Written by Matthew Copes
Though the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did rouse a long-slumbering industrial and military powerhouse, in late 1942 the United States was in a position of relative weakness.
Much of the country’s once vaunted Pacific Fleet lay in ruins, and though the Great Depression had technically ended the previous decade, its effects were still being felt by many Americans.
Morale wasn’t particularly high even before December 7, 1941, and in light of Japan’s overt aggression, the country was once again forced to come to grips with the prospect of entering another global conflict.
But though the United States had officially been at war for less than a month, at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s insistence, US Army Air Forces Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle met with Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey in San Francisco in early January of 1942.
During the meeting, Doolittle, Halsey and other high-ranking Navy and Air Forces officers devised a brash plan codenamed Special Aviation Project 1.
The mission would involve striking Tokyo with medium bombers launched from carrier’s hundreds of miles off Japan’s coast.
If everything went according to plan, it would catch the Japanese off guard and possibly change the tide of the war in the Pacific.
Though risky to say the least, Halsey and Doolittle were convinced that the mission could be a resounding success, but only with the right men, machines, planning and training.
On the other hand, if things went south it would likely turn into a one-way suicide mission for the pilots and crewmen tasked with carrying it out, and even if they were successful, the physical damage inflicted on Japan would be minimal.
That said, the mission had never been about pounding Japan into submission.
Instead, even just a few tons of bombs raining down on the capital city would shock, terrify and dishearten Tokyo’s unsuspecting citizens, and to defend against future raids the military would be forced to divert valuable resources like airplanes and anti-aircraft guns from other theaters where they were desperately needed.
But perhaps most importantly, such a gutsy raid would unite Americans, raise morale, and strengthen strained relations with Britain and the Soviet Union, both of which had been waiting for the listless Yanks to rise and join the fight.
To give the cocky young airmen every reasonable chance of success, Doolittle was tasked not only with coordinating the mission, but personally leading it – and not from a comfy chair in a carrier communications room, but from the cockpit of a bomber.
It was a huge gamble that could conceivably turn into an epic debacle, but the potential payoff was worth the risk.
Though the raid wasn’t scheduled to take place until mid-April of 1942, the first order of business was determining the feasibility of launching land-based bombers from aircraft carriers.
To this end, a number of tests were carried out off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia between February and March.
All told three aircraft were considered – Martin’s B-26 Marauder, Douglas’ B-23 Dragon and North American Aviation’s B-25 Mitchell, the latter of which were chosen for their rugged airframes, favorable flight characteristics and relatively stubby wings that made them more suitable to operating on cramped carrier decks.
B-25s were 53 feet (16 m) long, nearly 68 feet (20 m) between wingtips, and powered by two 14-cylinder Wright Twin Cyclone radial engines, each of which produced about 1,700 horsepower.
But though B-25s typically carried two defensive machine guns and five crewmen, Doolittle’s birds would undergo significant weight-saving modifications including the removal of the guns, and a reduction in crew size from five to three.
Though drastic, these measures would allow each aircraft to carry more bombs and fuel, thereby increasing both firepower and range and greatly improving the their chances of making it to friendly territory after the mission.
In the early going the plan seemed sound.
Trials revealed that even when fully loaded, Mitchells were capable of taking off from short carrier decks, so long as they had at least moderately stiff headwinds to assist with lift.
On the downside, landings were another story altogether.
In fact, just days into the trials it became evident that landing the relatively heavy bombers back onto the carriers just wasn’t going to work.
After fatigue, stress, darkness, poor weather and possible aircraft damage were factored in, it was clear that even attempting to land back on the carriers would be a recipe for disaster.
Hence, it was decided that the planes would take off from carriers as planned, but that they’d have to land at airbases in either China or the Soviet Union, or if they ran out of fuel, ditch at sea.
The pilots and airmen were all volunteers, but during training they weren’t told anything more than they needed to know to carry out their individual duties.
They were never quite sure why they were practicing carrier takeoffs in land-based bombers, or where their clandestine mission would take them.
What they did know was that their superiors were fond of describing the mission as “extremely hazardous,” which everybody knew was their politically correct way of saying that many of them probably wouldn’t make it back.
Yet despite the obvious risks and being kept in the dark, the crews continued to hone their skills, particularly in regard to high-speed low-altitude flying, navigating at night, and dropping ordnance without help of bomb sites.
With weeks of intensive training behind them, Doolittle conceded that more time would’ve been a big help, but at the end of March the men and their modified warbirds were shipped west.
Just more than a week later as the sun peeked over the horizon on the morning of April 2, the last B-25 was hoisted onto the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet at Naval Air Station Alameda.
Then, with its complement of destroyers, cruisers and support ships, Task Force 18 steamed out of foggy San Francisco Bay.
With the coast well behind them that afternoon, Doolittle called the men into a briefing room and revealed the mission’s details and objectives for the first time.
Eleven days later Hornet and Task Force 18 rendezvoused with Vice Admiral Halsey’s USS Enterprise and the rest of Task Force 16 near Midway.
