OFF HONSHU, APRIL 18, 1942
REVENGE SPED TOWARD Japan at nearly four miles per minute, borne upon olive-drab wings.
Flown by America’s finest aviator, the lone bomber approached the enemy shore at 200 feet. Three hours after taking off from the aircraft carrier Hornet, the forty-five-year-old pilot was determined to do something that had never been done: bomb Japan.
Piloting the twin-engine B-25 was Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, a stocky, balding flier often called a daredevil in the press but best described as master of the calculated risk. In his twenty-five years of flying he had proven both his cool head and his hot hands, winning prestigious races, setting records, and pioneering the crucial science of instrument flight. An oft-published photo showed him standing before his stubby Gee Bee racer with his Phi Beta Kappa key visible beneath his leather jacket. With a Ph.D. in aeronautics, he spoke with an engineer’s precision, saying “aeroplane” and describing friends as “chaps.”
Four months earlier, when Japanese carrier aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, Doolittle had been a major conducting special projects for General Henry H. Arnold, the Army Air Forces chief. America was still reeling from Tokyo’s stunning blow against Hawaii as a nonstop onslaught rolled up U.S. and Allied forces across the Pacific: from Guam to Wake Island to the Philippines, East Indies, and the Asian mainland. The nation and President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for retribution.
Thus was born the First Special Aviation Project. Oddly, it was the brainchild of a submarine officer, Captain Francis Low. He conceived the idea of launching long-range Army bombers from an aircraft carrier and proposed a daring concept: a hit-and-run raid against Japan itself, launched well beyond the limited reach of Navy carrier aircraft. If all went well, sixteen B-25 Mitchells—named for the late airpower advocate William “Billy” Mitchell—were to land in China after bombing Japan.
It was a high-risk operation, calling for volunteer aircrews who were told only that they would be “out of the country for two or three months.” More men stepped forward than could be used. The crews were selected from all four squadrons of the 17th Bomb Group (Medium), the first B-25 unit. Originally stationed at Pendleton, Oregon, the group had flown antisubmarine patrols along the Pacific coast. A crew of the 17th reported sinking a Japanese sub off the mouth of the Columbia River on Christmas Day 1941, but the boat (the brand-new I-25) escaped to torpedo a tanker a few days later.
In February the group transferred to South Carolina to hunt U-boats in the Atlantic. A sub kill was claimed off the East Coast, making the 17th the first unit credited with destroying Axis submarines in both oceans.
The volunteers went to Eglin Field, Florida, to train for the special mission. Mostly they were youngsters: twelve of the sixteen pilots were lieutenants, and only five had won their wings before 1941. Fifteen of the copilots were less than a year out of flight school. Doolittle’s crew was typical, with an average age of twenty-five. Besides Doolittle, merely two of the eighty fliers were over thirty: Major John A. Hilger and Technical Sergeant E. V. Scott in Lieutenant Harold Watson’s number nine aircraft.
Flying a loaded Army bomber from an aircraft carrier had never been done. But during tests off the Virginia coast in February, two B-25s got off the Hornet without difficulty, demonstrating that fully armed and fueled bombers could operate safely. The plan went ahead.
Steaming via the Panama Canal, Hornet rendezvoused with her sister carrier, USS Enterprise, north of Midway on April 12. The task force was commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, the jut-jawed seadog who would become America’s most renowned naval warrior. The “Big E,” with her regular Navy air group for protection, would escort Hornet to within 450 miles of Japan. There Doolittle’s bombers would take off, and the two carriers would turn for home. If the task force was discovered before launch, the B-25s would still take off or be jettisoned, depending on circumstances.
On the morning of April 18, ten hours before scheduled takeoff, a Japanese picket boat sighted the task force. The vessel was sunk by the cruiser Nashville, but American radiomen overheard the Japanese sending a warning. Doolittle conferred with Hornet’s skipper, Captain Marc Mitscher, and decided to launch 170 miles east of the intended point.
