The Doolittle Raiders on the Deck of the Hornet
This weekend had a few anniversaries tied to it, including the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. With all of the talk of domestic terrorism in the headlines as of late, I think it is better to look at another anniversary instead – that of the Doolittle Raid on Japan which happened on April 18. Most of us cannot comprehend the importance of this event. It was not a stunning military success, the damage that the raid inflicted was noticeable but not devastating to Japan. What it DID accomplish was a much needed boost to American morale while proving to the Japanese that their home island was subject to enemy attack.
For those not familiar with the raid, it took place in 1942, when there was a lot of questioning as to whether America was going to win the war in the Pacific. It is hard for us to comprehend that in retrospect, but up until this point the US had been on the receiving end of a can of Japanese whoop-ass. America had lost a significant portion of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Philippines had fallen, resulting in a devastating surrender of American forces and triggering the horrific Bataan Death March of the survivors. Wake Island had fallen too, a loss for the USMC and the Navy. Midway was still months away when the Doolittle Raid took place. While America had a resolve to fight the Empire of Japan, it had not demonstrated this resolve with victories.
Navy Captain Francis Low came up with the idea, the use of twin-engine B-26 Army Air Force bombers being launched off of a carrier, striking at Japan. The plan was daring and pushed the limits of 1942 technology, requiring the bombers to be outfitted with additional fuel tanks and taking off from an aircraft carrier that they could not return to. The crews were to fly to Japan, attack, then continue on to China and hopefully land there. Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle was to command the mission.
The attack was to be launched from the carrier USS Hornet. Sixteen of the large bombers were secretly loaded on the Hornet, their crews having trained for weeks for the strike. The raid required secrecy in order to succeed. The Hornet sailed deep into enemy waters. A Japanese picket boat spotted the task force before it was in position. Doolittle was faced with a difficult choice. Take off earlier than planned and most likely run out of fuel before landing in China, or abort the strike altogether.
He opted for audacity.
The planes launched. Their takeoffs were filmed and are available on the net. Watching them is incredible even to this day. Sixteen aircraft lumbered off towards Tokyo and other targets, not knowing what they might be facing in terms of defenses. There were no escort aircraft, it physically was not feasible. The Navy task force turned and departed and Doolittle and his men plowed on into the great unknown. It was as close to a suicide mission as could be conceived at the time.
The raiders came over Japan and found it stunningly unprepared. They bombed ten military and industrial targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. Only one of the aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, their attack was so stunning. They flew across Japan and the sea to China (with one landing in Russia). The planes crashed, the crews bailing out often over Japanese occupied territory.
The raiders suffered casualties as a result of the raid. Three were killed in action eight were made POWs: three were executed by the Japanese, one died in captivity, and four were repatriated.
Doolittle himself survived. He assumed he would be court-martialed for the mission. In his eyes, it was a disaster. What he didn’t know was that the raid had accomplished more than just damage to the Japanese (confirmed by their radio broadcasts). It had given the US a much needed victory after a string of defeats. Doolittle and his men were not failures, they became heroes for a nation in need of heroes and icons. President Roosevelt joked with the press that the raid had been made from “Shangri-La.” Japan, which had instilled the thought in its civilian population that they were safe, now had that veneer shattered. War can and would be waged against Japan – its defenses were not infallible.
Militarily and materially the raid did not tip the scales of the war. What it did for morale in the United States was beyond value.