America’s next stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, is set to be unveiled on December 5, carrying the namesake of America’s legendary Doolittle Raiders of World War II. The story of Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle and his 80 volunteers is so insane, it almost seems like the stuff of legend, but when it comes to Doolittle’s Raid… the truth is stranger, more exciting, and maybe even more inspiring than any fiction.
And while the strategic implications of Doolittle’s Raid may occasionally be overstated, the way their tale encapsulates America’s fighting spirit simply can’t be. Doolittle’s Raiders did the impossible with little expectation of survival and with the understanding that their efforts, even if totally successful, could do little to change the broader course of the war. So, why did they do it?
Because someone had given their country a serious black eye… and they wanted to return the favor.
‘A date that will live in infamy…’
On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked America’s Pacific Fleet that was moored in Pearl Harbor. The surprise offensive killed 2,400 American service members, took 18 warships out of the fight, and nearly crippled America’s offensive power-projection capabilities in the Pacific. Up to that point, the United States had remained somewhat neutral in the globe-spanning conflict, providing support to the Allied effort through more covert than overt means. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor ended any such pretense.
Within weeks, the United States was already formulating what Defense officials dubbed the “joint Army-Navy bombing project.” The idea was simple: Japan had bombed the U.S. and Uncle Sam wanted to return the favor, aiming for Japanese industrial centers with the goal of inflicting both “material and psychological” damage meant to undermine Japan’s faith in its leaders.
But striking back at Japan wasn’t just about affecting Japanese perceptions of the war, it was also very much about strengthening American resolve. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans suddenly felt vulnerable, and with the Pacific fleet in disarray, that vulnerability was quickly leading to fear. America’s military needed a way to shift momentum in their favor, and to prove to the American people that the U.S. wasn’t losing a war they’d only just entered.
There was just one problem: there wasn’t a single bomber in the American arsenal with enough range to make it happen. And worse still — Japan knew that.
Jimmy Doolittle goes from bi-planes to bombers
Jimmy Doolittle started flying for the U.S. Army in 1917 — just eight years after the United States took delivery on the world’s first military aircraft, the Wright Military Flyer, from none other than the Wright Brothers themselves. By 1922, Doolittle became the first person to fly across the United States in under 24 hours — a feat he accomplished in an Airco DH.4 biplane. Shortly thereafter, the Army sent him to MIT, where he earned both a master’s and a doctoral degree in aeronautical engineering.
Doolittle continued to serve as a test pilot for the Army until 1930 when he departed service in favor of starting a new life in the private sector. That is until fighting broke out in Europe once more. Despite America’s claims of neutrality, Doolittle could see the writing on the wall — he re-entered service in 1940, a year after the fighting in Europe commenced and a year before America would be thrust into it.
When America’s War Department needed to find a way to do the impossible, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold (a man who would go on to become the first general of the Air Force), knew Doolittle was the man for the job.
Japan’s defensive perimeter stretched too far out to sea for America’s carrier-based aircraft to launch combat sorties, and there were no friendly airstrips close enough to the Japanese mainland to launch the Army’s bombers from. So, the War Department chose to combine the two approaches and find a way to launch bombers directly from the deck of their carriers. But that was much easier said than done.
The mission called for an aircraft with a range of 2,400 miles and enough payload capacity to carry 2,000 pounds of bombs, while still being small enough to cram a number of them on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Doolittle investigated using the Douglas B-23 Dragon, but its large wingspan made it poorly suited for carriers. The Martin B-26 Marauder was next, but its takeoff handling characteristics were deemed too dangerous for carrier duty as well.
There wasn’t a single platform in the American arsenal that fit the bill… so Doolittle decided to make one.
America’s newest bomber gets a makeover
The North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber made its maiden flight in August of 1940 and officially entered service the following year. But by the time Doolittle set his sights on America’s newest bomber, it had still yet to fly a single combat mission.
The B-25B had a range of 1,300 miles and minimal self-defense capabilities offered by two machine guns in a top turret, two in a belly turret, and one in the bombardier’s nose. With no rear-facing guns, the B-25 was completely vulnerable to attack from behind, and, to make matters worse, Doolittle knew there was no way his bombers would have a fighter escort.
Despite the B-25’s shortcomings, his choice of a bomber was supported by Captain Francis Low from the Navy who had taken it upon himself to load two B-25s onto the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, for testing. Both bombers took off from the flat-top without difficulty… but by Low’s own admission, landing back would be another story.
