The Doolittle Raid

One hundred & thirty one days after 7th December 1941, a handful of young men who had never dreamed of glory struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. This is their true story told here.

On December the eighth 1941 Pearl Harbour smouldered. The once mighty Pacific Fleet was in disarray. But the blow to the American psyche had an even more devastating effect and set the United States on a mission to retaliate. Roosevelt wanted immediate action. He felt the only way to lift American moral was to strike at the Japanese on their own soil. But without a secure air base in the Pacific U.S. bombers were of no use because of their limited range & Japanese forces were well entrenched in the Pacific & were closing in on the Philippines. Naval assault was impossible since much of the fleet had been destroyed; still Roosevelt was adamant America must strike back.

A solution came unexpectedly when navy submariner Captain Francis Low was flying to Virginia. He saw some army bombers taking off from a navy practice field & he noticed the practice field was laid out like a carrier. He wondered whether army bombers might be used to take off from a carrier. Low took the idea to Captain Duncan, Admiral Ernest J. King's air officer. Duncan concluded that the idea was technically feasible and passed it along to his boss, Admiral King who at the time was Commander in Chief of the U.S. Navy. King was enthusiastic about it. Air power seemed to provide the answer but even the B-24 Liberator bomber with a range of 2,200 miles (3,540 km) would not be able to hit Japan from bases in Alaska 3,500 miles (5,632 km) from the Japanese home Islands. But like it's sister four engined bomber the B-17 Flying Fortress could not be flown from carriers because it required too long a take off, a smaller aircraft would have to be used. King settled on the Army Air Corps twin engined B-25 Mitchell with modifications and on his orders, Capt. Duncan passed the idea along to General Hap Arnold. General Arnold then sent for his new special projects officer, forty five year old native San Diegan, legendary aviator & former WWl pilot Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle. Jimmy Doolittle was a well-known racing pilot during the late 1920's to 30's. He was a stunt pilot & master of the calculated risk.

Originally built in 1938 the Mitchell had the range & load capacity necessary & unlike other bombers it was fast & agile. However the B-25 was not designed to take off from an aircraft carrier, it needed a minimum of 750 ft. (229 m) to take off. The average carrier deck of the period was only 450 ft (137.1 m) but Doolittle felt experienced pilots could be trained for the short take offs required. Doolittle set out to find the best men to pull off such a dangerous mission. He needed 80 for 16 five-man crews. He chose the 17th Bombardment Group stationed at Pendleton, Oregon because of their B-25 flying experience. They represented nearly every state in America.

Not only was the mission dangerous, it had to be secret even from the men who volunteered. Doolittle had his team & planes he felt would carry the men to Japan. But the B-25 had never taken off from a carrier with a full complement of bombs, extra fuel tanks and a crew of five. Time was not on Doolittle's side. Roosevelt wanted retaliation and quickly.

Two Mitchells had been flown off the deck of the carrier USS Hornet on the3rd of February 1942, confirming that the basic concept was feasible. Doolittle's men set to work on their orders in February 1942. American moral was still badly shaken from the attack on Pearl Harbour. In the Pacific Singapore was in Japanese hands & General Douglas Mc Arthur had retreated from the Philippines. With few allied ships left & no secure airbase America & its allies were in retreat.

At Eglin Field in Florida the raiders trained to lift off in their B-25's. They practiced bombing & lifting their laden aircraft off a strip of just 500 feet (152.4 m) long, fly at low level over the water and bomb what at this point were undisclosed targets. The men did not know where they were going but they did know how they were getting there, inside a B-25 loaded with fuel & armed with four five hundred pound (227 kg) bombs.

While the flight crews train, mechanics worked on the aircraft which were each fitted with two black broomsticks designed to resemble machine guns & placed in the tail cone so that any approaching Japanese pilots would be deterred from attacking from the rear. For some of the aircraft two .50 cal machine guns were their only defence. This was to save on weight. It took four weeks for the men to master the short distance take off & then on 23rd March Jimmy Doolittle got the call. The men were ordered to fly their planes to the Alameda Naval Base near San Francisco where the navy's newest carrier the Hornet was waiting for them. While navy personal loaded the planes aboard the men went into San Francisco for one last night on the town.

The Mitchell bombers stripped of most of their defensive armament to increase range were too large to be stored below & had to be lashed to Hornet's flight deck. Next day the bomber crews boarded the Hornet at 10:15 on the morning of 2nd of April 1942, the ship pulled anchor and headed into open sea to rendezvous with the carrier Enterprise. It was only when the Hornet was 24 hours out of San Francisco the bomber crews were revealed the details of the mission. The captain announced, "This force is bound for Tokyo". In it's final form the plan called for sixteen B-25's to be embarked on the carrier Hornet, the latest of the American Carriers launched in December 1940. Hornet was to sail from San Francisco & rendezvous at sea with another carrier, Enterprise. Commanding the Enterprise task force was William "Bull" Halsey. He would take the combined task force to a point 450 miles (724 km) from Japan. Here the bombers would fly off. The main target was the Japanese capital Tokyo, but single B-25's would attack Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and Yokohama. Thereafter they would fly on to China to land on airfields near the cost. The men tasked with attacking Tokyo were told that on no account were they to bomb the palace of the emperor Hirohito. This would only stiffen Japanese moral. At sea on 18th of April the Hornet joined with Admiral "Bull" Halsey's carrier Enterprise. During the two-week voyage Doolittle's men were given details of their mission. They would take off 450 miles (724 km) from Japan at 6 o'clock in the evening in order to arrive over Japan at night to bomb their respective targets. The raiders would then fly to an airfield inside unoccupied China. The plan of attack would also bring the bombers over the Chinese coast at dawn when they could more readily spot their landing fields where they would refuel & move to safety further inland. Now there was nothing left to do but watch the time tick away to H hour. On the Hornet the aircrews filled the time by learning some basic Chinese to use if they had to make forced landings or bail out over China.

