After Pearl Harbor, the full, if not immediately enthusiastic, participation of the United States in World War II was all but guaranteed. While there may have been murmurings of a possible attack in military circles, it blindsided the American public, and its psychological effect on the populace can’t be overstated.
So when it came time to retaliate, those in power knew that whatever they did had to boost morale in the States. Bringing the country into another world war relatively soon after the last would change the fabric of the United States forever, so having public opinion behind the war was a must.
To put it simply, the United States and President Roosevelt needed a win, both on the battlefield and in the hearts and minds of the American public.
Enter James Doolittle
For such a monumental and important assault, the right person had to be chosen to lead it. There were many qualified candidates, but in the end, Lt. Col. James Doolittle was assigned to lead.
Doolittle had left the Army Air Corps in 1930 after serving for 15 years. But in 1940 with war clear on the horizon, he returned to active duty.
Despite having only been back on active duty for two years, there’s a good reason that Lt. Col. Doolittle was selected for the project he would eventually call Special Aviation Project No. 1. Not only had Doolittle won multiple trophies in aviation during his time in the Army Air Corps, but he had already made aviation history once before, back in 1929.
On September 24, 1929, James Doolittle became the first pilot to complete a “blind flight”, which required him to take off, plot a course, and land using only instruments. Combining that with the fact that he had been a flying instructor during World War I made him particularly suited to pull off Special Aviation Project No. 1.
All of this special expertise would be sorely needed because there was one glaring issue with the plan to bomb the Japanese mainland–the United States didn’t have any bombers capable of reaching Japan and returning to Hawaii once the deed was done. Not a single one had the range.
So, Doolittle got to planning. To pull the Doolittle Raid off, they would need the Navy’s help.
By Land, Sea, and Air
There was one plane that might bridge the distance, but only with some ocean-faring assistance. The B-25B was a medium bomber and an American plane that was being flown by Allied forces worldwide. With almost 10,000 of them built, it was one of the most popular planes at the time, so plenty were available for the Doolittle Raid.
The B-25B wouldn’t make it from Hawaii to Japan and back, though. What it could do was take off in 300 feet, which just so happened to be the available takeoff length of the aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet.
With the type of plane decided, they brought in 24 groups of highly trained volunteers to work as pilots and crew. All of their volunteers came from the 17th Bombardment Group out of Pendleton Field in Oregon. They knew it was going to be an unconventional assignment but an all too important one.
Although they were experienced flyers, the 24 crews would still need training. In reality, what Doolittle and the rest of his crew were asking these men and their B-25B’s to do was nothing short of extraordinary. The Doolittle Raid was not what the planes had been built for, so proper training was imperative to success.
The most important thing the volunteers had to learn was taking off from the 300-foot-long USS Hornet. Besides that, the crews were trained on things like low-to-the-ground bombing, flying at night, and flying without radio assistance or the presence of familiar landmarks.
What they didn’t train on, though, was landing on the Hornet, and that’s because it was impossible. While the B-25B could take off from the carrier, it simply couldn’t land in such a short distance. To make up for this shortcoming, Doolittle planned for his pilots to land the planes at a Soviet city close to the bombing site, Vladivostok, once the bombing was done.
There was also the issue of retaliation. Once the raid began, the counterattack would be imminent. So, to keep the USS Hornet and its support ships safe, they needed to start heading to safety as soon as the planes took off. This meant that even if the bombers could land on the carrier, it was still safer to have the carrier on the way home as soon as possible.
At the time, the United States and the Soviet Union were on the same side of the war: both of them allied against Nazi Germany. Doolittle was counting on their runway in Vladivostok to pull off his raid, but to his dismay, the Soviet Union declined. They were allies, sure, but they had also signed a nonaggression pact with Japan. So Doolittle had to start looking for alternatives.
Another nearby option was China, and luckily, they agreed to let the B-25Bs land there once the raid was over. With that figured out, the bombers underwent some modifications, all made to lower the weight of the planes. There were changes such as removing radios and belly turrets while simultaneously installing an additional gas tank in the plane’s belly.
One interesting side effect of removing the belly turrets was that, out of worry, the Japanese might see the unarmed back and belly and attack, broomsticks were painted and used to craft fake tail guns for the B-25Bs. Simple, but effective.
With the plan in place, pilots and crew trained, and the bombers modified, it was finally time to put the Doolittle Raid into motion.
Leaving the States: Adapt and Overcome
The day was April 1, 1924, when the B-25Bs were loaded onto the carrier USS Hornet. The Hornet and the small fleet of accompanying support ships were docked in Naval Station Alameda, and once the planes were loaded, they were ready to go. This flotilla of ships would be called Task Force 18.
