By Dr. Robert B. Kane, Air University Director of History
On April 18, 1942, 75-years ago, Americans woke up to the startling news that Army Air Force medium bombers had attacked Japan. After four months of doom and gloom news, including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia, and the recent surrender of 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers on the Bataan Peninsula, the Philippines, and Americans finally had some good news. America had struck back!
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to retaliate against Japan for this surprise attack, and asked his senior military leaders for an idea on how to do that. In early January 1942, Navy Capt. Francis S. Low suggested using Army medium bombers launched from an aircraft carrier.
Lt. Gen. Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, commander of the US Army Air Forces, accepted the idea, and selected Col. Doolittle, a well-known civilian and military aviation pioneer of the interwar period, to plan and eventually command the mission.
After secretly training at Eglin Field, March 1-23, 1942, 25 B-25 Mitchell bombers with 80 crewmembers flew to Naval Air Station Alameda, Calif., for loading onto the carrier USS Hornet which set sail for its rendezvous with history.
Up until the morning of the expected launch, April 18, the plan had gone nearly perfect. Then near disaster! A Japanese naval picket boat had detected the American fleet, about 250 miles east of its planned launch point at dusk later that day.
Doolittle and Capt. Marc Mitscher, the commander of the Hornet, made the decision to launch the B-25s as soon as possible. This early launch meant the raiders would be bombing their targets in daylight and flying onto airfields in China at night. Doolittle and the rest of the pilots knew that they would be at the end of their fuel reserves.
The Raiders reached Japan and attacked their designated military targets in Tokyo and other Japanese cities around noon. After the attack, one aircraft, short on fuel, landed in the Soviet Union. Since that country was not at war with Japan, Soviet officials interned the crew until their ‘escape’ a year later. The other 15 crews flew another 1,200 miles and ditched short of the Chinese coast or crash-landed after crossing the coastline.
Two raiders drowned when their aircraft crashed near the Chinese coast, and another died after bailing out. Chinese forces and villagers rescued 69 raiders, including Doolittle. However, in retaliation for helping the Americans to safety, the Japanese Army massacred up to 250,000 Chinese people and drove Chinese forces further west from the coast.
Additionally, the Japanese army captured eight raiders, and tried them as war criminals. Three were executed, and, of the remaining five Prisoners Of War, one died from disease before the war’s end.
Given the minimal damage from the attack and the extensive losses, Doolittle wondered if the raid had been worth the effort. After the defeats of early 1942, the news of the raid caused American morale to soar, while the news of the massacres of so many Chinese people further enflamed anti-Japanese feelings. Also, the raid caused Japanese military leaders to recall frontline fighter units to defend the home islands from future attacks.
The Raid also confirmed the decision of the Japanese leaders to extend their defense line further eastward in the Pacific and to trap and destroy the American aircraft carriers, missed at Pearl Harbor. The Battle of the Coral Sea, May 7-8, fought entirely by carrier-based aircraft, further confirmed these objectives.
As a result, Adm. Isokoru Yamamoto, chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy, sent a massive fleet against Midway Island in mid-May. The ensuing battle of Midway, June 5-7, 1942, was a resounding American victory and marked the start of the 3½-year campaign across the Pacific to Tokyo Bay.
The Doolittle Raid provides a number of lessons for today’s Airmen: need for innovative ideas, commanders willing to accept such ideas, the need for calculated risk-taking, and another example of successful joint planning and operations. Most significantly, seemingly tactical defeats can produce significant strategic results for the warfighter.