1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo

In the spring of 1942, the United States and its Allies were demoralized by the devastating attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (7 December 1941) and pervasive setbacks in the following months. With the whole world at war, there was little other than bad news followed by more bad news. Then, like a miracle, came the electrifying bulletin: a daring raid by American planes, under the command of Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, bombed Tokyo on 18 April 1942. Allied morale was immediately lifted while the Japanese cult of invincibility was irretrievably shattered. While little damage was actually inflicted on Japan, the Doolittle Raid began to turn the tide.

Today in WW II: 20 Feb 1942 Navy Lt. Cdr. Edward 'Butch' O'Hare of Chicago becomes America's first World War II flying ace. Chicago expanded old Orchard field in 1946, renaming it for O'Hare.  More 
20 Feb 1944 Operation Argument aka 'Big Week' begins; American bombers concentrate on German aircraft manufacturing to lure the Luftwaffe into a decisive battle.
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Preparations for Doolittle's Raid on Japan

From the perspective of the 21st century, the Allied victory over Japan and Germany in 1945 seems inevitable. But in the spring of 1942, that victory was far in the future. Few would dare predict such an outcome, given the strategic situation. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941) and was followed by massive military setbacks in the following months. The Allies were reeling, with little hope for progress anywhere in the world. In the Pacific, Malaya, Singapore, Java, Guam and Wake Island had fallen to the Japanese and Australia was threatened. On 9 April 1942, Bataan fell, adding the Philippines to Japan's conquests. In the Battle of the Atlantic, German U-boats dominated the sea, sinking American ships with impunity, from waters just off the U.S. East Coast all the way to the British Isles. Western Europe had fallen to the Nazis, Britain was being bombed and strangled, and, on the Eastern Front, the German Wehrmacht was in the suburbs of Moscow.

U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to retaliate against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. As a master politician, he knew the public needed some positive news. He ordered the War Department to come up with a plan. In January 1942, U.S. Navy captain Francis S. Low, a submarine officer on the staff of Admiral Ernest J. King, suggested a radical idea: using Army medium two-engine bombers launched from an aircraft carrier. General Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of U.S. Army Air Forces, accepted the idea and selected Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, a legendary aviator and member of Arnold's staff, to plan and command the mission.

B-25B bombers on the deck of the USS Hornet, prepared to take off, 18 April 1942
B-25B bombers on the deck of the USS Hornet, prepared to take off, 18 April 1942.

Based on landing and takeoff speeds, ranges, payloads, dimensions, deck space, and likely weather, analysis showed that it was possible for a North American B-25B Mitchell bomber to take off from a carrier deck with a 2,000 pound bomb payload plus extra fuel tanks, then fly a 2,000 mile mission. Similar ideas had been contemplated for missions in North Africa, but none had been fully developed or put into practice. It was Col. Doolittle's task to select and train crews, coordinate the mission with the Navy, and to supervise modifications to the B-25B aircraft. One thing was clear: it would be a one-way mission. There was no way to land a bomber on a carrier so the raid would have to conclude with landings in China, hopefully in areas not yet controlled by the Japanese.

One hundred forty volunteers were selected to man the B-25s, organized into 25 complete crews, drawn from the 34th, 37th and 95th Squadrons of the 17th Bombardment Group and 89th Reconnaissance Squadron. The men reported to the remote Auxiliary Field No. 1 at Eglin Army Airfield (now Eglin Air Force Base, FL) on 9 March 1942 for secret training in short takeoffs, bombing, navigation, long rage cruising, and Naval etiquette. Other than Doolittle and a few of the inner circle, no one knew what the mission was. During the three months of training, aircraft modifications and other preparations, fifty flight hours were planned but most crews completed only 25 hours or so due to problems with the extended range fuel tanks and other mechanical mishaps.

In parallel with the aircraft preparations, Adm. King assigned Captain Donald B. "Wu" Duncan, KIng's Air Operations Officer who did the original analysis of the potential raid, to coordinate Naval operations that would carry the bombers to within 500 miles of Japan. Duncan oversaw the formation Task Force 16, with sixteen ships in two elements:

  • Task Force 16.1 (Adm. Wm. F. Halsey, Commander): Carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6), two cruisers, four destroyers, and an oiler. Mission: to provide air cover and support
  • Task Force 16.2: (Capt. Marc Mitscher, Commander) Carrier USS Hornet (CV-8), two cruisers, four destroyers, and an oiler. Mission: to carry the Doolittle planes and crews to the launch point

Halsey was the overall commander of TF16, as well as TF16.1. Duncan also coordinated submarine intelligence missions and had two B-25s practice takeoffs from the Hornet while at sea off the U.S. East Coast.

