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America strikes back

One of the Doolittle Raid bombers taking off from USS Hornet 
One of the Doolittle Raid bombers taking off from USS Hornet (Photo: United States Navy)

On December 7, 1941, the "Day of Infamy," Japan entered World War II by launching a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor and invading several key Allied positions in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. America was in shock, suddenly deprived of much of its naval force and the sense of safety provided by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Rather than being discouraged and seeking to quit the war as the Japanese hoped, American leadership started searching for a way to strike back at Japan. 80 years ago, the first such strike was the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942, when Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led a force of 16 bombers on a one-way surprise attack on Tokyo itself.

One of Doolittle's B-25s on the deck of the USS Hornet
One of Doolittle's B-25s on the deck of the USS Hornet (Photo: United States military)

The idea of bombing Japan to simultaneously boost public morale at home and confuse the Japanese originated from President Roosevelt who talked about it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 21, 1941.
 
The big problem with the idea was that there were no American airfields anywhere within range of the Japanese Home Islands, so bombers had no way of getting there. Francis S. Low, Assistant Chief of Staff for antisubmarine warfare, came up with the solution: an American carrier could get close to Japan undiscovered and launch twin-engine medium bombers, which might be able to take off from the short deck of a vessel.

Francis Stuart Low, the originator of the idea of a carrier-borne medium bomber raid against Japan
Francis Stuart Low, the originator of the idea of a carrier-borne medium bomber raid against Japan (Photo: United States Navy)

This had a chance of working, but even if a medium bomber could take off from a carrier's deck, there was no way it could land on it again. The aircraft participating in the raid would need to land somewhere else. The Soviet city of Vladivostok was in range of Japan, but the Soviet Union refused to cooperate with the plan. Even though America and Russia were allies against Nazi Germany in Europe, that alliance did not extend to joining forces against Japan, which Russia actually had a non-aggression pact with. And Stalin was not about to break that pact: Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in mid-1941 caught the country by surprise, and the nation was desperately fighting for survival. Allowing the United States to use Vladivostok during the raid might have prompted Japan to launch a retaliatory invasion of the Soviet Union. With almost all of the Red Army fighting Germany in Europe, such an attack in the far east could have been catastrophic.
 
The second-best landing option for the raiding force was China, where Chiang Kai-shek was already fighting the Japanese, and the Chinese leader agreed to participate. The American bombers could land in China, and the crews could then get home with the aid of Chinese forces and the First American Volunteer Group, the famous Flying Tigers who were already aiding China against Japan. It's been speculated that the bombers sent on the mission were to be given to China to help their war effort.

Chiang Kai-shek inspecting an Italian-made tankette serving in the Chinese military, circa 1938
Chiang Kai-shek inspecting an Italian-made tankette serving in the Chinese military, circa 1938 (Photo: tanks-encyclopedia.com)

Planning the details of the raid fell to Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the famous aviation pioneer. After considering several types of medium bombers, Doolittle chose the new North American B-25 Mitchell, which at that point was completely untested in combat. (Some B-25s would see action before the raid, but the type was still unproven during the planning phase.) Other candidates, the B-26 Marauder, the B-18 Bolo, and the B-23 Dragon were discarded either because they were deemed unsafe to take off from a carrier, or because they were too large to carry enough on the deck, and threatened to hit the ship's tower during takeoff.

Jimmy Doolittle as an air racer in 1925
Jimmy Doolittle as an air racer in 1925 (Photo: Unknown photographer)

As it was, even the B-25 had to be extensively modified to give it the range needed for the mission. The plane's normal range was 1,300 miles, but the raid required it to fly 2,400 nautical miles (2760 "normal" miles). The lower gun turret and the liaison radio set were removed to lighten the plane, and a collapsible auxiliary fuel tank was installed inside the bomb bay, with additional support mounts placed elsewhere inside the plane for further fuel cells.
 
The famous Norden bombsight was also discarded: not because it was too heavy, but because it needed to be at a high altitude to work accurately, and this mission required low-level bombing. Captain Charles Ross Greening, one of the pilots on the mission, invented an extremely simple makeshift bombsight that worked at low altitudes and cost only 20 cents to make. This device was named the "Mark Twain" after the Mississippi riverboat measuring term.

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The Mark Twain sight developed specifically for the raid
The Mark Twain sight developed specifically for the raid (Photo: B-25history.org)

The version of the B-25 used for the mission did not have tail guns, which concerned Doolittle. No fighter craft had the range to accompany the raid, so the bombers were vulnerable to Japanese interceptors. Doolittle had mock guns, made out of wooden beams, installed in the tails to deter any Japanese fighters from attacking from straight behind.

