Doolittle Raid: a look back

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The aircraft carrier Hornet had 16 AAF B-25s on deck, ready for the Tokyo Raid. (Courtesy photo)
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A little over four months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States began secretly planning a reprisal attack on the Japanese Empire. In fact, the initial plan was already underway and the U.S. Army Air Forces had begun to train their pilots for this incredibly dangerous and covert operation.

The mission that these men chose to accept was to bomb the Japanese capital city of Tokyo. A strike in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was also a strategically planned mission to bring “shock and awe” to the people of Japan. The Japanese Empire, at the time, did not believe that America was able to retaliate without the Empire first knowing about and stopping it.

The U.S. government had to think outside the box to pull this off. They had long-range bombers, like the B-17, but those aircraft had to be far enough away to launch undetected. The most advantageous locations had limiting factors that would jeopardize the mission. The Navy had aircraft on their carriers that could have completed the mission, but the carriers had to be nose to nose with the Japanese to make the flight.

The solution came in the form of bringing the worlds of long-range bombers and carrier aircraft together. The Army Air Force had the B-25 Mitchell Bomber that could make a long-range flight from an aircraft carrier, but this had never been attempted.

Many thought the plan was impossible and doomed to fail but if the United States wanted to send a message to Japan, this was the only possibility. The mission received the blessing of President Roosevelt and training began.

Col. Jimmy Doolittle, a renowned pilot in the Army Air Forces, took over training the pilots that would be flying this unusually large aircraft off an aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. The pilots would have to push the planes to their max to get them off the carrier.

After just a few weeks of training, they were out to sea. The plan called for the carrier to be 400 miles off the coast of Japan, but Japanese forces spotted the ship. In response, Col. Doolittle revised the plan and the USS Hornet stopped 650 miles off the coast of Japan.

Sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the Hornet and made their way to Tokyo. The raid was a success and the bombers managed to hit their targets in Tokyo, Kobe, Yokosuka, and Osaka. Waning fuel levels meant the pilots needed to head toward China, where they had plans in place to travel back to safety. Unfortunately, fifteen of the aircraft crash-landed or the crew had to bail out. The remaining plane made it to Vladivostok, Russia, but the plane and the crew were interned. Three other crewmembers died, and the Japanese took eight prisoners.

Strategic planning and absolute dedication shown by Col. Doolittle and his crew led to what will forever be known as one of the greatest surprise attacks in modern times. The resolve and patriotism of these brave aviators has gone down in history as making the impossible a reality.

The Tokyo Raid

“Give ‘em hell for me” — Seaman Robert Wall

Still reeling from the shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor, The U.S. Navy and Army Air Forces devised a plan to strike at the Japanese mainland. With the cooperation of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold and Admiral Ernest J. King, American bombers would launch from an aircraft carrier to attack five major cities. Arnold chose Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle to lead the mission.

The USS Hornet got under way on April 1, 1942, loaded with 16 B-25 bombers. On April 18, the task force sighted a Japanese patrol boat and, fearing discovery, decided to launch the aircraft 150 miles farther from Japan than the plan intended. All planes took off and six hours later completed their bombing runs over 16 military and industrial targets. With the exception of one bomber, (which landed in Russia) the planes crash-landed or were ditched after running out of fuel in Japanese-occupied China.

Of the 80 men who volunteered for the mission, three died in action (two drowned, one died after bailing out) and eight were captured by the Japanese. Of these, three were executed and one died in prison. One crew of five was interned by the USSR but eventually returned. The very last survivor of the raid, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Cole, passed away on April 9, 2019.

Although the raid achieved very little tactically, it seriously damaged Japanese confidence in her military’s ability to protect the homeland. Strategically it gave an enormous morale boost to America and her allies and set up a series of events that lead to the spectacular.

Airmen of the U.S. Army Air Forces, led by Lt. Col. James H. (Jimmy) Doolittle, carried the Battle of the Pacific to the heart of the Japanese empire on April 18, 1942, with a surprising and daring raid on military targets at Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, and Kobe. This heroic attack against these major cities was the result of coordination between the Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy, which carried the 16 North American B-25 medium bombers aboard the carrier USS Hornet to within take-off distance of the Japanese Islands. Here, a pair of alert escorts follow the USS Hornet to protect her lethal cargo of B-25 bombers. (Courtesy photo)
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