Lest We Forget:
   World War II












The Doolittle Raid: America on the Offensive
Endnotes and Bibliography located at bottom of page 2

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II. The attack, in addition to severely crippling the United States Pacific fleet and killing 2,403 servicemen and civilians, deeply wounded the American psyche. The next six months remain amongst the darkest in American history--Wake Island and Guam fell to the Japanese, the Philippines had only the small force holding out on the island of Corregidor, and American forces, and the nation as a whole, were in a state of general defeat. For this reason, President Roosevelt ordered a "retaliatory" strike at the heart of Japan, one that would serve both to inspire the United States and demoralize Japan. The strike, while greatly successful in its psychological aspect, proved to be a master stroke in military terms as well.

In December of 1941, "shortly after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had remarked that he would like to bomb the enemy mainland as soon as possible to avenge in small part the 'sneak' attack."1 Though the attack would serve as more than mere vengeance, "the raid was designed more for its dramatic impact upon morale than for any other purpose."2 This vengeance attack, however, seemed impossible because of the distances involved. American land-based aircraft were all out of range of the Japanese mainland, and an American carrier could never hope to get within striking distance (roughly three hundred miles) of Japan before being attacked by the formidable Japanese fleet. The President, seemingly indifferent to the difficulties involved, remained adamant that a strike be launched against Japan.

Roosevelt repeatedly pressured his military staff to come up with a way to strike back at Japan. His staff, in turn, put their War Plans Divisions to work on the problem. Many proposals were put forth by the War Plans Divisions, such as using long range bombers based in China to strike at Japan, that were all eventually discarded as infeasible for one reason or another.3 In the end, it was a submarine officer, Captain Francis S. Low, who formulated the idea that would eventually be executed.

On January 10, 1942, Low timidly approached Admiral Ernest J. King with an idea for a bombing strike against Japan. According to Low, he had been at an airfield in Norfolk, Virginia where navy pilots were trained. On the runway, there was an outline of a carrier deck painted to facilitate the simulation of carrier takeoffs for the Navy pilots-in-training. He also "'saw some Army twin-engine planes making bombing passes at this simulated carrier deck. [He then] thought if the Army has some twin-engine bombers with a range greater than our fighters, it seems . . . a few of them could be loaded on a carrier and used to bomb Japan.'"4

King was immediately intrigued by the idea, and shuttled it up the chain of command for further investigation. In order for a mission to be feasible, a plane that could take off in 500 feet of narrow space not over 75 feet wide[carrier deck dimensions], carry a 2,000 pound bomb load, and fly 2,000 miles with a full crew" had to be found.5 Those specifications immediately dictated that the plane would "have to be a medium bomber, because . . . heavy bombers could never get off in 500 feet," and light bombers could never carry a 2,000 pound bomb load 2,000 miles.6

In 1942, the United States had four medium bombers in production - the Martin B-26, the North American B-25, and the Douglas B-18 and B-23.7 Of these, only the B-23 and B-25 could manage the takeoff, weight, and distance. But only the North American B-25 had a wingspan compact enough to fit in the 75 foot "window" of a carrier deck. Even so, the B-25 Mitchell would only be able to complete the 2,000 mile mission with additional fuel tanks. Early in February, two B-25s successfully completed takeoffs from the aircraft carrier Hornet, proving that it was possible, and therefore, the mission feasible. More important than the question of being able to take off from a carrier, however, was the question of being able to land on one.

Aircraft that land on aircraft carriers do so with a hook attached to the undercarriage of the fuselage. The hook catches one of a series of cables on the carrier deck that brings the aircraft to a sudden halt. The B-25's (and all aircraft not designed for carrier operations for that matter) tail is not structurally strong enough to withstand the immense stress of a carrier landing. Anyhow, even if a B-25 was capable of landing on a carrier, it would be too large to be taken off the deck after landing, and no other planes would be able to land after the initial plane.

Because the planes would not be able to return to the ship after completion of the mission, it seemed that the operation would never come to fruition. However, it was put forth that the planes could bomb Japan, and proceed westward to airfields in free China or the Soviet Union. However, since "the Soviets were neutral vis-a-vis Japan," they would not grant permission for the planes to land in Soviet territory.8 And Chiang Kai-shek (rightly) feared reprisals from the Japanese if the planes would be allowed to land in Chinese territory, and was accordingly wary to grant permission. To circumvent this, the Americans lied to Chiang Kai-shek, telling him that the planes were part of a Lend-Lease package. Only after the planes were airborne and could not be turned back did the Americans inform him of the true nature of the incoming planes.