By 3 AM on April 18 the combined task force was just 600 miles (965 km) off the Japanese coast when radar operators on board Enterprise detected the picket boat No. 23 Nitto Maru.
Since Japan lacked an integrated radar network its only means of detecting enemy aircraft and ships was by sight, primarily through a network of military and civilian vessels that operated in concentric rings around the island nation.
The ins-and-outs of Japan’s effective but rudimentary coastal defense system was well-known to the Americans, but Halsey didn’t expect to run into a picket boat so far out at sea.
Then moments later the darkness and silence were shattered by deafening cracks and blinding muzzle flashes as 6-inch guns on board the light cruiser USS Nashville erupted.
In the ensuing barrage Nitto Maru sustained heavy damage, but the crew was able to relay the task force’s position to the naval base at Hashirajima.
With the element of surprise gone and the mission in jeopardy, Halsey determined that the task force was already within range of the more than five dozen fighters and torpedo bombers that were known to be stationed along Japan’s southeast coast.
Considering the situation, Halsey ordered the flotilla to change course and announced that despite being significantly farther out than planned, the aircraft would be launched as soon as they were armed and fueled.
For Doolittle and his airmen this turn of events meant that the interminable wait was finally over, but to a man they realized that their chances of success and survival had just gone from bad to worse.
After the encounter with Nitto Maru it took more than three hours to prepare the B-25s, and at just past 7:30 AM lookouts on Hornet spotted another Japanese picket boat more than 11 miles (18 km) in the distance.
Assuming that the task force had been spotted, it was now likely that Japanese commanders had been alerted to the American’s presence not once but twice.
In fact they had, and by then they’d already launched most of their shore-based aircraft and dispatched more than a dozen carriers, cruisers and destroyers to drive the foreign invaders away from the homeland.
Just before 8:00 AM, Halsey, Doolittle and the aircrews went over their routes and targets one last time as final preparations were being made on the flight deck.
The aircraft would be grouped into five flights of three B-25s each, all of which would take orders from Doolittle in the lead bird.
To minimize Japan’s ability to concentrate its defensive efforts, each flight would approach its target from a different direction.
But though it would be nearly impossible to distinguish between the two in the chaos, the crews were reminded to stick to their assigned objectives and avoid dropping their bombs on civilian areas and targets of cultural significance like the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo.
Before departing, the crews were also informed that despite intense negotiations, the Soviet Union had not granted permission for Doolittle and his men to land there.
Their only options after dropping their bombs would be to fly to friendly airbases in China if they had enough fuel, or barring that to ditch at sea and make their way to shore in flimsy rubber boats.
At approximately 8:30 AM, Hornet’s massive bow turned directly into the stiff Pacific wind to give the fuel and bomb-laden B-25s maximum lift.
Buckled into his idling Mitchell, 45-year-old James “Jimmy” Doolittle eased the throttles forward, released the brakes, and just a few seconds later lumbered skyward.
Over the next 40 minutes the remaining B-25s followed suit without incident, after which the aircraft rendezvoused and headed toward Japan flying within sight of one another.
Along the way the noisy formation passed dangerously close to a slow moving Japanese reconnaissance plane, but somehow avoided detection.
In addition, unbeknownst to them, the Japanese planes and ships en route to intercept the task force had become hopelessly lost in bad weather.
Roaring on, hours later Doolittle spotted the Japanese coast and ordered the B-25s to increase their speed and drop down to treetop level.
Then just west of Tokyo at approximately 1:00PM, the individual flights drifted apart and made their way toward their respective targets from the east, west and south, while Doolittle’s group swung around and approached from the north.
Barely skimming over trees, buildings and telephone poles, the airmen spotted a number of obsolete biplane trainers puttering around in the skies above them.
Then approximately 10 miles (16 km) from the city they once again came within visual range of a large group of modern fighters flying in formation, but they too either didn’t see Doolittle’s aircraft, or perhaps saw it and assumed it was another Japanese plane.
With luck on their side, shortly thereafter the pilots identified their targets, climbed to 1,200 feet (365 m), opened their bombay doors and released their lethal cargoes before dropping back down, hammering their throttles and heading for the coast.
Below antiaircraft guns and artillery cracked to life, but by then the Mitchells were flying so low and so fast that the gunners couldn’t get a mark on them before they were out of sight.
Behind them, crewmen saw a number of large explosions at factories, ammo dumps, shipyards and army barracks that had taken direct hits.
Less than an hour after the last bomb was dropped, uncensored Japanese radio broadcasts reported that a large fleet of enemy planes has just attacked the city.
Picked up by task force radio operators, the report was Halsey’s first confirmation that the mission had been a success.
But though they’d done what they set out to do, for the exhausted airmen the day was far from over.
Running dangerously low on fuel, each aircraft crossed the Japanese coast – this time heading west toward the Chinese mainland.
But whereas the skies around Tokyo had been relatively clear, over the South China Sea the weather had taken a particularly ominous turn.
Now the Mitchell’s escape path was blocked by a towering stormfront.
