Aboard the USS Hornet April 18, 1942

The Doolittle Raid—a top-secret U.S. retaliatory air­strike following the sur­prise Japa­nese bombing of Amer­i­can naval and air bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, nine­teen weeks earlier—was the country’s first joint action with the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy. The ground­breaking mis­sion shipped 16 North Amer­i­can B‑25B Mitchell land-based medium bombers and their five-man air­crews aboard Amer­ica’s newest air­craft carrier, the USS Hornet, to within 600 miles of the Japa­nese coast­line from a posi­tion deep in the Western Pacific Ocean. The mission, which took place on this date, April 18, 1942, climaxed with the each war­plane, with the exception of one, unloading two tons of ordi­nance on targets on the main (largest) island of Honshū.

The leader of the improbable raid on the Japanese heart­land was the legen­dary 45‑year-old avi­ator and World War I pilot Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doo­little. The plan called for the avia­tors to bomb mili­tary targets and to con­tinue west­ward across the East China Sea to land in regions of China controlled by U.S.-supported Nation­alists; landing a returning medium bomber on a flat­top was out of the question. The bombing raid on the Japa­nese capital Tokyo (13 bombers), Nagoya, Yoko­hama, and Kobe (one plane each) destroyed 112 buildings and damaged 53, killed 87 Japa­nese, including civil­ians (some were school child­ren, a hazard of war), and injured 162 (possibly 311), nearly half seriously.

Having spread destruc­tion across 200-plus miles and now low on fuel, 15 out of the 16 war­birds managed to reach main­land China, some crews bailing out over land or water while others crash-landed their air­craft. The eighth Mitchell to lift off from the Hornet made an inaus­pi­cious landing at Vladi­vostok, the largest Soviet port city on the Pacific coast some 660 air miles north of Tokyo. Amazingly, 77 of the 80 crew members ini­tially sur­vived the mission, aided by local Chinese and Christian mis­sion­aries. Eight air­men were captured by the Japa­nese Army in China. Three of the captives were later beheaded, another starved to death in prison, and the other four languished for 40 months in POW camps. The crew­men who landed in the Soviet Union were interned for 13 months before being released through Iran.

The consequences of the Doolittle Raid had major psycho­logi­cal effects. In the United States, it raised Amer­i­can spirits after the demor­al­izing dis­aster at Pearl Harbor. In Japan, it raised doubt at the highest and lowest levels of the popu­lace about the abil­ity of their mili­tary leaders, who insisted the Home Islands were imper­vious to attack, to defend the nation. But the bombing and strafing of civil­ians also steeled the resolve of many Japa­nese to seek revenge and was exploited for propa­ganda purposes. The death of the school children was espe­cially infuriating.

Alto­gether, the injuries, fatal­i­ties, prop­erty destruc­tion, and national humili­a­tion brought on by the Doolittle Raid contrib­uted to Adm. Iso­roku Yama­moto’s disastrous decision, as it turned out, to extend the nation’s watery defen­sive perim­eter by grabbing U.S.-held Midway Island in the Central Pacific that cost the Imperial Japa­nese Navy four flat­tops and shifted the balance of power in the Pacific in favor of the U.S. at the Battle of Mid­way (June 4–7, 1942). Number-wise, the conse­quences fell most severely on the Chinese. Japa­nese repri­sals (the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign), which went on for months, cost an esti­mated 250,000 lives, some victims being set on fire, thrown down wells, many shot singly or in large groups, some dying from the effects of plague, anthrax, chol­era, typhoid, and dysen­tery unleashed by the secre­tive Unit 731, which spe­cialized in bacte­ri­o­logical war­fare. Repri­sals also included rapes of children and adults and the wide­spread destruc­tion of live­stock, crops, as well as homes, hospi­tals, uti­li­ties, mili­tary instal­la­tions, and air­fields. Some of the last two listed facil­i­ties the U.S. military had hoped to use in future operations against Japan.