Training at Eglin Field continued until 25 March 1942 when sixteen B-25Bs with eighty crew members flew to Alameda Naval Air Station, San Francisco, CA, On 1 April 1942 Hornet docked at Alameda; the sixteen B-25s and 134 men were loaded, including the Army Air Corps crews. Also aboard was Naval Lt. Henry L. Miller, the officer who helped train the air crews in short takeoffs. On 2 April 1942 Hornet put to sea and headed westward. For the next two weeks, while steaming across the Pacific, the air crews continued to train, study their targets, maintain the planes, and learn Japanese culture from an intelligence officer who had been Naval attache in Tokyo. Halsey's and Mitscher's forces met in mid-ocean on 13 April.

In hindsight, the plan for the Doolittle Raid seems matter of fact. Not so. At the time it was daring, risky and unprecedented. The takeoff of a heavily loaded bomber from an aircraft carrier was difficult enough, requiring the ultimate in pilot skill and courage. The Doolittle plan made it much more so by crowding sixteen bombers onto the Hornet deck, leaving even less room for runway. Then to travel over enemy-controlled seas to heavily defended targets, never reached before, and to continue to China at the limit of the aircraft range, there to rendezvous at fields that had never been used by American planes. It was an insanely risky and difficult plan, therefore magnificently bold and courageous for the crews. Doolittle's own audacity, internalized by the magnificent Raider force volunteers, made the near-impossible plan a fact of history.

The Doolittle Raid on Japan

Yokosuka Japan Naval base taken from one of the Doolittle B-25 bombers, 18 April 1942
Yokosuka Japan Naval base taken from one of the Doolittle B-25 bombers, 18 April 1942.

While Tokyo was the main target, to bomb the enemy capital for shock value, the plan called for bombs to be dropped on other military or war-industry targets across Japan: in Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya, Osaka, Yokohama, and Yokosuka Naval Base. (In the event, the targets were reduced to Tokyo area and Nagoya.) After bombing their targets, the planes planned to proceed across the East China Sea to Chinese airfields near the coast for refueling, then on to Chunking for delivery to the Chinese military. Pilots and crews would be returned to the United States from there.

Col. Doolittle's timetable called for takeoff from the Hornet in the afternoon of 18 April, at a distance of 450 miles from Japan, arriving over targets in the early evening. Doolittle's lead plane would drop bombs and start fires that would provide target indicators for the following bombers. Darkness would aid their escape. But this plan was thwarted when patrol boats of the Japanese coastal defense made contact with Hornet, and possibly spotted Enterprise as well, early on the morning of April 18. The cruiser Nashville destroyed the picket boat, but the alarm had gone out by radio. Task Force 16 could no longer proceed in secrecy or count on surprise.

Col. Doolittle decided to launch immediately, although still over 600 miles from Japan. As Hornet swung about and prepared to launch the bombers, a gale of more than 40 knots churned the sea with 30-foot crests. Heavy swells, which caused the ship to pitch violently, shipped sea and spray over the bow, wet the flight deck and drenched the deck crews. In this chaos, at 0820 hours, 18 April 1942 (Saturday), the first heavily laden B-25B, with Doolittle at the controls, lifted off the Hornet using only 467 feet of flight deck. Facing the rough weather, the remaining fifteen B-25s launched one by one behind Doolittle until all sixteen were airborne. Nearly an hour after Doolittle's plane departed, the last took flight. Task Force 16 wheeled around and steamed eastward to Hawaii at flank speed to get out of harm's way.

The Japanese Navy, alerted by the patrol boat sightings, knew something was up. Ships and planes were dispatched, but good luck and the bad weather favored the Americans. Task Force 16 escaped without further incident, but barely. The bomber fleet, on its way to Tokyo, expected to have to fight its way in, but was not intercepted during their flight of about 3 1/2 hours.

The sixteen B-25 bombers of Doolittle's force, each with its five man crew, arrived over the Tokyo area, starting around noon, targeting Tokyo itself as well as nearby Yokohama and Yokosuka. Three bombers continued on to Nagoya. They came in low off the sea and rose to 1500 feet for bombing. Japanese defenses were caught completely off guard, utterly surprised. The mind-set in Japan had been that the Home Islands were invulnerable to attack. The shock of American planes overhead was immense. Although one B-25 prematurely dropped its bombload due to attack from a Zero fighter plane, all the others dropped on their primary or secondary military targets. Antiaircraft fire was light, few defensive aircraft rose to challenge the B-25s, and no American bomber was shot down.

Intercepted broadcasts, both in Japanese and English, confirmed at 1446 the success of the raids.

