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Doolittle Raids: Beginning of End For Imperial Japan

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio, April 19, 2006 – The stuff of legend is often a fusion of myth and reality. The legendary feat of the "Doolittle Tokyo Raiders" is just plain unadulterated truth.

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A B-25 Mitchell takes off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet for the Doolittle Raid of Japan, April 18, 1942. Photo courtesy of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio

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On April 18, 1942, 16 Army B-25 Mitchell airplanes containing 80 volunteer airmen from the U.S. Army Air Forces, led by Army Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, took off from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Hornet on a daring mission to strike at the heart of Imperial Japan. It was the first U.S. offensive action of World War II, just four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The plan called for the B-25s to take off from the carrier about 450 miles from the Japanese islands, bomb selected targets, and then fly another 1,200 miles to friendly airfields on mainland China. The plan took a detour when a Japanese patrol boat sighted the Hornet and its flotilla and radioed back to Japan about an impending attack. American commanders decided to launch their attack ahead of schedule and about 700 miles off shore.

All 16 planes, containing five crewmembers each, reached the Japanese islands and dropped their bombs on various targets, including oil stores, factories and military installations. They then proceeded across the East China Sea.

As darkness fell, the raiders were running low on fuel and a storm kicked up. The airmen were flying over Japanese-occupied Chinese territory when they realized they could not reach the safe harbor of the Chinese airfields. Eleven of the crews bailed out, and four crash-landed -- one offshore, one inland and two on the coastline. The 16th plane landed in Vladivostok in the Soviet Union, where the crew was held captive until they escaped through Iran in 1943.

Two of the crewmen drowned, and a third died while ditching his plane.

The Japanese captured eight of the Doolittle Raiders. These prisoners of war were tortured and starved, and the Japanese eventually executed three of the men. Another later died of malnutrition. The remaining four were freed by American troops in August 1945.

The crewmembers who were not captured or killed made their way to safety, many with the aid of Chinese citizens.

The results of the Doolittle-led raid were negligible in terms of material damage on Japan, but huge in terms of psychological damage to the Japanese and as a morale booster back in the United States.

Another effect of the raid was to force Japan to recall some of its forces to defend the Japanese homeland, which weakened its Pacific presence. This would come to haunt them in future engagements, such as the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

The Doolittle Raid is considered a classic in the history of aerial warfare because of the daring use of Army land-based bombers in a joint operation from a Navy ship. The B-25 was perfect for the mission, because it could carry a heavy payload, travel long distances, and could get airborne from a short runway.

Following the raid on Japan, Jimmy Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was promoted to brigadier general. He later commanded U.S. aviation forces in both Europe and the Pacific. Doolittle became a lieutenant general in 1944, and two years later retired from active military duty.

Of the 80 original Doolittle Raiders, only 16 are still alive today. Seven lost their lives during or as a result of the Tokyo raid; 12 were killed as the war progressed; and 45 have died since the war ended.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThis exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force depicts Army Air Forces Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle receiving last-minute instructions from Navy Capt. Marc Mitscher, skipper of the USS Hornet, next to a B-25 bomber just prior to takeoff from the Hornet's deck. The exhibit was set up to commemorate the Doolittle Raiders reunion at the museum, on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The event commemorated the raid's 64th anniversary April 18, 2006. Photo by William D. Moss  
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