Seventy years ago this morning, 80 brave men took off from the USS Hornet on what would later become known as the Doolittle Raid. It is hard to imagine babies were born, lived their entire lives, and died having lived full lives in the time that has passed since the planes launched about 8:30 in the morning. Five of the Raiders are still alive today. They have been participating in many events this week at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH commemorating the anniversary of the attack.
The stories of Pearl Harbor and the Raider’s revenge are fascinating. Every American should know the basics of the history of these two events. American history includes much, all the way from Lexington to Gettysburg, to the Ardennes, Normandy, the Chosin Valley, the Ia Drang, Grenada, Beirut, the Twin Towers, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Our history includes a great deal of stories, both institutional and personal.
Some of those stories really stand out above the others. The sacrifice and stories of the 80 men who participated in the raid are only a part of the tapestry making up the time the world fought World War II. There are many other parts of the tapestry, of course, but the stories of the Raiders stands out a little more than the other stories because of the importance of their mission early in the war.
Japan came to Hawaii from the North to take out the American Pacific Fleet. It was, in the truest sense of the phrase, a sneak attack. The attack stunned and shocked the American people; but more importantly, it galvanized their resolve. As Admiral Yamamoto predicted, the attack served “to awaken the sleeping giant.”
In waking, the giant looked around and began formulating plans of retribution. At the end of 1941, America did not have the technological means to fly bombers to Japan. At the time, the bomber fleet lacked airplanes capable of the range and payload required to reach and effectively attack the island nation. If they carried the fuel to fly to Japan and return, that decreased their bomb load. If the bombers were loaded with the weight of weapons, the reduction of fuel capacity made the mission a one-way trip. Neither option was acceptable.
The elected leadership conferred with the flag officers of the Army and Navy as to how to strike back at Japan. During the early discussions, one name continually floated to the top of the suggestions as to who should engineer and design the strike, train the men, and lead the force: Doolittle.
James H. (Jimmy) Doolittle was one of the very first aeronautical engineers degreed in the new field of aviation. Additionally, he was an aviator’s pilot, holding many aviation speed and attitude records. Probably his most famous historical claim was that he was the first pilot to ever takeoff and land blind, strictly on instruments. Doolittle was the natural selection to lead the mission.
Doolittle, along with the other strike leaders, soon settled on the Army’s medium bomber, the B-25B Mitchell as the best aircraft for the mission. The craft was small enough to fit on the decks of the aircraft carriers and had enough of a payload capacity to take a 2000-pound bomb load to Tokyo with enough fuel for a safe egress.
With the preliminary details fleshed out and the choice of airplane decided, now it was time to get to work. Probably the most critical task was the selection of the aircrews for the mission. In fine military tradition, military leadership ordered no one onto the mission; Doolittle was up front with his men from the beginning.
He told the men it was a dangerous mission and that no one would fault any crewmember for not stepping forward. To a man, both the enlisted and the officers all volunteered. Then they began training for whatever secret mission to which they had signed on. They would not know the details of their targets until just days before the start of the mission. Many had very educated guesses derived from the nature of their new training, but the men were not officially told until a few days before they left the carrier.
The training took them all over the United States. They practiced bombing in places like Montana and South Carolina, special takeoff techniques with the Navy in the Florida panhandle, and perfected their navigation skills on cross-country training flights all over the nation. One of the last cross-country missions ended in San Francisco next to the pier at Naval Air Station Alameda. The Navy craned 16 of the B-25s aboard Hornet.
April Fool’s Day 1942 was indeed grim. It was the day the Hornet put to sea with the 16 B-25B Mitchell bombers lashed to her flight deck. The plan? Steam west to within 400 nm of the Japanese mainland, launch the bombers on the eve of April 18, and unleash havoc on the people of Japan.
That was the plan.
In reality, the strike force ran into a picket boat about 700 nm from Japan. The boat was quickly sunk and some of the Japanese crew taken as prisoners. There remained, however, the lingering question as to whether the crew radioed Tokyo of the American Task Force. Doolittle and Admiral Mitscher conferred and decided it was time to launch the Mitchell bombers—even if they were 10 hours too early and 170 nm further away from the intended launch point.
This meant they would strike the mainland in daylight rather than darkness. The psychological effect on the people of Japan would be less, while the likelihood of enemy fighters attacking the bombers increased.
Imagine, if you can and if you dare, being in their place, in the cockpits and gunner’s stations with these young men. They knew they were launching early; they knew gas was a serious consideration; they knew the chances of bailing out of their gliding bombers was high; and they knew there was a very high risk of serious injury or death in flying the mission.
And yet, they still launched.
Navy sailors passed out extra fuel in five-gallon cans as the bomber crews prepared for takeoff. Doolittle would be the first and with all of the other bombers lining the deck behind his bomber, he would have only 467 feet of flight deck to get off the carrier. Each bomber pilot behind Doolittle knew that if he made it, they would make it, too.
Each pilot in turn lifted his airplane into the sky from the Hornet’s flight deck below Vmc with full power and flaps full down. It was an extraordinary display of airmanship on the part of each pilot. Had one engine failed on any airplane before the crews had the chance of getting the airplane above Vmc and fast enough to make it controllable, they knew they were going to be dead.
Again, they still launched.
They had to have been the first of the gutsiest aviators of the war. Many more men with intense “guts” were soon to follow.
The bombers proceeded west, just above the waves and then hit their targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, and Kobe. Most of the airplanes carried three 500-pound high explosive bombs and one 500-pound incendiary bomb. After finishing their bomb runs, they continued west where the original plan had them landing in China during daylight hours.
However, since taking off 10 hours ahead of schedule, they were out of phase with their plan and forced into flying in the dark. Of the 16 aircraft, 15 crashed and the last, because of engine problems and high fuel flows, landed in Russia.
The mission was only the start of their war. From each respective crash, every man had to deal with his own trials and tribulations—some, more so than others. Many suffered injuries to some degree, a few much worse than the others. Those wounded who remained free in China eventually made their way back home to the United States for recuperation. Some of the warriors stayed in China to continue the fight. A few received orders to posts elsewhere in the war.
Doolittle would eventually become the commanding general of the Eighth Air Force in England. President Roosevelt awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor for the mission. All the men on the mission received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Hearts, and many medals of thanks from the Chinese government.
While we can relate to the courage of the Americans who took part in the raid, the world also needs to know of the courage of the Chinese people who helped the American flyers. Many of the Chinese knew what these men had done as well as how much damage they inflicted on the Japanese. They knew the importance of the mission. They also knew the consequence of helping Japan’s enemies and still accepted the risk and helped the Americans avoid capture by the Japanese army. Authorities estimate the Imperial Army killed more than 250,000 Chinese men, women, and children for helping the Americans escape.
Yes, seventy years ago today, many displayed great courage in the face of overwhelming odds. To the Doolittle Raiders, “Toujours Au Danger!” (Ever into peril!)
To those humane Chinese who helped in the war effort by providing the Raiders aid, food, lodging, medical help, and evasion from the Japanese, there remains the everlasting appreciation of the American people.
©2012 J. Clark
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