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The Doolittle Raid’s Ringside Seats

The Tokyo Raid as seen by American diplomats and internees in Japan

On April 18, 1942, at 8:20 a.m. local time, Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle piloted his B-25 Mitchell medium bomber off the flight deck of the USS Hornet. Doolittle’s B-25 circled the aircraft carrier once to get a navigational fix, then leveled off for the flight west to Tokyo and eventually China. The Doolittle Raid to bomb targets in Japan had begun. Shortly after noon, Tokyo time, Doolittle’s aircraft was in sight of Japan’s capital city. At 12:30 p.m., Doolittle dropped his bombs over his industrial target. The 16 planes comprising the Doolittle Raid caused panic among the Japanese population. But there was one group whose reaction to the American bombers was one of pride and joy: Americans who had been interned in Japan since Dec. 7, 1941.

“One of the United States planes flew directly over our camp and the music of its motors was sweeter than Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, which our phonograph was playing at the time.”

– Internee Associated Press correspondent Joseph Dynan

Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese authorities rounded up the hundreds of American journalists, missionaries, businessmen, and their families in Japan and interned them in guarded compounds in metropolitan Tokyo. The American embassy staff and their families all moved to the embassy compound, which was placed under guard. A similar roundup was conducted in the United States regarding the Japanese diplomatic corps and nationals. Until America and Japan worked out a repatriation agreement, all those two groups could do was wait.

Doolittle Raid

The aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8) carried 16 B-25 Mitchells on deck, ready for the Doolittle Raid. U.S. Air Force photo

Though necessarily committed short term to a policy of strategic defense during the crash-rearming program following Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt knew that some sort of daring and dramatic blow had to be struck against Japan to boost American morale. That “something” was the Doolittle Raid.

As they assembled for their noon lunch on April 18, the American diplomatic corps and interned civilians were about to find themselves ringside-seat witnesses to history, the first-ever air strike on the Japanese homeland.

Associated Press (AP) reporter Joseph Dynan was one of a group of Americans in an internment camp located between Tokyo and Yokohama. “We were having coffee and toast,” he later wrote, “when the police rushed into our camp excitedly and told us to extinguish fires in the stoves and close the windows because there was an air raid.”

Doolittle Raiders

Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle accepts a medal from the skipper of the USS Hornet, Capt. Marc A. Mitscher. The medal, once given to a U.S. Navy officer by the Japanese, was wired to a 500-pound bomb for return to Japan “with interest.” U.S. Air Force photo

The Americans thought it was simply a drill, even after they heard two loud explosions in the nearby Kawasaki industrial complex. Then Dynan and others saw “a large twin-motored plane flying very low.” They watched as the American Army Air Corps bomber, flying no more than 200 feet above the ground, roared past and disappeared in the western sky as Japanese biplane fighters took off from a nearby training field. Mrs. Theodore Walser, wife of a missionary, reported that some of the internees saw the bomber pilots wave to the people on the ground.

Meanwhile at the embassy compound, Ambassador Joseph Grew and his staff were also about to eat when the Raiders arrived overhead. From their embassy vantage point, they observed at least six fires caused by the B-25s’ bombs. Like the Americans in Dynan’s internment camp, they too initially thought that the Raiders were Japanese planes conducting a drill. But upon checking with the Japanese guards at the embassy gates, they discovered the truth. They saw a total of three B-25s. One of the bombers, flying at treetop level, came as close as three-fourths of a mile to the embassy.

Though physical damage caused by the raid was minor, its psychological impact was enormous. The Japanese people and its military were shaken to their core. In contrast, American morale shot sky high. The raid also changed Japanese strategy, causing the high command to recall a number of frontline squadrons to beef up homeland air defense, and to green light the invasion of Midway.

Doolittle Raid

A B-25B takes off from the USS Hornet (CV 8) on the Doolittle Raid. U.S. Navy photo

As for the interned American and Japanese nationals, after many weeks, the repatriation agreement was finalized. The exchange took place on July 22, 1942, at the neutral port of Lourenco Marques, Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). There, 1,450 Americans, British, and other nationals were exchanged for 1,096 Japanese citizens. And it was at Lourenco Marques that AP reporter Dynan was able to file his story about his ringside seat to the Doolittle Raid.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...