With the general plan in place, attention then turned to the technicalities and specifics of the operation. First and foremost, the planes and pilots had to be requisitioned. Twenty-four B-25s were obtained and shipped to factories for the necessary modifications. To each plane, a 225-gallon rubber tank, a collapsible 160-gallon rubber tank, and a 60-gallon tank were added. The addition of these tanks required modifications to the bomb shackles as well as some other minor modifications. In addition, the lower gun turret in each plane was removed, and a simple crosshair sight to facilitate low-level bombing and to keep the Norden bombsight secret in case of capture replaced the Norden sight in each plane. A camera was also placed in the rear of some of the planes to photograph the bomb damage.9 Interestingly, these modifications put the B-25's final weight (complete with fuel, crew, and bomb load) two thousand pounds over its maximum load. However, the airspeed created by the movement of the carrier into the wind provided enough additional lift to overcome this.10

As for the pilots, twenty-four crews of volunteers were selected from the 17th Bombardment Group stationed in Pendleton, Oregon. The planes, once modified, and the crews were then transferred to Eglin Field in Florida for training at the beginning of March. The main focus of training was to be, for obvious reasons, short-field takeoffs to simulate actual carrier takeoffs. The crews would also practice overwater navigation, gunnery, and low-level flight and bombing. Unfortunately, they had very limited time to train for all of this--so little, in fact, "that there was no time to instruct crewmen how to bail out."11 Moreover, the crews were being trained in complete secrecy, without ever knowing the true nature of their mission.

The nature of their mission was to "bomb and fire the industrial center of Japan," thereby striking a psychological blow at the Japanese.12 To accomplish this, sixteen planes would be loaded with two thousand pounds of demolition and incendiary bombs. Launching from a carrier four or five hundred miles off the coast of Japan, the planes would proceed to bomb military targets in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. The raid would be conducted at night, with the exception of Doolittle himself, who would arrive at Tokyo near dusk and drop a full load of incendiary bombs to light the way for the following planes, which would launch roughly three hours after Doolittle. The planes would then proceed to friendly fields in China where they would land.

On March 23, 1942, eighteen of the twenty-four planes and crews were selected as the final complement for the mission. Those eighteen planes and crews proceeded to Sacramento, where they were put through mechanical inspection and given final tune-ups. From Sacramento, they proceeded to San Francisco where, on the night of March 30, sixteen of the bombers were loaded by crane on to the carrier Hornet. All eighteen crews would accompany the sixteen bombers, with two of the crews acting as reserves in case of emergency. All told, the final group that would actually run the mission would consist of the sixteen planes, thirty-two pilots, and forty-eight crewmen.

On April 2, 1942, the Hornet (Task Force 16.2) set out from San Francisco and made way for a rendezvous point with Task Force 16.1, the ships that would escort the Hornet to the launch point and back to Pearl Harbor.13 When Task Force 16.1 and Task Force 16.2 united to form Task Force 16, they formed a considerable force, especially considering the weakened state of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Two carriers, the Hornet carrying the bombers, Enterprise carrying a complement of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers in case of an encounter, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers, and two supply ships formed the Task Force, under the command of Admiral Halsey.14 After each force was one day out of port, the men were finally informed that they were bound for Tokyo.

En route to the rendezvous, both Task Force 16.1 and Task Force 16.2 encountered foul weather. "Fierce storms with high winds, heavy seas, rain squalls, and poor visibility," racked the ships, and delayed the meeting twenty-four hours.15 However, the meeting was made on April 13 without loss of life (two sailors were washed overboard, but were recovered) and without too great of difficulty. On April 15, Halsey ordered the two supply ships to refuel the other ships in the Task Force and then hold their position and wait for either the return of the Task Force or the order to return to Pearl Harbor.

Amazingly, the weather managed to deteriorate even further, to the point where on the fifteenth, the eight destroyers in the Task Force could no longer remain with the carriers and cruisers. They too were ordered to remain behind, and took up station with the supply ships. At this point, the Task Force now only consisted of the two carriers and four cruisers. The absence of the eight destroyers meant almost certain doom for the six remaining ships in the event of a naval engagement with the formidable Imperial Japanese Navy, but the Task Force forged westward anyhow.

Despite the bad weather and absence of the destroyers, things ran smoothly for the next two days; the task force made decent headway, and morale remained high. The men attached medals commemorating a 1908 U.S. Navy visit to Japan to some of the bombs, and wrote such slogans as "I don't want to set the world on fire - just Tokyo!" on others. Increased tension was the only visible sign that the task force was sailing deep into the heart of Japanese controlled waters. By dusk on the seventeenth, final preparations had been made on the planes--ammunition, fuel, and other gear loaded, and the planes in place for takeoff. Though twenty-four hours ahead of schedule (due to a navy miscalculation regarding the International Date Line), everything was otherwise going as planned. On the eighteenth, however, the turn of events turned the mood and the plan on its head.

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Copyright © 1994-2005 Stephen Payne