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2 The Doolittle Raid. A 65-Year Retrospective

Dr. Robert B. Kane, Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2007


After Japans attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt wanted to retaliate. The next month, Navy captain Francis S. Low suggested using Army medium bombers launched from an aircraft carrier. Gen Henry Hap Arnold, commander of US Army Air Forces, accepted the idea and selected Lt Col James H. Jimmy Doolittlea well-known pioneer, military aviator, and aeronautical engineerto plan and command the mission.

After secretly training at Eglin Field, Florida, from 9 to 25 March 1942, 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers with 80 crew members flew to Alameda, California, for loading onto the carrier USS Hornet. On 18 April, the aircraft took off from the Hornet, flew 650 miles across the western Pacific, and attacked targets in and around Tokyo. After the attack, one aircraft landed in the Soviet Union, which interned the crew until its escape. The other 15 B-25s flew another 1,200 miles and ditched short of the Chinese coast or crash-landed after crossing the coastline.

Chinese forces and villagers rescued 67 raiders, including Colonel Doolittle. In retaliation, the Japanese army massacred up to 250,000 Chinese people and drove Chinas forces further from the coast. Japanese leaders tried eight captured raiders as war criminals, executing three of them. Of the remaining five prisoners of war, one died from disease before the wars end.

Given the minimal damage from the attack and the extensive losses, Arnold and Doolittle wondered if the raid had been worth the effort. After the US defeats of early 1942, however, news of the raid caused American morale to soar, and word of the massacre of so many Chinese further enflamed anti-Japanese feelings. The raid also caused Japanese military leaders to recall frontline fighter units to defend the home islands from future attacks.

More importantly, Japanese leaders decided to extend their defense line in the Pacific as well as trap and destroy the American aircraft carriers that they missed at Pearl Harbor. The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought entirely by carrier-based aircraft on 78 May 1942, further confirmed these objectives. Adm Isoroku Yamamoto sent a massive fleet against Midway Island with the same objectives, and the ensuing battle on 57 June, resulting in a resounding American victory, marked the start of the three-and-one-half-year campaign across the Pacific to Tokyo Bay.

Finally, the raid portended the massive strategic bombing that virtually destroyed Japans war-making capabilities by August 1945. The raid also stands as the longest B-25 combat flight in the aircrafts historyan early example of joint and special operations as well as out-of-the-box thinking.