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World War II: Doolittle Raid


World War II: Doolittle Raid

Doolittle's B-25s aboard USS Hornet

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center


The Doolittle Raid was an early American operation during World War II.

Forces & Commanders:

Doolittle Raid - Overview:

In the weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a directive that efforts be made to directly attack Japan as soon as possible. In addition to achieving a degree of retribution, Roosevelt sought to show the Japanese people that they were not invulnerable to attack as well as to boost flagging American morale. While ideas for meeting the president's request were being sought, Captain Francis Low, the US Navy's Assistant Chief of Staff for Anti-submarine Warfare, conceived a possible solution for striking the Japanese home islands.

While at Norfolk, Low noticed several US Army medium bombers taking off from a runway which featured the outline of an aircraft carrier deck. Investigating further, he found that it would be possible for these types of aircraft to take off from a carrier at sea. Presenting this concept to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, the idea was approved and planning commenced under the command of famed aviator Lieutenant Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle. Assessing the idea, Doolittle initially hoped to take off from a carrier, bomb Japan, and then land at bases near Vladivostok in the Soviet Union.

At that point, the aircraft could be turned over the Soviets under guise of Lend-Lease. Though the Soviets were approached, they denied the use of their bases as they were not at war with Japan. As a result, Doolittle's bombers would be forced to fly 600 miles further and land at bases in China. Moving forward with planning, Doolittle selected the North American B-25B Mitchell for the mission as it possessed the range and payload required, as well as a carrier-friendly size. To assure that the B-25 was the correct aircraft, two were successfully flown off USS Hornet, near Norfolk, on February 2, 1942.

With the results of this test, the mission was immediately approved and Doolittle was instructed to select crews from the 17th Bomb Group (Medium). The most veteran of all US Army Air Force's B-25 groups, the 17th BG was immediately transferred from Oregon to Columbia, SC under the cover of flying maritime patrols off the coast. In early February, the 17 BG's crews were offered the opportunity to volunteer for an unspecified, "extremely hazardous" mission. On February 17, the volunteers were detached from the Eighth Air Force to commence specialized training.

Initial mission planning called for the use of 20 aircraft in the raid and as a result 24 B-25s were sent to the Mid-Continent Airlines modification center in Minneapolis, MN for alterations specific to the mission. Among the changes made in the aircraft was the removal of the lower gun turret and Norden bombsights, as well as the installation of additional fuel tanks and de-icing equipment. Meanwhile Doolittle's crews trained relentlessly at Eglin Field in Florida where they practiced carrier take offs, low-altitude flying and bombing, and night flying.

Departing Eglin on March 25, the raiders flew their specialized aircraft to McClellan Field, CA for final modifications. Four days later the 15 aircraft selected for the mission and one reserve aircraft were flown to Alameda, CA where they were loaded aboard USS Hornet. Sailing on April 2, Hornet rendezvoused with Vice Admiral William F. Halsey's Task Force 18 north of Hawaii. Centered on the carrier USS Enterprise, TF18 was to provide cover for Hornet during the mission. Combined, the American force consisted of two carriers, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers, and two oilers.

Sailing west under strict radio silence, the fleet was refueled on April 17 before the oilers withdrew east with the destroyers. Speeding forward, the cruisers and carriers pushed deep into Japanese waters. At 7:38 AM on April 18, the American ships were spotted by the Japanese picket boat No. 23 Nitto Maru. Though quickly sunk by USS Nashville, the crew was able to radio an attack warning to Japan. Though 170 miles short of their intended launch point, Doolittle met with Captain Marc Mitscher, Hornet's commander, to discuss the situation.

Deciding to launch early, Doolittle's crews manned their aircraft and began taking off at 8:20 AM. As the mission had been compromised, Doolittle elected to utilize the reserve aircraft in the raid. Aloft by 9:19 AM, the sixteen aircraft proceeded towards Japan in groups of two to four aircraft before dropping down to low altitude to avoid detection. Coming ashore, the raiders spread out and struck ten targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama, and one each in Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, and Yokosuka. For the attack, each aircraft carried three high explosive bombs and one incendiary bomb.

With one exception, all of the aircraft delivered their ordnance and enemy resistance was light. Turning southwest, fifteen of the raiders steered for China, while one, low on fuel, made for the Soviet Union. As they proceeded, the China-bound aircraft quickly realized that they lacked the fuel to reach their intended bases due to the earlier departure. This led to each air crew being forced to ditch their aircraft and parachute to safety or attempt a crash landing. The sixteenth B-25 succeeded in landing in Soviet territory where the plane was confiscated and the crew interned.

Doolittle Raid - Aftermath

As the raiders landed in China, most were aided by local Chinese forces or civilians. One raider, Corporal Leland D. Faktor, died while bailing out. For aiding the American airmen, the Japanese unleashed the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign which ultimately killed around 250,000 Chinese civilians. The survivors of two crews (8 men) were captured by the Japanese and three were executed after a show trial. A fourth died while a prisoner. The crew that landed in the Soviet Union escaped internment in 1943, when they were able to cross into Iran.

Though the raid inflicted little damage on Japan, it provided a much needed boost to American morale and forced the Japanese to recall fighter units to defend the home islands. The use of land-based bombers also confused the Japanese and when asked by reporters where the attack had originated, Roosevelt replied, "They came from our secret base at Shangri-La." Landing in China, Doolittle believed the raid to have been a dismal failure due to the loss of the aircraft and the minimal damage inflicted. Expecting to be court-martialed upon his return, he was instead awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and directly promoted to brigadier general.

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