The ships accompanying the USS Hornet would be:
- USS Enterprise
- Heavy Cruisers-
- Salt Lake City
- Light Cruiser-
- USS Nashville
*Note that all of these ships did not launch from Naval Station Alameda. Some of them were part of Commander Halsey’s Task Force 16, which Task Force 18 rendezvoused with before heading to Japan.
When Task Force 18 rendezvoused with Commander William Halsey and his array of ships, Task Force 16, command was given over to Halsey, as he was the highest-ranking officer. There was still a significant amount of time before the day of the raid itself, though, and the crews didn’t waste it.
They continued what training they could while on board the Hornet. Meanwhile, the planes on board the second carrier, the USS Enterprise handled aerial patrols and any spying that needed to be done to prepare for the raid.
Doolittle planned to get the flotilla, ideally, between 400-600 miles (640–965 km) away from the Japanese coast before launching. This would give the raiders plenty of time to reach their targets, which were many.
The targets of the Doolittle Raid were to be:
- Tokyo Bay
- Yokohama and the Yokosuka Navy Yard
Tokyo itself was large enough that it would require multiple flight teams. Doolittle himself would fly the lead aircraft, and fittingly, his flight team would be the ones to target the central part of Tokyo.
Everything was going to plan until the early morning of April 18th. At 3:10 a.m., the USS Enterprise spotted a Japanese vessel on their radar. The USS Nashville swiftly sank the ship, the Nitto Maru, but unfortunately, it was able to send out a warning to the mainland before going under.
This meant that there was no more time to wait. Much farther than they expected, over 820 miles (1,320 km) away instead of the desired 400-600 miles, the command was given by Commander Halsey to launch. They had lost the element of surprise, but they would still have speed if they did things right.
The Bombing of Japan
Once in the air, the B-25Bs didn’t experience any issues as they made their approach. It took 6 hours for the first of the planes to arrive, most of them centering in on Tokyo.
Amazingly, even with the warning swan song of the Nitto Maru, the Doolittle Raid encountered very minor resistance. There was a smattering of antiaircraft fire, and even Japanese fighter planes were spotted, but none of the enemy planes engaged.
Uninterrupted, the bombers climbed into the air and released their payloads. All in all, it’s estimated that they dropped 14 tons of bombs during the Doolittle raid on mainland Japan. As the bombs exploded, the Japanese launched a fresh barrage of anti-aircraft fire, but ultimately, their aim was lacking, and not a single of the Doolittle Raid planes was shot down.
After the job was done, the planes made their way south, moving towards the coast of China. Everything went well at first, but they quickly ran into bad weather and had to climb to extraordinary heights of 6,000 feet (1.8 km).
13 hours after the B-25Bs of the Doolittle Raid launched from the Hornet, Doolittle himself gave the order to bail out to his crew. They were low on fuel, and visibility was abysmal, so they abandoned the plane, hoping to land in friendly territory.
Luckily, they did, and Chinese authorities quickly assisted Doolittle’s crew. Over the next few days, more and more of the crews were located. In the end, 3 of the 16 crews had not reached China.
The first of the 3 missing crews had been forced to land in Russia, where they were detained but ultimately made it safely home around a year later. Unfortunately, the other 2 crews were captured by the Japanese.
The Japanese eventually executed three of the crewmembers, bringing the total casualties of the mission to 6–the 3 executed and 3 others who died in action. Later, the number would rise to 7, when an American still being held by the Japanese died in captivity.
The Aftermath of the Doolittle Raid
While the goal of the Doolittle Raid was to destroy important Japanese military targets, there was no denying that the primary reason for the attack was to boost the sunken morale of the American public. And it definitely delivered.
The biggest impact of the Doolittle Raid was the psychological one. Considered a tremendous victory in the eyes of the public, the Doolittle Raid helped to undo some of the damage done to the American collective psyche from the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The raid was also used as a popular recruiting tool, and it proved to be a successful measure in getting more men to enlist.
Americans weren’t the only ones affected, though. It shocked the Japanese public that an enemy had carried a raid out on their homeland. After a series of victories, there had been a sense of safety on the Japanese mainland that the Doolittle Raid would shatter.
Japanese leaders had promised them, over and over again, that the mainland would never be the victim of an attack. Reluctantly, Japan had to pull troops from the front lines for defense, another boon to the Allies.
All in all, the Doolittle Raid was considered a success. It was made even more impressive by how quickly it was put together and how the crews still accomplished their goals even when rushed to launch. Doolittle himself was promoted to Brigadier General and later, would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Although many of the ships went on to other battles during WWII, they would always have a special place in history for being a part of the first American raid on Japan.
“Ships of the Doolittle Raid Task Force” https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/events/wwii-pac/misc-42/doolt-s.htm#:~:text=In%20addition%20to%20the%20carriers,Vincennes%20(CA%2D44)