Fearing that Japanese fighters might be behind them, Doolittle ordered the Mitchells to climb above 6,000 feet (1,825 m) to go over the storm instead of around it, because the latter would have taken much longer.
Doolittle’s plan worked, but by the time they reached the coast visibility had dropped to nearly zero, flying by instruments was their only option, and all of the aircraft were nearly out of fuel.
Trusting that each pilot would do what he thought was best for himself and his fellow airmen, Doolittle ordered his crew to don their chutes and bail out.
He then set the Mitchell’s automatic pilot before checking the clock in the instrument cluster and bailing out himself.
Doolittle and his crew exited their aircraft at exactly 9:20 PM – more than 12 hours after taking off from Hornet.
After an uneventful descent, the men touched down safely in Chinese territory and immediately made contact with local authorities who’d been keeping an eye out for them.
Before being whisked away to Chuchow and a few days later to the US Embassy in Chungking, Doolittle asked the local military commander to have his forces watch for additional planes and crews along the coast.
Out of fuel and unwilling to risk the lives of his men by ditching at sea, third flight leader Captain Edwin J. York defied orders and detoured toward Vladivostok.
After landing, York, his crew and their in-tact Mitchell were taken into Soviet custody.
On the same day as Doolittle’s raiders were attacking Tokyo, airplanes from Enterprise were also busy inflicting heavy damage on additional land and naval targets in the vicinity, though their contributions went largely unnoticed.
Despite searching for more than a week after the raid, Japanese air and naval forces were never able to find the retreating American warships, all of which slipped away unscathed to fight another day.
However some of the airmen hadn’t been so lucky.
Of those that hadn’t originally been accounted for, some had been killed or captured after crash landings and botched bailouts, but two days later on the morning of April 20, four additional crewmen were found alive.
Of more than 15 tons of bombs dropped by Doolittle’s planes in and around Tokyo, most hit their marks.
Damage was minimal, but taken as a whole the raid had significant implications both in America and the Pacific.
Ironically, months before the attack Admiral Yamamoto had warned his superiors about possible US carrier-based strikes, but his pleadings had fallen on deaf ears.
As had been predicted, in the wake of the attack Japan was forced to reevaluate America’s air and naval power.
In addition, as many as four fighter groups – each of which included about 45 aircraft – were permanently stationed around Tokyo, despite the fact that both trained pilots and airworthy planes were in painfully short supply elsewhere.
Doolittle’s daring raid also served as a powerful recruiting tool for would-be aviators in both America and Britain, and it highlighted the threat posed by China’s coastal airfields that were just a hop, skip and jump away.
For his part, Doolittle was promoted to brigadier general and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by FDR later that year.
Each of Doolittle’s 80 raiders – both alive and deceased – received Distinguished Flying Crosses, while those who were wounded or killed were also awarded Purple Hearts.
Pilot Ted Lawson would go on to write a best-selling account of the historic event titled Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which was made into a motion picture starring Spencer Tracy as Doolittle in 1944.
Captain York and his crew spent more than a year in the Soviet Union before “escaping” and making their way to Iran where they were eventually rescued.
However it was later learned that it hadn’t been an escape at all, but a carefully choreographed NKVD operation designed to repatriate the American airmen while giving the Soviets plausible deniability with the Japanese, with whom they weren’t officially at war.
Two other crews were captured by Japanese forces in China, but though Chinese nationals made multiple attempts to buy their freedom, in the end they were unsuccessful.
For their parts in the raid, Dean Hallmark, William Farrow, and Harold Spatz were executed by Japanese forces in late October of 1942.
Lieutenant Robert Meder died of dysentery in 1943, while four more of Doolittle’s men remained in captivity as POWs in Japan until the war’s end.
Within days of the raid the Japanese began planning a series of reactionary attacks aimed at punishing the Chinese who’d assisted the downed airmen.
In a cruel twist of fate, many otherwise innocent gifts and souvenirs like cigarette lighters, caps and belts that’d been left behind by the grateful Americans ended up dooming entire families and sometimes even whole villages, because the Japanese considered these items irrefutable proof of complicity.
Though most of the aviators had gotten away relatively easily, the Chinese wouldn’t be so lucky, and in many respects the Japanese atrocities after the Doolittle Raid eclipsed those committed in Nanjing between 1937 and 1938.
Though ground troops were responsible for most of the casualties, Japanese bombers pounded cities like Chuchow and Nancheng mercilessly for more than three months, during which the death toll is said to have topped 250,000, most of whom were civilians.
Then, just when it looked as though the bloody paybacks had run their course, the Japanese dispatched members of an infamous germ warfare team to spread diseases like typhoid, cholera and dysentery to finish off those who’d been lucky enough to have survived the swords, guns and bombs.
Despite its tactical insignificance, Doolittle’s raid was a major turning point in the Pacific.
Japan’s fortunes began waning, and with a decisive victory at the Battle of Midway the following June, the United States would go on to enjoy near total naval dominance until the end of the war.