The U.S. Doolittle Raid on the Japanese Homeland, April 18, 1942

Doolittle Raid: Route of Doolittle Raiders, April 18, 1942

Above: Map showing the routes and the landing or crash sites of Doo­little’s Raiders. A daring, near-suicidal air­strike by 80 U.S. Army avi­a­tors placed a small down pay­ment on what Amer­i­cans believed they owed Japan for that country’s per­fidy on Decem­ber 7, 1941. Except for one crew­man who was killed in action and three who were captured by the Japa­nese Army in China and exe­cuted, 14 com­plete crews of five men each sur­vived the hazardous raid and its after­math. News­reel footage of the raid was widely dis­trib­uted, and the book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, written by Lt. Ted Lawson, a pilot on the raid, was a 1943 national best­seller. (Lawson had to have one of his legs ampu­tated after the famous raid.) The book was turned into a critically acclaimed 1944 movie starring Spencer Tracy as Lt. Col. Jimmy Doo­little and Van John­son, in his break­out role, as Lawson. The movie was a long-running favorite with audiences.

Doolittle Raiders, Crew 1, with Lt. Col. Jimmy DoolittleDoolittle Raid: U.S. carrier "Hornet" launches B-25 Mitchell bomber from flight deck

Left: Crew members of Doolittle’s North American B-25 Mitchell, the lead bomber, pose for pos­ter­ity just before take­off from U.S. Navy air­craft carrier USS Hornet, April 18, 1942, on its first combat mission. Left to right: Lt. Henry A. Potter, navi­ga­tor; Lt. Col. James H. Doo­little, pilot; Staff Ser­geant Fred A. Braemer, bom­bar­dier; Lt. Richard E. Cole, co-pilot; and Staff Ser­geant Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/­gunner. Doo­little put the odds of his raiders returning alive at less than fifty-fifty. How­ever, the raid was over so quickly that only a few enemy fighters had time to inter­cept the intruders. Vice Adm. William Halsey, Jr., who com­manded the task force that trans­ported the raiders to their launch posi­tion, praised Doo­little, telling him that he knew of no more gallant deed in history than that per­formed by his squadron. “You have made history,” he wrote. Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt presented Doo­little with the Medal of Honor and the other 79 Raiders received the Distin­guished Ser­vice Cross. Doo­little went on to command U.S. air forces in the Medi­ter­ranean, Western Europe, and Japan (Okinawa).

Right: The Doolittle Raiders carried the battle against the enemy to the heart of the Japa­nese empire with a sur­prise raid on mostly mili­tary and war-related objec­tives in major Japa­nese cities: a petro­leum ware­house, com­mer­cial work­shops, a Mitsu­bishi Heavy Indus­tries air­craft fac­tory, the Japa­nese Steel Cor­po­ra­tion and Showa Elec­tric as well as the Yoko­suka Naval Base and an army arsenal and hos­pital. (The Raiders had explicit orders not to bomb Emperor Hiro­hito’s palace.) The suc­cess­ful raid, which caught the Japa­nese com­pletely off guard but had little tacti­cal impact, was the result of coor­di­na­tion between two Amer­i­can armed ser­vices: the U.S. Navy, whose newest air­craft carrier posi­tioned the raiders’ 16 B‑25 twin-engine bombers to within take-off dis­tance of the Japa­nese Home Islands, and the 80 vol­un­teer pilots, navi­gators, and bom­bar­diers of the U.S. Army Air Forces. Despite rough seas and a threat­ening sky on launch day, Satur­day, April 18, 1942, the B‑25 in his photo—pro­bably Doo­little’s lead bomber—suc­cess­fully took off from the pitching, spray-soaked flight deck of the USS Hornet en route to Japan. The Hornet was embedded in a 16-ship Navy task force that com­prised a second air­craft carrier, the Enter­prise, four cruisers, eight destroyers, and two oilers.

Contemporary Newsreel of Historic Doolittle Raid over Tokyo