The Doolittle Raid – April 18, 1942

Today is the 71st anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. IMHO, it is the single ballsiest operation in American military history.

Doolittle Raiders patch

The patch of the Doolittle Raiders. “Tonjours en danger” is French for “Ever into danger”.

In April, 1942, America was reeling. The Pacific Fleet was still at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese racked up victory after victory and seemed unstoppable. The Pacific was becoming a Japanese lake. President Franklin Roosevelt was having none of it. In the midst of all this doom and gloom, he wanted to hit the Japanese homeland.

A submarine officer at the Pentagon, Navy Captain Francis Low, came up with a plan to do it. Load Army B-25 Mitchell medium bombers on to aircraft carriers, teach Army pilots to get a bomber airborne in 467 feet, get them within 400 miles of Japan undetected and launch from the flattops. It would be a one way mission, since recovering on the carriers would be impossible. That meant landing in China, which was swarming with Japanese troops, and hope to make contact with friendly guerrilla forces. What could possibly go wrong?

Doolittle Raiders

The Doolittle Raiders. With Lt. Col. Doolittle is Navy Captain Marc Mitscher, the skipper of the Hornet.

Enter Lt. Col. James Doolittle. Born in 1896, he was already an “old man” at 46 years of age. Since 1917, he had been a test pilot, combat aviator, record setting racer and pioneer innovator. He was confident, fearless and a natural leader – the perfect man to lead the impossible mission which would soon bear his name.

The Navy assigned its newest carrier – the USS Hornet – to the mission. At Alameda, CA, it loaded 16 B-25’s on to its flight deck. Each B-25 would carry 4 x 500 pound bombs – three high explosives and one incendiary. They would be pickled one at a time over designated targets.

Each plane had a five man crew – pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier and flight engineer/gunner – for a total of 80 raiders. All were volunteers and nobody knew the mission until briefed by Doolittle after they were underway on the Hornet. They took the mission on blind faith. Only the top turret would be operational. The other eight 50 caliber machine guns were pulled out to save weight and minimize crew. Besides, their attack profile was to fly at no more than 500 feet high until reaching the target, so there would nothing for them to shoot at. During their training, they flew at treetop level, scaring the dickens out of people along the way.

Doolittle takes off.

Recorded by a cameraman on another ship, Doolittle takes off. A detailed photographic record of the mission was developed for release to the American public, assuming it was successful. This effort included 16mm movie cameras mounted on the planes and set to run when the bombs dropped. Additionally, each crew had a handheld camera in the plane. Despite the loss of all planes, some of the combat footage was salvaged and has been used in movies and documentaries since the war.

At 0820 on April 18, 1942, Doolittle launched off the pitching deck of the Hornet. They were supposed to launch 20 hours later and 200 miles closer but had been discovered. It was now or never. Doolittle launched his planes and flew the lead aircraft. The rest were airborne in less than an hour.

Bombs started falling on 10 different targets around noon. The raid caught the Japanese completely flat footed. Surprise was total. Fifteen of 16 aircraft dropped their ordnance. One of them jettisoned early because of mechanical failure and made their way to the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. It wasn’t much, but it had the desired effect. Morale in the U.S. soared while the stunned Japanese replaced many top military leaders. Six weeks later, the Japanese were annihilated at the Battle of Midway and never launched another offensive operation. They spent the rest of the war on defense.

Yokohama naval base

A photo of the Yokohama Naval Base on Tokyo Bay taken from one of the raiders.

Besides the destruction of all 16 planes, the Doolittle Raiders lost three men killed and eight captured by the Japanese. Of those eight, three were executed and one died in captivity. Several others who completed the mission were injured so severely they never flew again. Among those was Lt. Ted Lawson, pilot of Aircraft #7 – the “Ruptured Duck”. His badly injured leg developed gangrene while on the run in China and had to be amputated. Lawson later wrote the book 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.

Doolittle was promoted two ranks to Brigadier General and awarded the Medal of Honor for the mission. Many of the survivors, including Doolittle, returned to combat flying in all theaters of the war. Within a year, another 12 had been killed and the USS Hornet had been sunk off Guadalcanal. Doolittle survived it all without a scratch, dying peacefully in 1993. Just before his death, he wrote of his life and career in I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

The Chinese paid a frightful price for sheltering the Raiders. The Japanese killed an estimated 250,000 of them in reprisal.

In 1946, the surviving Doolittle Raiders began holding annual reunions. The 2013 reunion, which is being held this week in Fort Walton Beach, FL., will be their last. There are only four survivors left and the youngest is 92. All are in failing health. At this reunion, in a private ceremony, they will open a bottle of cognac purchased years ago to be opened by the last two surviving members – modified to include the last four. The cognac dates from 1896 – the year Doolittle was born. With that, they will end the mission of the Doolittle Raiders. So if you get a chance this week, raise a glass of whatever you’re drinking and toast these warriors. We already have.

B-25 re-enactment

At the 1992 reunion, two B-25’s reenacted the Doolittle Raid by taking off from the deck of the decommissioned USS Ranger

Tonjours en danger … Boris and Natasha