The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, 18 April, 1942
The problem and the concept of retribution
By 8 December, 1941, the whole of the United States was gripped in fury as a result of the successful Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor the day before. The anger was extremely strong in President Roosevelt’s Oval Office. He demanded of his chiefs of staff absolute retribution. “We will bomb Tokyo,” he commanded.
General Hap Arnold, the Army Air Forces leader; Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall; and Admiral Ernest King, the head of naval operations, had a problem they could not solve.
Tokyo was beyond the range of the United States Army Air Force aircraft operating from their Pacific bases at Midway and Pearl Harbor, so that was a non-starter. The United States Navy aircraft did not have the range nor any worthwhile bomb capacity.
After a few weeks, an assistant to Admiral King was observing naval aircraft practicing carrier deck landings on a concrete runway in Norfolk, Virginia. The outline of a carrier deck had been painted onto the concrete. While he was watching, Army Air Force twin-engined long-range B-25 Mitchell bombers flew overhead. This staff officer had imagination. He wondered if the 14-ton Mitchells, affectionately known as “Billys” after their designer and manufacturer, could be loaded onto a carrier, then could they get airborne from the short take-off run available on a carrier. There was only one course of action. Someone had to try it from the concrete runway in Virginia.
An inspiring leader would be needed for a complicated and dangerous mission. Normally combat flyers were in their early 20s. However, one man came to mind, the barn storming Jimmy Doolittle. It could be said that he was flying when Pontius was a pilot (Pilate). Be that as it may, he was 45 but everyone in the American aviation field who knew him thought the world of the man. There was no better leader for this operation.
Doolittle was a short, muscular man who had been both a civil and military test pilot. He had gained the first doctorate in aeronautical science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Having been made aware of the mission himself, he asked for 140 army flyers to volunteer for a dangerous mission outside of the US. All 140 agreed and moved to Eglin Air Base in Florida for mission training – although they did not know what it was they were training for.
Pilots are always instructed to get up to a minimum speed on the runway before pulling back on the stick or yoke to get airborne. They now had to get up in the shortest possible distance necessitating a lower speed take-off.
They were given no idea that it was planned to launch their bomber aircraft from an aircraft carrier. And one significant factor had not been built into their training schedule. The concrete runway was marked out with the length they would have available, but it was not bucking up and down as a carrier deck might do in severe weather conditions. They were still unaware of their target nor how it was perceived they might be able to reach it and even who their operational commander would be.
But early in March 1942, the crews were assembled together and their commander came in. “My name is Doolittle,” he said.
“We are in for something big,” said one man to another, “if he is in this, too.” Within a few moments, everyone was under his spell and he continued to explain the training programme, without divulging the target for security reasons.
As the carrier in question, USS Hornet, sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and set off toward Tokyo and there was no further opportunity for the Japanese enemy to discover its mission, it was possible to brief all on board of “Plan A”. Loudspeakers announced, “The army is going to bomb Japan.” It would be an exaggeration to write that the Japanese, thousands of miles away, could hear the cheers but the sailors were jumping up and down like small children. They wanted to help to give the enemy a dose of their own medicine.
The plan was simple. The Hornet would sail to within 400 to 500 miles of the Japanese coastline and the 16 Mitchell’s would take off in the afternoon and head for Tokyo. The Hornet would turn around and head for safety; the Mitchells would drop their bombs at sunset and then fly on to Churchow airfield in China. The aircraft were too heavy to land back on the Hornet with its wooden deck and the deck had much too short a landing platform.
The best laid plans of mice and men … How true this turned out to be. The Japanese were playing from a different script from the Americans. They had positioned a string of picket boats around Japan that put them in the path of the Hornet and her supporting fleet. Two of these spotted the Hornet and raised the alarm. Even though the picket boats were crewed by civilians, US destroyers were ordered to sink them.
Knowing they had been observed and that the Japanese were likely to attack with aircraft and ships, the Pacific Fleet commanders were in a quandary.