Early on the morning of the 18th Enterprises radar located two Japanese vessels twelve miles away (19.3 km), both of them quickly steamed out of range. At dawn reconnaissance aircraft were launched by Halsey's task force. The carefully planned schedule had been disrupted & the vale of secrecy which surrounded the mission torn aside. Shortly afterward two more vessels were spotted near the task force. One radioed base that it had spotted the carriers. Halsey ordered the interloper to be sunk. This was done by the cruiser Nashville. But the task force commander realised that surprise had now been lost. He ordered the immediate launch of the bombers. This meant the range to their targets was 150 miles (241.4 km) greater than planned. The weather had also worsened. It would be extremely difficult to get Doolittle's bombers airborne. Hornet was pitching in a heavy sea. The moment of truth had arrived for the sixteen Mitchell bombers. Chance had turned a risky mission into a suicidal one. The decision to launch was made. Jimmy Doolittle, the pioneer who had achieved so many firsts in aviation was the first to attempt the take off. As Doolittle & his crew prepared to take off, heavy seas & a 30-knot head wind battered the Hornet. At about 7:15 on the morning of 18th April 1942 Doolittle manoeuvred into position for take off. Giving his engines full throttle he accelerated along the flight deck. Waves pushed the carriers bows upwards as Doolittle's bomber struggled into the air. Reassured the remaining fifteen pilots began to take off in their leaders wake. Hornet's crew held their breath as one by one the bombers lumbered down the flight deck & took off. Take off was no problem as the planes were making 20 knots into a 30-knot head wind so there was a 50-knot wind across the deck. All sixteen bombers managed to get safely airborne only the last of them caused real concern. A crewman slipped & lost his arm in the Mitchell's port propeller. Disconcerted the pilot put his flaps in the wrong position but still cleared the deck. Cheered on their way they set course for Japan. As soon as the last plane cleared the deck the convoy headed back to Pearl Harbour. Eighty men in sixteen planes were on a one-way mission into enemy territory. Each B-25 crew was on its own, ahead of them the unknown. Because they were forced to launch early they would reach Japan in broad daylight. The pilots flew their planes only a few feet above the water to avoid detection. For 2½ hours they flew through clouds & rain but as they approached the Japanese mainland the weather improved. With Tokyo in sight Doolittle's crew No.1 flew to their assigned targets or the alternatives. By remarkable coincidence the city of Tokyo staged an air raid practice while the American bombers were taking off. Its citizens were not inclined to take it seriously. The practice ended at mid-day & the busy city returned to its Saturday bustle little changed from peacetime. Nevertheless Japanese warships began to search for the two American carriers. Unaware of these developments Doolittle & his bombers made landfall on the Japanese coast about mid-day. As they flew over the fields farm workers gazed up at them seemingly unconcerned. One Japanese surprised to see them was the Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo. He was airborne at the time en route to an airbase & actually passed one of Doolittle's B-25's.

Bombs began to fall on Tokyo at 12:30 in the afternoon. Until they exploded on their targets most Japanese remained under the illusion that the bombers were a feature of the air raid drill. From the dropping of the first bomb to the last took approximately one hour. But now the price for the premature launch had to be paid, the bombers were running low on fuel. Having released their bombs they now had to take the shortest route to China, which meant crash landing in Japanese occupied territory. To avoid this one aircraft flew to the Russian port of Vladivostok where the crew were interned. Because the planes left the carrier earlier than expected they wouldn't make it to the refuelling site. They weather also took a turn for the worse with almost zero visibility. Night was also descending. The aircraft set course for the Chinese interior away from Japanese occupied areas. Unfortunately the crew that was suppose to set up the beacons at the appointed friendly airfield in China crashed on their way to the refuelling site. Each crew had to decide whether to go down with their planes or jump. Most crews had no idea if they were over occupied or free China. The majority of the raiders were scattered over 100 miles (161 km) across China. After spending the night in the rain and cold the men tried to find one and other while struggling to stay out of sight. Fortunately they received some unexpected help from the Chinese. Risking their lives the Chinese played cat & mouse with their Japanese pursuers. Some of the crews were reunited. Doolittle tried to locate his missing men. He got word that most of his men had made it. Eight crewmen who landed in China were captured & later executed; three were killed when their B-25 crashed. Doolittle & sixty-eight of his men reached territory held by the Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek & made their way back to the United States.

When the story of the raid broke it provided the first good news of the war for America. President Roosevelt held a press conference but refused to say how the bombers had reached Japan. The President had told the press that Doolittle's force had flown from Shangri-La the mythical kingdom made famous by James Hilton's novel & the film by director Frank Capra. Doolittle & his men received a hero's welcome. For his courage & leadership Jimmy Doolittle was awarded America's highest decoration for bravery, the Congressional Medal of Honour & there were medals for his aircrews. Their achievement had been unique in the annals of air warfare. The raid was more successful than had been anticipated but the price of success was very high. In the immediate aftermath of the raid on Japan Japanese troops attacked the costal areas of China were many of the American fliers had landed and murdered an estimated two hundred and fifty thousand people in areas were locals helped the Americans.

When Jimmy Doolittle received his Congressional Medal of Honour he said there were seventy-nine other men who took the same risks he took and he was accepting this medal on their behalf. On their return to America all eighty men living & dead were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The surviving crewmen have reunited almost every year since 1945. Jimmy Doolittle died in 1993 at age 96.

The Last Flight of W.F. Smith Jr.

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