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Doolittle Raid on Japan 78 Years Ago Buoyed American Spirits

April 18, 2020 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

The April 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid on Japan early in World War II bolstered American spirits just months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the loss of the U.S. territories of Guam and the Philippines. 

The other goals of the mission were to bomb Japanese war industries and to lower the morale of the Japanese people.

The problem was that the U.S. didn't have long-range strategic bombers that could take off from Hawaii on their bombing run to Japan and then return. So with the help of the Navy, a plan was hatched.

An aircraft takes off from a ship.
Doolittle Departure
A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bomber, one of 16 involved in the Doolittle Raid, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Hornet for an air raid on Japan, April 18, 1942.
Photo By: U.S. Army Air Force
VIRIN: 420418-O-ZZ999-001

The Army Air Force's North American B-25B Mitchell was selected as the best bomber available that could take off from an aircraft carrier. The commander of the raid, Army Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, planned to fly his squadron from a carrier to the Soviet city of Vladivostok after the bombing run.

Men pose for a group photo.
Raid Ready
The crew of one of the Doolittle Raid B-25B Mitchell medium bombers poses for a photo before launching the April 18, 1942, raid. Left to right: Army Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, pilot; Army Lt. Richard E. Cole, copilot; Army Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; Army Staff Sgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; and Army Staff Sgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner.
Photo By: U.S. Army Air Force
VIRIN: 420417-O-ZZ999-001

But they would not return to the carrier. B-25B tests showed that it had difficulty landing on the deck of a carrier, as it was meant to be a land-based runway aircraft. Also, the carrier group could get out of harm's way quickly enough, as enemy planes and ships were anticipating such an attack and had positioned vessels at sea to spot U.S. warships. The bombers also lacked radar.

Although the Soviet Union was a U.S. ally against Germany, it had signed a nonaggression pact with Japan, so it declined an offer to participate.

To get within range of Japan, the plan was to sail the carrier USS Hornet within 400 miles of mainland Japan, launch the 16 aircraft with a crew of 80 airmen and quickly sail out of harm's way, along with the carrier Enterprise; a cruiser; eight destroyers and two oilers.

However, when the task force was 750 miles from Japan, they were spotted by a Japanese patrol vessel, which the cruiser USS Nashville, promptly sank. However, the patrol vessel had time to radio a warning to the Japanese military, so the decision was made to launch the 16 B-25B's immediately and get out of the area as quickly as possible.

Plane sits in a field.
Sit Tight
A B-25B Mitchell medium bomber of the Doolittle Raid is shown after making an emergency landing 40 miles north of Vladivostok, Soviet Union, on April 18, 1942.
Photo By: U.S. Army Air Force
VIRIN: 420418-O-ZZ999-002

Six hours after launch, the aircraft bombed military and industrial targets in Tokyo and other large cities on the main island of Honshu.

Of the 16 planes, 15 crash-landed in China and one aircraft, which was low on fuel, landed in the Soviet Union, which was closer. Crew members from that plane were detained because the rules of neutrality were such that the men couldn’t be returned. However, they all managed to escape.

In total, three crew members were killed in action. Another three were executed by the Japanese, and one died in captivity. This was considered a relatively low fatality rate for such a risky mission.

One of the survivors, Doolittle, received the Medal of Honor in 1942 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Men pose for a group photo.
Friendly Crew
After the Doolittle Raid on Japan, April 18, 1942, Army Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle crash-landed his airplane north of Quzhou, China, in friendly territory. He is pictured here with members of his flight crew and local Chinese officials.
Photo By: U.S. Army Air Force
VIRIN: 420418-O-ZZ999-003

One of those who was captured by the Japanese, Army 2nd Lt. George Barr, was treated horribly while in custody, and at one point was near death. After the war and after recovery, he returned to Japan as a missionary, serving there for 30 years.

The Doolittle Raid, while doing relatively minor damage to Japan, did serve to greatly boost the morale of the American people, which was the primary aim.