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In the first months after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, the US watched Japan taking over South East Asia and could not do anything about it. The US began to build an unstoppable military force, but until it became operational, something was desperately needed to boost morale, to demonstrate to enemies and allies alike that the US is striking back.
The way to do it was by air. Several proposals to attack Japan itself by air were rejected. The US lost its air bases in the Philippines, and sending the few remaining aircraft carriers to within strike range from Japan was much too risky. However, a young Navy officer suggested to attack Japan with medium bombers which would take-off from an aircraft carrier. It was a daring idea, perhaps impossible, so Admiral King asked his air operations advisor to study the possibilities. After five days of careful calculations, the Admiral received a 30-page report, hand-written for secrecy. After considering all the technical aspects of range, winds, weight, armament, fuel, and route, the conclusion was that the mission is doable, but the bombers will not be able to return to the aircraft carrier. Instead they will have to land somewhere in Asia.
Since medium bombers were in the army Air Force, the project was then passed to it, and General Henry Arnold appointed Lt. Colonel James H.Doolittle as the mission commander. Doolittle was the right person for this extraordinary and technically difficult mission. At age 45, Doolittle was not just an excellent and highly experienced pilot, he also had a doctorate from M.I.T .
Doolittle's first task was to select the right aircraft for the mission. A bomber capable of taking off from the very short runway of an aircraft carrier, carry 2000lb of bombs, and fly a very long range of 2400 nautical miles. He selected the twin-engined B-25B Mitchell. 16 bombers will participate in the mission.
The bombers still had to be modified for the near impossible mission. The bombers were stripped from anything that was not essential, in order to make room for extra fuel and reduce weight. A 200 gallons rubber fuel tank was installed in the bombs compartment, another 160 gallons fuel tank was put in the crew corridor, and a 60 gallons fuel tank replaced the machine guns in the ventral turret. Finally, ten 5 gallon tanks were also taken, to be manually added into the rear fuel tank in flight. The total amount of fuel was almost double than that of a standard B-25. The 230lb radio was removed, and so was the top secret Norden bombsight. The engines were optimized for maximum fuel efficiency.
Beside the technical preparations, Doolittle also selected the crews, all volunteers, for the 16 bombers. The crews flew to Eglin, Florida, for intensive training in short takeoffs and landings, navigation, low altitude bombardment, and fuel efficient flying. Following the training, some pilots were able to take off after just 120 meters. The gunners also trained in using their guns for ground combat after landing. Everyone knew they were training for a high risk special mission, but although Doolittle announced several times during the training that they can leave the mission, no one did.
In March 25, 1942, the bombers flew to California and were loaded on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. A week later, the Hornet's carrier group (1 carrier, 2 cruisers, 3 destroyers, 1 tanker) sailed into the Pacific Ocean. Secrecy was such that only two men in the Hornet knew where they were heading, Doolittle, and the Hornet's captain. Several hours later Captain Mitchner announced to the entire crew :
The bomber crews now received their first briefing about the mission details. Doolittle will takeoff first, alone, and will attack Tokyo at dusk. The fire from his bombs would help the following crews navigate. The remaining 15 bombers, in 5 formations of three, were given industry and energy targets in North, center, and South Tokyo, and also in nearby Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. They were supposed to take off 400 miles from Japan, and after dropping their bombs, use the darkness to escape, and head to China, to an area which was not under Japanese occupation, and land there in a specially prepared airstrip.
In April 13, eleven days after leaving California, the Hornet's group met the carrier group of the USS Enterprise, and they continued together as Task Force 16, commanded by Admiral Halsey. The Enterprise air group provided air cover, and two submarines led ahead of the force, looking for Japanese vessels. Four days later, in the North Pacific, the tankers and destroyers left the task force, and the carriers and four escorting cruisers increased their speed and headed to Japan. Takeoff was scheduled for April 19 in the afternoon, but in April 18, 1942, at dawn, the task force was detected by a Japanese patrol boat. It was quickly sunk by one of the cruisers, but it was correctly assumed that their presence was already reported to Tokyo. ( Japanese wartime documents reveal that the Japanese patrol boat did report that it met an American carrier group, but the report was ignored in disbelief... )
The early detection was a major difficulty. On one hand the carriers were still over 600 nautical miles from Japan, and fuel was already a problem. On the other hand Admiral Halsey knew that the group might be attacked by Japanese carrier aircraft. At 8AM he ordered Doolittle's raiders to takeoff immediately.
