The Doolittle Raid

  • Published
  • By Jessica Lawson
  • 944th Fighter Wing Historian

A little over four months after the initial bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States began secretly planning a reprisal attack on the Japanese Empire. In fact, the initial plan was already underway and the U.S. Army Air Forces had begun to train their pilots for this incredibly dangerous and covert operation.

The mission that these men chose to accept was to bomb the Japanese capital city of Tokyo. A strike of retaliation for Pearl Harbor. It was also a strategically planned mission to bring shock and awe to the people of Japan. The Japanese Empire, at the time, did not believe that America was able to retaliate without the Empire first finding out about it, and stopping it.

The U.S. government had to think outside the box to pull this off. They had long-range bombers, like the B-17, but those aircraft would need to be far enough away to launch and all of the most advantageous locations had limiting factors that would jeopardize the mission. The Navy had aircraft on their carriers that would have been able to complete the mission but the carriers would have had to be nose to nose with the Japanese to make the flight.

The solution came in the form of bringing the worlds of long-range bombers and carrier aircraft together. The Army Air Force had the B-25 Mitchell Bomber that could make a long-range flight from an aircraft carrier, but this had never been attempted.

Many thought the plan was impossible and doomed to fail but if the United States wanted to send a message to Japan, this was the only possibility. The mission received the blessing of President Roosevelt and training began.

Col. Jimmy Doolittle, a renowned pilot in the Army Air Force, took over training the pilots that would be flying this unusually large aircraft off a Naval aircraft, the USS Hornet. The pilots would have to push the planes to their max to get them off the carrier.

After just a few weeks of training, they were out to sea. The plan called for the carrier to be 400 miles off the coast of Japan, but Japanese forces spotted the ship. In response, Col. Doolittle revised the plan and the USS Hornet stopped 650 miles off the coast of Japan.

Sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the Hornet and made their way to Tokyo. The raid was a success and the bombers managed to hit their targets in Tokyo, Kobe, Yokosuka, and Osaka. Waning fuel levels meant the pilots needed to head toward China, where they had plans in place to travel back to safety. Unfortunately, fifteen of the aircraft crash-landed or the crew had to bail out. The remaining plane made it to Vladivostok, Russia, but the plane and the crew were interned. Three other crewmembers died and the Japanese took eight prisoner.

Strategic planning and absolute dedication shown by Col. Doolittle and his crew will forever be known as one of the greatest surprise attacks in modern times. The resolve and patriotism of these brave aviators has gone down in history as making the impossible a reality.