The Doolittle Raid: 30 Seconds that Changed the Course of the Pacific War

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This week marks the 71st anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. 80 US Army Air Corps flyers manning 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers conducted a mission from the deck of the USS Hornet CV-8which though it caused little damage changed the course of World War Two in the Pacific.

The genus of the strike came from the desire of President Franklin Roosevelt to bomb Japan as soon as possible during a meeting just prior to Christmas 1941. Various aircraft types were considered and in the end the military chose the B-25 because it had the requisite range and had the best characteristics. Aircraft and their crews from the 17th Bomb Group which had the most experience with the aircraft were modified to meet the mission requirements. Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle was selected to lead the mission.

Once the aircraft were ready they and their crews reported to Eglin Field for an intensive three week period of training. Supervised by a Navy pilot the crews practiced simulated carrier take offs, low level flying and bombing, night flying and over water navigation. When the training was complete the aircraft and crews and support personnel flew to McClellan Field for final modifications and then to NAS Alameda California where they were embarked on the Hornet Hornet’s air group had to be stowed on the ships hanger deck since the 16 B-25s had to remain of the flight deck. Each bomber was loaded with 4 specially modified 500 lb. bombs, three high explosive and one incendiary.

Departing Alameda on April 2nd the Hornet and her escorts, Hornet’s Task Force 18 rendezvoused with the Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Task Force 16 built around the USS EnterpriseCV-6. task Force 16 provided escort and air cover during the mission. The carriers, escorted by 4 cruisers, 8 destroyers and accompanied by two oilers hoped to get close enough to the Japanese home islands so that the raiders could reach bases in allied China.

The destroyers and slow oilers broke off on the evening of the 17th after refueling the carriers and cruisers. The two carriers and the cruisers then commenced a high speed run to get into range. However early in the morning of April 18th the ships were sited by a Japanese patrol boat, the #23 Nitto Maru which was sunk by the USS Nashvillebut not before it got off a radio message alerting the Japanese command. However the Japanese knowing that carrier aircraft had a relatively short range did not expect an attack. However, realizing the danger that the sighting brought, Captain Marc Mitscher elected to launch immediately, even though it meant that bombers would have to ditch their aircraft or attempt to land well short of the friendly Chinese airfields. The launch was 10 hours earlier and about 170 miles farther out from the Chinese bases than planned.

Flying in groups of two to four aircraft the raiders struck the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. Minimal damage was done and only one aircraft was damaged. However they needed to fly nearly 1500 more miles to get to areas of China unoccupied by Japanese forces. Miraculously most of the aircraft and crews managed to find refuge in China. 69 of the 80 pilots and crew members avoided death or capture. Two flyers drowned, one died when parachuting from his aircraft. Eight men were captured. Of those captured by the Japanese three, Lieutenants William Farrow, Dean Hallmark and Corporal Harold Spatz were tried and executed for “war crimes” on October 15th 1942.

Many of the surviving flyers continued to serve in China while others continued to serve in North Africa and Europe, another 11 died in action following the raid. Doolittle felt that with the loss of all aircraft and no appreciable damage that he would be tried by courts-martial. Instead since the raid had so bolstered American morale he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, promoted to Brigadier General and would go on to command the 12th Air Force, the 15th Air Force and finally the 8th Air Force.

The raid shook the Japanese, especially the leadership of the Imperial Navy who had allowed American aircraft to strike the Japanese homeland. The attack helped convince Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that an attack on Midway was needed in order to destroy the American Carriers and the threat to the home islands.

When asked by a reporter about where the attack was launched from, President Roosevelt quipped “Shangri-La” the fictional location of perpetual youth in the Himalayas’ made famous in the popular book and movie Lost Horizon.

The raid in terms of actual damage and losses to the attacking forces was a failure, but in terms of its impact a major victory of the United States. It gave the people of the United States a huge morale boost at a time when very little was going right. It forced the Japanese Navy to launch an attack on Midway that turned out to be a disaster, decimating the best of the Japanese Naval Air Forces and the loss of four aircraft carriers and enable the US Navy to take the offensive two month later at Guadalcanal.

In the years after the war the survivors would meet. Today four survivors of the raid remain alive. Three of them will meet in Fort Walton Beach Florida this week for their final public reunion. At some time the remaining men will meet privately and drink a bottle of 1896 Hennessy Cognac from silver goblets each inscribed with their names.

It will not be long before the final survivors will be gone and it is up to us to never forget their heroism, sacrifice and service in a mission the likes of which had never before been attempted, and which would in its own way help change the course of the Second World War.

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under History, Military, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

3 responses to “The Doolittle Raid: 30 Seconds that Changed the Course of the Pacific War

  1. We just finished watching “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” the MGM
    film starring the great Van Johnson as Ted Lawson who wrote of
    his experiences in The Doolittle Raid, with his co-writer Bob
    Considine.
    This is one of the best wwll films, and was shown on
    Van Johnson Day in his hometown of Newport, RI. As it happens
    we learned that Dave Thatcher, played by actor Robert Walker in
    the movie is one of the men at the 20l3 reunion.
    Every one of these fellows are heroes to us, and we salute them
    with all our hearts!

  2. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate and commented:

    Friends of Padre Steve’s World, I am tired tonight. I expect to be doing a couple of Gettysburg articles as well as articles dealing with the Nuremberg Trials and military ethics in the coming days. However because of my almost exclusive focus on Holy Week I have written very little of anything else. Unfortunately there was a lot of other stuff going on as well as some significant anniversaries of historical events. One of those events was the Tokyo Raid where 16 Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell bombers commanded by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle flew off of the deck of the USS Hornet to attack Tokyo. Militarily the attack was insignificant and merely a pin-prick against a hitherto undefeated Japanese offensive in the Pacific. However, it was an event that changed the course of the war and of history. This is the tribute that I wrote last year about these brave men. Peace, Padre Steve+

  3. While my grandmother’s story cannot be verified, she lived in Shimbashi, Tokyo close to the Imperial Palace in 1942. She told me in 1974 that she “had seen the biggest airplane ever” fly above her then “Don! Don!” (Don don is the equivalent of kaboom.). She also wasn’t able to tell me what the year was but she mentioned it was the first kabooms she had heard but didn’t know what they represented.

    ON March 19, 2010, Jimmy Doolittle’s grandson, James Doolittle III, opened up the gates at the Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale for my Roush Mustang car club. He was a gentlemen and said the most profound thing to me as we parted company.

    Let us remember the crews were all volunteers. I believe about a dozen of the survivors were killed in action before war’s end in subsequent combat.

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