So work commenced on modifying a small fleet of 24 B-25s for the job, with the intent of fielding 20 in the final mission.
First, a collapsible fuel tank and a number of additional fuel cells were crammed into the fuselage of the bombers, nearly doubling their total fuel capacity to better than 1,100 gallons. Despite the Mitchells’ limited defensive capabilities, the belly turret was removed to save weight, as was the tactical radio. A fake gun was added to their tail, in hopes that it might dissuade Japanese fighters from approaching from the rear.
The carburetors of the engines were modified to offer the best possible fuel efficiency at low altitudes, as the bombers weren’t originally intended for low-level flight.
As America’s newest bomber, the B-25 came equipped with then-top-secret Norden bomb sights. Doolittle had them removed — partly out of concern that they might fall into enemy hands if any of the bombers were shot down, but also due to their poor performance at low altitudes. In their place, a simple bomb sight dubbed the “Mark Twain” invented by Captain Charles Ross Greening and manufactured for a paltry 20 cents a piece in the sheet metal shops of Eglin Air Field (today, Eglin Air Force Base), was used.
‘Your mission, if you choose to accept it…’
Because of how new the B-25 was at the time, Doolittle chose the 17th Bombardment Group (BG) out of Pendleton Field from which to source his crews. They were the first to receive the new bomber, and as such, were the most experienced with it. The crews and support personnel were transferred under the pretense that they’d be conducting anti-submarine patrols off the East Coast, with only the group commander knowing the real reason for the order.
Once the 17th BG were on-site in Columbia, South Carolina, Doolittle arrived and addressed the crowd, telling them that he was looking for volunteers for a highly dangerous secret mission that would help the American war effort… but nothing else. Every airman present volunteered, so Doolittle and the squadron commanders set about selecting the most capable 24 crews.
For the next three weeks, the crews trained on simulated carrier take-offs, low-level flying, night navigation, low-level bombing, and more. Due to weather limitations, the crews accumulated only about 50 total flight training hours for the mission before it was time to execute. Already, three bombers had been taken out of the running — one due to a landing accident, another in a take-off accident, and a third due to a problem with its landing gear.
Doolittle reported that his group of volunteers had achieved “safe operational” levels of capability, but the truth was, there was nothing safe about the mission they were about to embark on.
Loading 16 bombers onto an aircraft carrier
On April 2, 1942, nearly four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Doolittle and his Raiders climbed aboard the USS Hornet with 16 B-25s squeezed onto its flight deck. (It is believed the 17th B-25 was kept off-board due to space limitations.) All of the carrier’s fighters had to be stored below deck to make room for the bombers, and the bombers themselves were loaded with about 450 feet of runway ahead of them in the order they’d be taking off. By April 18, they had rendezvoused with the USS Enterprise, another carrier tasked with protecting the bomber-laden vessel, and they were steaming toward Japanese waters.
The plan was to launch the bombers approximately 400 miles out from the Japanese coast. Because landing the bombers back on the carriers was a lost cause, the U.S. attempted to negotiate a deal that would see the bombers cross Japan and land in the Soviet Union, giving the B-25s up to the Soviets as a part of the Lend-Lease Act. However, the Soviet Union had a non-aggression agreement with the Japanese at the time, so it refused. China, however, stepped up — offering five potential landing locations for the bombers to refuel and carry on toward friendly territory.
But just before 6 a.m. on April 18, some 750 miles from Japan, the two carriers and accompanying vessels were spotted by a Japanese patrol boat. The USS Nashville, a Brooklyn-class cruiser, swung into action, destroying the small vessel with gunfire, but not before it had radioed in a warning.
With the element of surprise quickly waning, Doolittle and the commander of the Hornet, Captain Mark Mitscher, made a command decision: They would launch the bombers now, 10 hours earlier and 250 miles further out than intended. This meant almost certainly that the bombers wouldn’t have enough fuel to reach friendly airstrips.
But Doolittle’s Raiders had sailed halfway across the world to strike back at the heart of the enemy, and they were not going to be defeated by a single patrol boat.
At 0820, just over two hours after the Japanese ship had spotted the carriers, the first Mitchel B-25 bomber powered up its engines and left the deck of the Hornet. By 0919, all 16 were in the air. It was the first time any of the crews had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier.