Fate of the Doolittle Raid Bomber Crews

LCOL Doolittle with members of his flight crew and Chinese officials in China after the 18 April 1942 raid on Japan
LCOL Doolittle with members of his flight crew and Chinese officials in China after the 18 April 1942 raid on Japan. L to R: SSGT Fred A. Braemer (Bombardier), SSGT Paul J. Leonard (Flight Engineer/Gunner), General Ho (Director of the Branch Government of Western Chekiang Province), LT Richard E. Cole (Copilot), LCOL Doolittle, Henry H. Shen (bank manager), LT Henry A. Potter (Navigator), Chao Foo Ki (Secretary of the Western Chekiang Province Branch Government).

Following their bomb run, the American planes attempted to follow the planned 1,200 mile route of escape across the East China Sea, south and west of Japan, to land at refueling sites in Chuchow, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai. In a significant SNAFU, TF15 failed to notify Washington of the B-25s take off time. That lapse meant that the Chinese airfields were not notified to expect Doolittle's planes and were therefore not illuminated to guide the Americans in. Combined with bad weather over the route and less than planned fuel due to the early start, the blacked-out Chinese airfields could not be located. One bomber landed, far off course, in Vladivostok, to the north in Soviet territory. Although the Soviet Union was nominally an ally, the latter plane was seized and the crew of five held for more than a year.

Of the fifteen planes that ended their run over Chinese territory, eleven of the bomber crews bailed out while two ditched in coastal waters and two crash-landed, all in areas under Japanese occupation. Three crewmen were lost immediately, killed by parachute failures or their crash-landing. Chinese resistance guerrillas, or civilians, found the surviving men and risked their own lives to bring them to safety. The enraged Japanese mounted a furious search, torturing and killing thousands of Chinese or missionaries, burning villages, and destroying crops in an effort to force the Chinese to give up the Americans. Despite the worst efforts of the Japanese soldiers, for more than a month after the raid the Chinese helped 64 crewmembers (four of these in serious medical condition) to evade capture, reach the safety of inland airfields, and return to US forces via Chungking and India. Eight of the men (from two planes) were captured; three of the captives were executed by the Japanese on 15 October 1942 while one other died of mistreatment in prison. The other four endured four years of brutal treatment until liberated 20 July 1945.

Seventy-nine of the Doolittle Raiders received the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions in the raid while Col. Doolittle was promoted to Brigadier General and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Doolittle commanded Twelfth Air Force and Northwest African Strategic Air Forces in North Africa in 1942 and Eighth Air Force in England after 1943. The Doolittle Raid crewmembers who returned fit for service flew again, many serving in under Doolittle again in North Africa and Europe. Raiders remained on active duty as valued members of the military well after the war, one until 1973. On 15 May 1995, to extend the honors related to the historic Doolittle mission, the Secretary of the Navy authorized a special citation for all personnel in ships deployed with Task Force 16.

The American public took the Doolittle Raiders to their hearts as heroes. They were popular guests at War Bond rallies where they spoke of the Raid. A grateful public cheered and heaped honors on them. Ted Lawson, one of the pilots, wrote the best selling memoir "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" which was made into a movie with Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, and Robert Mitchum in 1944. Doolittle himself wrote "I Could Never Be So Lucky Again" which recounts the raid as part of his extraordinary career before and after. The raid remains a fascinating subject with new books still appearing in the 21st century.

Impact of the Doolittle Raid on the War

This War Bonds poster uses public anger at the treatment of the captured Doolittle Riaders
This War Bonds poster uses public anger at the treatment of the captured Doolittle Riaders.

The Doolittle Raid did drop bombs on military-value targets in Japan, but little damage was done. However, there was an immense impact on morale, positive for the United States and its allies, negative for the Japanese. Until the raid, the news had been uniformly bad for the Allied side with Japan seeming to effortlessly overcome anything in its path to domination of the Pacific basin. The Doolittle Raid showed that Japan was not invincible and could be struck by the energetic and resourceful U.S. Army Air Forces. Furthermore, news of the massacre of the helpful Chinese and the later crew executions further enflamed anti-Japanese feelings and increased support for the war.

The Japanese pride was severely wounded, removing at one stroke Japanese confidence in their superiority, impenetrable defenses, and inevitability of their cause. Japanese ships and planes were diverted to Home Islands defense to forestall further attacks, removing vital assets from the field. The shame and embarrassment of the Doolittle Raid led Combined Fleet Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to try to extend Japan's strategic perimeter to mid-Pacific. The resulting engagement at the Battle of Midway ended with a stunning victory by the U.S. Navy. The Japanese advance in the Pacific was reversed in a long series of naval and land battles that ended in August 1945 with the final crushing defeat of Imperial Japan.

Material on this page was primarily adapted from Chapter One of "The Doolittle Raid in History and Memory" by 2nd Lt. Andrew P. Stohlmann, Master of Arts Thesis, Graduate College at the University of Nebraska, August 1999, sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Air Force.

Recommended Books about the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo

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