The crews rushed to their bombers. The Hornet turned into the strong wind. Engines were started. Doolittle released the brakes and after a short run his bomber was airborne. All the 16 bombers successfully took off, and then the carrier task force quickly turned, heading back to Pearl Harbor.
Flight over the ocean was normal. Near Tokyo, flying at very low altitude, the Doolittle raid bombers met several formations of training aircraft, but no fighters, and no anti-aircraft fire. Their surprise was perfect. It was noon, and Doolittle climbed to 1200ft and dropped his first bomb over the center of Tokyo. Soon after all the other bombers bombed their targets.
Tokyo was stunned. People panicked. After repeated promises by the authorities that Japan's sky will be "clean" forever, the Doolittle raid was a shock to Japan's military and population. The heads of the Air Force and Navy accused each other, and the commander of Tokyo's air defense committed a suicide.
The Doolittle raid was already a success, but the 16 bomber crews still had a long way ahead. They flew towards China. It became dark and cloudy. Doolittle climbed over the cloud cover and kept flying in total darkness. His attempt to locate the planned Chinese navigation beacon failed. After 13 hours of flight, Jimmy Doolittle and his crew abandoned their aircraft and parachuted into the night.
In the morning Doolittle found a Chinese peasant who brought him to a Chinese officer who initially refused to believe his fantastic story, but eventually agreed to let him call the Chinese headquarters, and they delivered the message to Washington that the Doolittle raid was a success.
The news electrified America and morale boosted high. To increase Japanese confusion, president Roosevelt declared that the bombers that struck Japan took off from Shangri-La, a mythological place in the Himalayas.
The destiny of the other bomber crews was similar to Doolittle's. The aircraft sent to bring their reception team and the homing beacon crashed a day earlier, so all but one crew parachuted or crash-landed in various places in China that night. Most of them returned home, but eight were captured by Japanese forces ( 3 were executed, 1 died in Japanese prison camp, 4 remained POWs until the end of the war). One crew, that had higher fuel consumption and therefore could not reach China, turned North and landed in a Russian airstrip.
The raid on Tokyo was a great success. The material damage was small, but the effect on morale, both in the US and in Japan, was significant and important. Furthermore, because of the attack the Japanese Air Force transferred four fighter squadrons from the war front to air defense of the Japanese home islands. The Japanese army massacred the civilian population in the regions of the bomber landings as a punishment.
The most important result was that the raid ended the strategic disagreement in the Japanese High Command, between Admiral Yamamoto, who claimed that Japan will not be able to achieve its goals without decisively defeating the US Pacific fleet, Admiral Nagano who proposed to attack Australia and India, and the army Generals who wanted to continue to focus in China. The Doolittle raid proved that Yamamoto was right, and that led to the Japanese attack at Midway, which was intended to draw the American aircraft carriers to a decisive battle and sink them.
The battle of Midway was indeed decisive, but thanks to the achievements of the US Navy's codebreakers who provided an effective warning, it was the Japanese Navy who lost its aircraft carriers in it. It was was the end of the Japanese Navy's superiority.
Jimmy Doolittle received the Congressional Medal of Honor for planning and leading the Tokyo Raid. He was promoted to General, and later in the war vast bomber fleets under his command dropped countless bombs on Germany and Japan, but he is best remember for the first four bombs he dropped over Tokyo in April 1942, America's first victory.
The Battle of Midway (10 minutes read)
World War 2 Bombers (7 minutes read)
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (6 minutes read)
Medal of Honor (11 minutes read)