Doolittle lowered his flaps, stood on the brakes, revved his Wright engines, and watched the launch officer. With the carrier’s bow rising in the Pacific swells, the officer’s flag swept down and Doolittle released the toe brakes. Hauling the control yoke full back, he felt his bomber’s wings lift fourteen tons of aluminum, steel, gasoline, ordnance, and living flesh.
He made it. He circled the ship to get his bearings, then set course for Japan, 713 miles away. The other fifteen Mitchells followed at an average of four-minute intervals. Fully loaded, each bomber had 1,141 gallons of fuel—enough for twelve hours or more of cruising at 5,000 feet. Stashed near Chuchow in China’s Hunan Province were 30,000 gallons of aviation gasoline and 500 gallons of oil for the Raiders—assuming they reached their destination deep in the Asian interior.
The fliers’ intended landfall was Inubo Saki, eighty miles east of Tokyo. The twenty-meter promontory with its chalky white lighthouse provided an excellent reference point for the navigators.
Meanwhile, advance warning of strange aircraft inbound from the sea had been radioed to various headquarters. Many Japanese had seen the Raiders but few realized they were Americans. Some farmers and villagers waved. The noontime arrival of Doolittle’s bombers coincided with a scheduled air raid practice, complete with airborne interceptors. But few defenders had any inkling of what was about to happen.
One observer who immediately recognized the unpleasant facts was Commander Masatake Okumiya, a naval officer at Kasumigaura Airbase twenty-five miles northeast of Tokyo. Glimpsing the silhouette of a B-25 skimming past his airfield, Okumiya realized that the radioed warnings had been ignored. Japan’s air defense system—such as it was—anticipated conventional high-level bombers flying in formations, as Japanese squadrons did over China.
At noon local time the Americans saw three V-formations, each of three Japanese fighters—the first of scores sighted over the enemy homeland. Tokyo knew that something was afoot but lacked details.
Approaching Tokyo’s north-central industrial area at barely rooftop height, Doolittle shoved the throttles forward, climbed to 1,200 feet, leveled off, and lined up a factory complex. Antiaircraft fire burst nearby, shaking the bomber’s airframe, but doing no damage. Jimmy Doolittle had a clear shot at his target in good visibility.
In the glass-enclosed nose, Staff Sergeant Fred Braemer checked his makeshift bombsight, which resembled a child’s toy: a protractor mounted on a stick. Mathematically accurate for a given altitude and airspeed, it could place a 500-pound bomb within blast radius of a chosen aim point. The B-25’s ordnance was a mix of 500-pound M43 demolition bombs and M54 incendiary clusters, all considered “extremely satisfactory.”
Braemer punched the bomb release, felt the Mitchell lift slightly, and became the first of a stream of bombardiers who would drop ordnance on Japan. His four incendiary clusters would provide a beacon for trailing bombers.
Having shed his load, Doolittle pushed on the control yoke and descended to rooftop height. America’s hottest pilot was comfortable speeding at low level: he had won every air race worth entering during the 1920s and 1930s.
The Raiders’ targets included petroleum facilities, ammunition stores, aircraft factories, steel mills, and the Tokyo Gas and Electric Company. Lieutenant Travis Hoover’s first three-plane flight went to northern Tokyo; Captain David M. Jones’s trio attacked the center; and Captain Edward J. York’s the southern urban area and northern portion of Tokyo Bay. Captain Charles R. Greening’s flight went for Kanagawa, Yokohama, and Yokosuka Navy Yard. He was intercepted by four fighters, two being claimed shot down by B-25 gunners. The fifth flight broke up, its planes attacking Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. The targets had been selected to spread the damage across fifty miles to prevent the Japanese government from denying that the attack had occurred.
