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Doolittle Raid: Taking the Fight to Japan

The Doolittle Raid restored American confidence

The first step toward America going on the offensive in the Pacific war was taken on April 18, 1942, on the noisy wooden deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8). Joe Evon was one of the nervous sailors watching as sixteen B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, each with a five-man crew, prepared to launch from a spot in the ocean deep where the only other naval forces in the region were Japanese.

“There was a lot of scrambling around,” said Evon, an SBD Dauntless gunner whose own aircraft was stowed below decks. “I can’t say they were hasty or frantic but they were moving quickly. As we watched them prepare to get into the air, we all felt that they had to know what they were doing, or we wouldn’t be out here in enemy waters.” Evon, wearing ordinary sailor attire and goggles, is barely visible in a photo taken from Vultures’ Row, the spot on the island of the carrier looking down at the bombers.

The first B-25, with Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle at the controls, roared down the carrier deck, dipped briefly from view as if heading into the water, and then reappeared in a slow climb.

The first B-25, with Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle at the controls, roared down the carrier deck, dipped briefly from view as if heading into the water, and then reappeared in a slow climb. Weighing almost fifteen tons fully loaded with fuel and bombs, pulled aloft by a pair of Wright R-2600 radial piston engines, the Mitchell banked and set course for Japan.

A superbly skilled pilot and engineer handicapped by his status as a Reserve officer, the short, personable Doolittle was the driving force behind the U.S. raid in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. Doolittle would later command the Eighth Air Force, the largest combat formation ever assembled. President Franklin D. Roosevelt picked Doolittle over more senior officers, and Doolittle assembled his force – the Doolittle raiders. In trials near Eglin Army Air Field, Fla., Doolittle proved that the powerful, twin-engined B-25 could take off in less than 500 feet.

Doolittle Raid

The aircraft carrier Hornet had 16 B-25s on deck, ready for the Doolittle Raid. U.S. Air Force photo

When Hornet and her task force were well in harm’s way far out in the western Pacific, a Japanese vessel sighted the carrier. Doolittle’s men were forced to take off far short of their intended launch point, fully 800 miles from the Japanese coast.

Just becoming airborne from Hornet‘s deck was an unprecedented achievement. In Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Capt. Ted Lawson wrote of preparing to take off:

“If a motor quit or caught fire,” Lawson wrote, “if a tire went flat, if the right wing badly scraped the island, if the left wheel went over the edge, we were to get out as quickly as we could and help the Navy shove our $150,000 plane overboard. It must not, under any circumstances, be permitted to block traffic. There would be no other way to clear the forward deck for the other planes to take off.”

“There would be no other way to clear the forward deck for the other planes to take off.”

Back home, citizens were reading newspaper headlines that told only of defeat after defeat at the hands of the Japanese – of the American fleet being smashed at Pearl Harbor and U.S. troops being routed in the Philippines. Java fell, Wake Island fell. Few Americans alive today remember the frustration and fury of being badly trounced by an enemy’s superior war machine.

Americans wanted payback.

All 16 B-25s got aloft, navigated the ocean vastness, made landfall, and attacked their targets.

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 B-25s pressed separate attacks on Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya, Osaka, Yokohama, and the Yokosuka navy yard. American doctrine favored precision bombing and the Doolittle raiders felt they put their bombs in the right places. Japanese fighters engaged one or two of the Mitchells. All encountered anti-aircraft fire.

The symbolism of an assault on the Japanese homeland was important. The Doolittle Raid lifted the spirits of the American public. But the raid also inflicted real damage. Japan had to withdraw a carrier group from the Indian Ocean to defend the homeland. The raid prompted decisions in Tokyo that led to the Battle of Midway – Japan’s first major defeat.

None of the B-25s landed safely in China as had been planned. Except for a crew interned in Russia, the men had to crash or bail out – some over Japanese-held areas of China.

“We ran out of fuel and had to bail out in Japanese-occupied territory,” said B-25 copilot Robert Hite.

“We ran out of fuel and had to bail out in Japanese-occupied territory,” said B-25 copilot Robert Hite, then a second lieutenant and now a retired lieutenant colonel. A wartime Japanese photograph shows Hite, blindfolded, tied, wearing fleece-lined flight jacket and wheel hat, being escorted by Japanese guards.

He was one of the lucky ones. The Japanese shot and killed three captured Doolittle raiders. A fourth died of malnutrition while in captivity.

Eleven B-25 crewmen were killed or captured. Still, the entire crews of 13 of the 16 medium bombers, and all but one of the 14th, recovered in friendly territory and returned to the United States.

Doolittle Raid

Lt. Hite, blindfolded by his captors, is led from a Japanese transport plane after he and the other seven flyers were flown from Shanghai to Tokyo. After about 45 days in Japan, all eight were taken back to China by ship and imprisoned in Shanghai. U.S. Air Force photo

In later years, surviving Doolittle raiders held reunions and established a tradition of raising silver goblets – 80 altogether, one for each crewmember – to toast their fallen comrades. In 2008, when only eight were able to attend a reunion, they decided to retire the goblets, each inscribed with a raider’s name. All are now on display at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Navigator Chase Nielson was a second lieutenant then who retired a lieutenant colonel, and one of Hite’s fellow prisoners. He said of the Doolittle raid, in an interview before his death in 2007, “I learned … how to appreciate mankind, our democracy and the beautiful wonderful world we live in.”

Doolittle himself never held the rank of colonel. When Roosevelt presented him with the Medal of Honor for the Tokyo attack, the president promoted Doolittle from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general. Hornet was lost during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in late 1942, but the B-25 Mitchell went on to become one of the most successful bombers of World War II.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

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    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    This is one of the great things about the Defense Media Network site. Robert F. Dorr did an excellent summary of this raid, adding the personal touches that bring such histories alive. I wound up bookending it with my article about the point of view of the diplomats and other Americans who were interred in Japan at the time.