Was the potential loss of an aircraft carrier with further humiliation to the Americans by the Japanese worthwhile? The American public would not be made aware that their military forces had been trying to give the enemy a bloody nose. On the other hand, President Roosevelt would be very upset to say the least if they just backed away. Heads would roll. A compromise decision was made to launch the aircraft 200 miles and eight hours sailing earlier than originally planned. This put the whole operation at risk and the lives of the aircrew even more so. One pilot realised with “Plan B” they would launch hundreds of miles earlier than planned. He thought there was not a man detailed for the mission who really believed he would complete the flight safely.
More bad news came that the weather was getting worse. They would face strong headwinds all of the way to Tokyo and China. The Hornet was being tossed around by 30-foot seas and gale-force winds. The sailors and aircraft crews had great difficulty to even crawl on the windblown deck in lashing rain.
On taking off, the pilots would be flagged to release their brakes and with engines at full throttle when the Hornet was plunging down so by the time they reached the end of the deck the Hornet was at the peak of its upward movement and the Mitchells would be tossed into the air.
The first pilot off was obviously the leader, Lt. Col Doolittle. He managed to get airborne just yards from the end of the deck. The remaining Mitchells quickly followed suit and they set off for Tokyo not knowing what they would face when they arrived on target.
The bad weather, especially the poor visibility, aided the American raiders. They were dispersed and not in formation and they flew on to their targets independently. This made it difficult for the Japanese anti-aircraft gunners to know where the next aircraft was coming from.
The Mitchell’s dropped their 2,000-pound load of bombs and headed for China. Again the weather aided the Mitchell’s as the wind changed direction 180 degrees and assisted them leaving Japan.
One aircraft suffering, from excessive fuel consumption, had no hope of reaching China so it headed for the nearer Soviet Maritime region. They landed just north of Vladivostok. The crew was interned until the authorities were able to negotiate their safe return to the US via Iran.
From the pilot’s point of view, it was terrible when leaving Tokyo as they could not see anything. If they could have landed at a well lit airfield they would have had a chance. Four aircraft ditched in the sea. The only other solution, taken by 11 aircraft, was to bail out by parachute when over the Chinese coast. Three men died doing this. The decision to fly off the Hornet hours earlier than originally planned meant they were leaving Tokyo in the night instead of early in the morning an
d with partial daylight.
The aircrew, many only 20-years-old, were just kids doing a man’s job but they grew up quickly.
The Japanese took typical Japanese revenge for the support the local Chinese gave to the Americans. They killed tens of thousands of the local population over the next three months. Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader cabled President Roosevelt about the savagery the Japanese wreaked on his people.
He said, Japanese forces have attacked the coastal areas where many of the American flyers had landed. These Japanese troops have slaughtered every man, woman and child over the large area. A quarter of a million have died in three months.
Eight of the aircrew were captured and taken to Shanghai where they were executed. The standard practice was decapitation with a sword.
The aircrew fortunate enough to get back to the US returned to duty, but 12 lost their lives in later campaigns. Doolittle was promoted to Brigadier General and a grateful President Roosevelt had the US Congress award him the Medal of Honor.
King George VI made him an honorary knight, so his official name and title would have been Brigadier General Sir James Doolittle, Medal of Honor.
Since preparing this article for publication in the Compass a remarkable coincidence occurred. I was scratching around for some interesting photographs but without much success – nothing really grabbed me. Then for the first time ever, the World War II Veterans Committee in Washington made an unexpected contact, totally out of the blue. The sent three photos plus a letter.
The letter was from Lt. Colonel, later Brigadier General Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot Richard E Cole. He finished the war as a Lt. Colonel in the USAF.
He said the raid was a harrowing experience but he and his fellow fliers did what they felt they had to do just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He said we must never forget the sacrifices necessary to keep our freedom.
It is possible that we can arrange for Colonel Cole to attend the formal dinner we are holding on 19 October. Please reserve the date in your diary – we had a great time last year.
Graham Walker is Hon. Secretary of the Cayman Islands Veterans Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the writer who has been interested in military history for many years and not necessarily those of the association.