The Doolittle Raid. A 65-Year
Dr. Robert B. Kane, Air & Space Power
Journal, Spring 2007
After Japan’s 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” Doolittle—a well-known pioneer, military aviator, and
aeronautical engineer—to 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 China’s 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 war’s 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 7–8
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 5–7 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 Japan’s war-making capabilities
by August 1945. The raid also stands as the longest B-25 combat flight in
the aircraft’s history—an early example of joint and special operations as
well as “out-of-the-box” thinking.