One of Doolittle's B-25 on the deck of the USS Hornet, with the dummy tail guns clearly visible
One of Doolittle's B-25 on the deck of the USS Hornet, with the dummy tail guns clearly visible (Photo: United States Naval History & Heritage Command)

16 bombers were modified for the mission in utmost secrecy. In fact, secrecy surrounding the raid was so high that it occasionally made it harder to plan. The planes' engines had to be tuned to extremely specific settings to get the best possible mileage out of them. Shortly before the operation began, however, one particular maintenance crew who had to go over the planes for a final check was not informed of this due to security concerns. Not knowing that the settings were supposed to be special, they returned all engines to default, forcing better-informed participants to set the special changes once again in a hurry.

Two of Doolittle's bombers at the Mid-Continent Airlines hangar in January 1943, awaiting the installation of extra fuel tanks 
Two of Doolittle's bombers at the Mid-Continent Airlines hangar in January 1943, awaiting the installation of extra fuel tanks (Photo: timothyblotz.com, Tom Norrbohm)

Each bomber was loaded with four 500-pound (225 kg) bombs, three of them high explosive and one containing smaller incendiaries that would scatter over a wide area. The specific targets for the bombing were located in or near Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan, in areas the bombers had to fly over on the way to China, anyway. The targets were picked by the mission's intelligence officer, Stephen Jurika. Born in America, Jurika grew up in the Philippines and frequently visited Tokyo with his parents as a child. In 1939, he was posted to Tokyo as naval air attaché, which at the time essentially meant he was a spy. He took careful notes of industrial and military targets in and around Tokyo, and returned to America in mid-1941.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Stephen Jurika
Lieutenant Junior Grade Stephen Jurika (Photo: United States Navy)

Task Force 18 got underway from San Francisco on April 2, 1942, with the carrier USS Hornet carrying the bombers. The Hornet's fighter complement was placed below decks to make space for the B-25s, but this meant they could not be launched in case the task force was discovered. The force soon met up with Task Force 16, whose flagship, Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey's USS Enterprise, provided air support for the mission. The combined task force's escort vessels were three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers and two oilers. On April 17, they refueled one last time, then the carriers and the cruisers steamed for Japan, while the oilers and their destroyer escorts withdrew.

The bombers on board the USS Hornet en route to Japan, with the USS Gwin and the USS Nashville visible in the background
The bombers on board the USS Hornet en route to Japan, with the USS Gwin and the USS Nashville visible in the background (Photo: United States Navy)

At 7:38 a.m. the next day, the task force was still 650 nautical miles (750 miles, 1,200 km) from Japan when they were discovered by the Japanese picket boat No. 23 Nittō Maru. The boat was sunk by the light cruiser USS Nashville, but not before it could send a warning by radio.

The No. 23 Nittō Maru sinking 
The No. 23 Nittō Maru sinking (Photo: United States Navy)

This put the task force at a quandary. They were still 10 hours and 170 nautical miles (200 miles, 310 km) from the planned area where the bombers were to be launched. Proceeding there would have given the Japanese time to prepare air defenses around Tokyo, and possibly could have even allowed them to intercept the task force. Launching immediately, however, meant upsetting the mission's timetable. The planes would have to fly farther with the same amount of fuel, and would reach Tokyo during daylight, instead of nighttime, due to the earlier takeoff. Doolittle and Captain Mark Mitscher of the Hornet decided to take their chances with the early launch.

Doolittle attaching a medal to one of the bombs. Several medals, awarded by Japan to American airmen before the war, were returned this way during the raid.
Doolittle attaching a medal to one of the bombs. Several medals, awarded by Japan to American airmen before the war, were returned this way during the raid. (Photo: United States Naval History & Heritage Command)

The B-25s took off from the Hornet one by one, with Doolittle piloting the lead plane and almost hitting water immediately after takeoff. The 16 planes got airborne over a period of 59 minutes, then headed toward Japan in groups of 2 to 4, staying at wave level to avoid detection.
 
The bombers arrived above Tokyo at noon and successfully bombed and strafed their targets. They encountered light anti-aircraft fire and a few Japanese fighters in the air, but no B-25s were lost, and the force claimed three downed Japanese planes. The bombers then turned toward China.

Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo, photographed during the raid
Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo, photographed during the raid (Photo: United States Army Air Forces)

Difficulties started to mount in the afternoon and the evening. Night was falling, and the weather was getting worse, making navigation more difficult. The planes were running low on fuel due to launching from farther out; in fact, the only reason they had a chance to reach China at all was a strong tail wind that lasted seven hours.
 
One B-25, Plane #8, was running out of fuel more quickly than the others, possibly due to the mess-up with the engine settings mentioned above. Whatever the reason, they turned north toward Vladivostok to land there despite the Soviet Union's refusal to allow them. They made it safely, but were interned by Soviet authorities; they were treated well but were not allowed to return home. The NKVD, the Soviet secret police, arranged for them to be "smuggled" out of the camp and to safety more than a year later, and they eventually reached friendly forces in Iran, occupied by the Allies at the time.
 
