kobe — would take a combined effort of the U.S. Navy and Army Air Forces. The mission consisted of sixteen B-25 medium bombers loaded onto the USS Hornet (CV 8) to be taken within takeoff distance of mainland Japan. The B-25 was chosen because of its unique combination of range, bomb capacity and short takeoff distance that would allow it to launch from an aircraft carrier.
The B-25Bs and the 24 volunteer crews came from the 17th Bombardment Group from Pendleton Field, Ore. To prepare for aircraft carrier takeoffs, the 17th BG would receive further training at Eglin Field, Fla., from Lt. Henry L. Miller, a Navy pilot. The crews also practiced cross-country and night flying, navigating without radio references or landmarks, low-level bombing and aerial gunnery.
In mid-March the crews completed their training and traveled to Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco to load their heavily modified bombers onto the Hornet. On April 2, 1942, 136 Airmen and 16 bombers loaded onto the Hornet, led by Capt. Marc A. Mitscher, and got underway for their secret mission.
The Hornet was spotted by enemy vessels approximately 750 miles from Japan, they were forced to begin the mission 250 miles further than originally planned. The takeoffs were timed for when the ship’s bow pitched highest to give the bombers more loft. The average time between takeoffs was less than four minutes.
The Raiders faced some resistance from anti-aircraft fire, but most were able to hit their targets in Japan. Due to the early departure, all of the planes were nearly empty of fuel as they completed the raid. Of the 16 planes, 15 either crash-landed or the crew elected to bail out on the eastern coast of China.
Though the raid caused relatively minor physical damage, it forced Japan to recall combat forces for home defense, raised fears among Japanese civilians and boosted morale among Americans and their allies abroad.
In June of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Jimmy Doolittle the Medal of Honor for his actions in planning and conducting the raid. All 80 Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and those who were killed or wounded during the raid were awarded the Purple Heart. Every Doolittle Raider was also decorated by the Chinese government.
Starting in 1946, to celebrate the birthday of Jimmy Doolittle, the Raiders held an annual celebration that eventually evolved into their annual goblet ceremony and reunion. In 1959 the citizens of Tucson, Ariz., presented the Raiders with a set of 80 sterling goblets — each engraved with the names of the members of the historic raid. Each year, the Raiders held a brief ceremony to honor those who passed away. The passing of retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole, the last survivor of the Doolittle Raid, in 2019 marked the end of the annual goblet ceremony. Since then, the goblets have been on permanent display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
On May 23, 2014, 72 years after the historic raid, President Barack Obama signed Public Law 113-106 awarding the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian recognition Congress can bestow — to the 80 members of the Doolittle Tokyo Raid in recognition of their service. The two surviving Raiders at the time, Cole and retired Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, were unable to attend but were honored at the Capitol Hill presentation.
“The Doolittle Raid is one of many accomplishments of the Greatest Generation, it displayed their resilience to overcome obstacles and challenges, and still accomplish the mission” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. “As we near the 78th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid and commemorate World War II’s 75th anniversary, we would like to take the time to remember those who paved the way for our Air Force today. Thank you Doolittle Raiders.”
The men and women of the U.S. military remain forever indebted to the World War II veterans who demonstrated selfless service and sacrifice that characterizes the Greatest Generation in defense of global peace and security, and the Doolittle Raiders represent this spirit of creativity and innovation.