Doolittle Raid proved pivotal 70 years ago

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert Kane
  • The Air University Director of History
On April 19, 1942, Americans woke up to the news that Army Air Force planes had bombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities. After four months of doom and gloom that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia and continuing disheartening news from the Philippines, Americans finally received some good news. America had stuck back.

This week, the five remaining Doolittle Raiders are visiting the National Museum of United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for what may be, given their ages, their last reunion, marking the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to retaliate against Japan and asked his senior military leaders for an idea on how, according to Air Force historical information. In early January 1942, Navy Capt. Francis S. Low suggested using Army medium bombers launched from an aircraft carrier.

Lt. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, selected Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, a well-known pioneer in military aviation and aeronautical engineering, to plan and command the mission. After secretly training at Eglin Field, Fla., March 9-25, 1942, 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers with 80 crew members flew to Alameda, Calif., for loading onto the carrier USS Hornet, which set sail for its rendezvous with history.

Up until the morning of the expected launch, April 18, the plan had gone nearly perfect. Then near disaster: A Japanese naval picket ship detected the American ships about 200 miles from their planned launch point at dusk later that day.

Doolittle and Capt. Marc Mischer, the commander of the Hornet, made the decision to launch the B-25s, which meant the raiders would be bombing Japan in daylight and flying onto forward bases in China at night. Doolittle and the rest of the pilots knew fuel consumption would be critical.

The Raiders reached Japan and attacked designated targets in and around Tokyo around noon. After the attack, one aircraft, short on fuel, landed in the Soviet Union. Since that country was not at war with Japan, Soviet officials interned the crew until their escape a year later. The other 15 flew another 1,200 miles and ditched short of the Chinese coast or crash-landed after crossing the coastline.

Two raiders drowned when their aircraft crashed near the Chinese coast, and another died after bailing out. Chinese forces and villagers rescued 69 raiders, including Doolittle. In retaliation, the Japanese army killed up to 250,000 Chinese and drove Chinese forces further from the coast.

The Japanese army captured eight raiders, and Japanese leaders tried them as war criminals. Three were executed, and of the remaining five prisoners of war, one died from disease before the war's end.

Given the minimal damage from the attack and the extensive losses, Arnold and Doolittle wondered if the raid had been worth the effort. After the defeats of early 1942, the news of the raid caused American morale to soar, while the news of the massacres of so many Chinese people further enflamed anti-Japanese feelings. Also, the raid caused Japanese military leaders to recall frontline fighter units to defend the home islands from future attacks.

Perhaps the most important result of the Doolittle Raid was the decision of the Japanese leaders to extend their defense further in the Pacific and to trap and destroy the American aircraft carriers missed at Pearl Harbor. The Battle of the Coral Sea, May 7-8, fought entirely by carrier-based aircraft, further confirmed these objectives.

As a result, Admiral Isokoru Yamamoto, chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy, sent a massive fleet against Midway Island. The ensuing battle, June 5-7, 1942, was a resounding American victory and marked the start of the three-and-a-half-year campaign across the Pacific to Tokyo Bay.