We might never know the truth, but some historians suggest that Plane #8 headed for Vladivostok on a secret mission rather than due to fuel shortage. The crew was a last-minute addition to the mission, and its members have never flown together before. The plane's bombardier-navigator, Lieutenant Nolan Herndon, later claimed he felt their detour was intended to test the Russians' allegiances, and to gather information on Vladivostok's airfield for possible future missions from there against Japan. Herndon later asked Doolittle about the matter, and the latter answered: "I'll tell you one thing, Herndon: I didn't send you there." Did Doolittle mean to imply that the plane was sent to Vladivostok, only by a higher authority? We might never know.

The B-25 that landed near Vladivostok
The B-25 that landed near Vladivostok (Photo: U.S. Army Air Forces)

The other fifteen B-25s were also in trouble. The Chinese airfields waiting for them were supposed to turn on radio transmitters to guide them in, but this never happened. As far as can be determined, the Chinese personnel at the airfields were not informed of the planes' early arrival, and believed them to be Japanese bombers, so they kept the transmitters off. One by one, the planes crash-landed or the crews bailed out mid-air. One crewman died during his bailout, and two crews (10 men) went missing. Later it turned out that two of those men drowned when their plane crashed into the sea, and the other eight were captured by the Japanese. Three of those eight men were executed, the other five imprisoned.

Doolittle's bomber after it crashed in China 
Doolittle's bomber after it crashed in China (Photo: Unknown photographer)

The local Chinese population was enthusiastic in helping the surviving crewmen return home, who were also aided by Patrick Cleary, the Irish Catholic Bishop of the nearby city of Nancheng. As a sign of their gratefulness, the Americans gifted away many personal items as souvenirs.

Doolittle (fourth from right) and his crew with local Chinese officials in China
Doolittle (fourth from right) and his crew with local Chinese officials in China (Photo: Naval Historical Center)

The attack on Tokyo shocked Japan. The damage done by a mere 16 planes was not much, but the raid on the capital city shook the country's belief in its own invincibility. It did not take much to figure out that the Americans must have landed in China, and the Japanese struck back mercilessly. The Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign over the summer of 1942 was to ensure that American bombers would no longer be able to land in China, and also meted out retaliation against the local population. The punishment campaign involved massacres and the deployment of biological weapons: cholera, typhoid, the plague and dysentery. Anyone caught possessing American-made objects was killed, and entire towns and villages were burned to the ground just on the suspicion of having aided the Americans. Around a quarter million Chinese civilians were killed in retribution for the Doolittle Raid.

Japanese soldiers using a grenade launcher during the Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign
Japanese soldiers using a grenade launcher during the Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign (Photo: Public domain)

When he got back home to the United States, Jimmy Doolittle thought he was going to be given a court-martial for losing all of his planes. He was surprised to learn that he and the rest of his men were considered heroes back home. He was promoted two grades, to brigadier general, and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt. All of the Raiders also received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Chinese decorations, and a promotion. 28 of the 80 crewmen (including the dead and the captured) remained in the China Burma India Theater to fight the Japanese. 19 went on to fly in the Mediterranean Theater, and 9 in Europe. One of them, David "Davy" Jones, was shot down, captured by the Germans, imprisoned at the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war (POW) camp, and played a part in the so-called Great Escape, leading the digging team of Tunnel Harry (Read our earlier article – The real Great Escape).

President Roosevelt presenting the Medal of Honor to James Doolittle
President Roosevelt presenting the Medal of Honor to James Doolittle (Photo: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum)

Though the raid did relatively little direct damage, its indirect effect went far beyond boosting American morale and hurting Japanese resolution. At this point in the war, Japan was still on the offensive, expanding in Southeast Asia and capturing islands to the north and northeast of Australia with the ultimate goal of isolating Australia from American aid. The raid, however, forced Japan to boost the defenses of the Home Islands, leaving fewer forces on the front lines.
 
Japanese military planners also felt compelled to prevent similar raids in the future by expanding the empire's perimeter in the Pacific. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor, had previously argued for an attack on the American base at Midway as part of a plan to cripple the American carrier fleet. The Doolittle Raid prompted Japanese leadership to give Yamamoto the go-ahead. At the time, they had no way of knowing that American code-breaking efforts would alert the United States of Yamamoto's operation, leading to the battle that would shift the balance of power in the Pacific for the rest of the war.

The USS Yorktown after being hit by three Japanese bombs during the Battle of Midway
The USS Yorktown after being hit by three Japanese bombs during the Battle of Midway (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The Doolittle Raid inspired several films, most notably The Purple Heart and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, both made in 1944, while the war was still raging. The Purple Heart is the dramatized depiction of a trial of downed American airmen by the Japanese, loosely based on the fate of the eight captured members of the raid. It was the first film to directly address the harsh treatment of POWs by the Japanese. In fact, the U.S. War Department opposed the showing of the film, afraid that it would provoke the Japanese government to treat captives even worse as a form of reprisal. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, starring Spencer Tracy as James Doolittle, deals with the raid itself, and is based on the 1943 book of the same title, written by Captain Ted W. Lawson, who himself was one of the pilots participating in the raid.

Still from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
Still from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
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