Probably the most worthwhile target was a ship in Yokosuka dry dock: the 16,700-tonTaigei. The former submarine tender was being converted to a carrier, and it sustained a bomb hit on the bow and several incendiary clusters. Damage was light, and she would join the fleet before year end, renamed Ryuho. Most likely she was attacked by Lieutenant Edgar E. McElroy, with bombardier Sergeant Robert C. Bourgeois.
Antiaircraft fire was “active” but inaccurate; no bombers were seriously damaged. Doolittle’s crews attacked fast and low, preventing Japanese gunners from getting a clear shot at the B-25s. Barrage balloons—as many as five or six together—forced only one plane to divert from its briefed course.
Travis Hoover bombed an arsenal from 900 feet, well below the recommended altitude, as explosions blew wreckage higher than his bomber. Some Raiders reported bombing a residential area containing factories, and inevitably some unintended buildings were hit: Tokyo reported six schools and a military hospital struck. In all, about fifty people were killed and some 400 injured, with ninety buildings reportedly destroyed.
But not everyone found a target. Lieutenant Everett “Brick” Holstrom’s crew met “severe” fighter opposition. In evading the interceptors he bypassed Tokyo, proceeded to a secondary target, but was intercepted again. Frustrated, Holstrom dropped his bombs in the water and headed southwest for China.
Edward “Ski” York bombed Tokyo but knew he could not reach China. Before leaving the West Coast his carburetors had been “adjusted” by civilian mechanics. Burning 30 percent more fuel than normal, he diverted 600 miles northward across the Sea of Japan, landing north of Vladivostok in the Soviet Union.
Thirteen hours after launch, somewhere over the China coast, hundreds of miles from Chuchow, the other planes began running out of fuel. Doolittle ordered his crew to bail out, then jumped from 8,000 feet—his third parachute descent. He landed in a field fertilized with human waste.
The next morning, filthy and despondent, Doolittle sat on the wing of his wrecked bomber, pondering the failure of his mission. His gunner, Staff Sergeant Paul Leonard, snapped the CO’s picture, then sat beside him and asked, “What do you think will happen when you go home, Colonel?”
“I guess they’ll court-martial me and send me to prison,” Doolittle gloomed.
Leonard shook his head. “No, sir. They’re going to make you a general. And they’re going to give you the Congressional Medal of Honor.” Paul Leonard was right.
Of the eighty fliers on the mission, three died in crashes or attempted bailouts over the China coast. Eight were captured and taken to Tokyo. Four months later, they stood a mock trial in which no charges were revealed to them. All were declared guilty of war crimes, but for obscure reasons five were spared, leaving Lieutenants Dean E. Hallmark and William G. Farrow and Sergeant Harold Spatz to die. They were returned to China and, outside Shanghai one morning in October, they were made to kneel before three crosses, and were shot by Japanese soldiers. Another captured Raider starved to death in prison and fourteen others also would perish in the war.
In terms of actual damage, the Doolittle Raid amounted to little more than a pinprick. But its psychological effect was profound on both sides of the Pacific. The Doolittle Raiders had given American morale a boost unlike any other in the twentieth century. Newspapers crowed “Doolittle Do’oed it!” even while the Philippines were overrun by Japanese forces and U-boats prowled almost unmolested in American waters. Meanwhile, the Japanese Imperial Navy saw the raid as proof that the U.S. Pacific Fleet must be destroyed, adding impetus to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s determination to force a major engagement at Midway in June. The disastrous outcome of that battle for Japan ensured America’s ability to take the offensive later that summer.
As Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek feared, China paid the heaviest price for the raid’s success. In May the Japanese swept through Chekiang and Kiangsu Provinces, seizing Chinese airfields to prevent further missions against the homeland and scourging villages suspected of assisting the Raiders. The toll will never be known, but the Chinese estimated perhaps a quarter-million people were killed in retaliation for America’s own retaliatory strike.
Metropolitan Japan would remain immune to American bombs for the next twenty-two months, until June 1944. But a terrible warning had been delivered, and a foretaste of impending cataclysm.
© 2010 Barrett Tillman