A fight for their lives over enemy territory
The 16 B-25s started their low-level flight toward Japan in groups of two or four, but as they began to approach the shoreline, they split up and flew individually at wavetop level to prevent detection. At right around noon local time, six hours after Doolittle’s Raiders had departed, the bombers climbed to 1,500 feet to commence their bombing runs against military and industrial targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka.
The Japanese forces, believing that no American bombers had the fuel range to reach the island, were taken almost entirely by surprise. At first, the bombers were engaged by some light anti-aircraft fire as Japan rushed to get fighters into the air. One of the B-25s piloted by 1st Lt. Richard O. Joyce took anti-aircraft fire, but the damage was light. Then another, piloted by 1st Lt. Everett W. Holstrom, found itself under attack from the first wave of Japanese fighters. Its gun turret malfunctioned, and the crew was forced to jettison its bombs early to make a break for it.
But the Japanese defenses were weak this deep into their home turf, and the bombers weren’t going down without a fight. As Japanese Ki-45s and Ki-61s closed in with the bombers, a turret gunner inside 1st Lt. Harold Watson’s Whirling Dervish B-25 scored the first kill for the Americans. Soon, two more Japanese fighters were downed at the hands of turret gunners in the Hari Kari-er, piloted by 1st Lt. Ross Greening.
B-25 crews used their nose turrets to strafe additional military targets after they expended their bomb payloads, creating mayhem on the ground. Japan had plunged America into the war, but now, America had brought it home to Japan.
With their mission accomplished, Doolittle’s Raiders set out for the friendly airstrips of China… but their hardships were just beginning.
Fifteen of the 16 B-25s were lost, 7 men were killed
With their bomb bays empty, 15 of the bombers turned southwest across the East China Sea, headed for friendly territory, but the last, piloted by Captain Edward York, didn’t have the fuel to make the attempt. It was later revealed that the aircraft’s carburetors had been adjusted by civilian technicians at McLelellan Field, reducing their fuel efficiency and costing the crew even more desperately needed range.
York turned his B-25 instead toward Soviet Vladivostok, despite the Soviet Union’s refusal to allow American bombers to land in their territory.
Although they had friendly ties with the U.S. at the time, the Soviets were concerned about Japanese reprisals, so they took the bomber and its crew into custody — though York and his men were later allowed to escape with the support of the Soviet secret police.
The other 15 crews had even greater challenges awaiting them. Due to the early launch, all of the bombers were running low on fuel as night fell over the East China Sea. A tailwind had allowed them to get further than they had thought, but ultimately, they were all forced to bail out of their aircraft, either over the water or along the Chinese coast, or attempt to crash land them.
A race was on, with Chinese and even Soviet fighters scouring the coastline for Doolittle’s Raiders, hoping to find them before the thousands of Japanese troops in the area could. Over the next few days, 69 of them were recovered alive by friendly forces, two were confirmed drowned in their aircraft, and another had died bailing out.
Japanese forces captured eight more — three of whom were executed while a fourth died in custody. The remaining four would remain in prison until August of 1945 when they were rescued by the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA.
As many as 250,000 Chinese men, women, and children were killed in Japanese reprisals for helping the Americans escape.
Doolittle expected to be court-martialed but was instead heralded as a hero
With all of his aircraft lost, either in crashes or to the Soviets, and many of his 80 Raiders missing or captured, Doolittle believed his daring plan had ended in utter failure. Their bombing mission had indeed damaged Japan’s industrial base, but the damage itself was somewhat negligible. He returned to the United States believing that he was going to be court-martialed, but instead, found a hero’s welcome.
The attack may not have had a significant strategic impact, but it had given America an immediate and pronounced morale boost. After months of anxiety and fear had gripped the nation, Doolittle’s Raiders had done the seemingly impossible, and their incredible courage in the face of overwhelming odds was exactly what the nation needed at the moment.
Just 10 days before Doolittle’s Raid, America had suffered its worst defeat yet, with 12,000 Americans and 65,000 Filipino soldiers surrendering to Japanese forces in Bataan. But after Doolittle’s Raid, newspapers and radio broadcasts around the country erupted with headlines like, “U.S. bombs Tokyo!” and, for a brief moment, Americans breathed a sigh of relief.
It was the first time since the 13th century that any foreign power had attacked the Japanese mainland, puncturing the myth of Japan’s invulnerability. It was a small shift in momentum, but one that quickly grew with subsequent Allied victories.
President Roosevelt awarded Doolittle the Medal of Honor and promoted him to brigadier general. All 80 of his Raiders, alive or dead, were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
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