Crew No. 1 in front of B-25 #40-2344 on the deck of the USS Hornet, 18 April 1942. From left to right: (front row) Lt. Col. Doolittle, pilot; Lt. Richard E. Cole, copilot; (back row) Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; SSgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; SSgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The Doolittle Raid, also known as the Tokyo Raid, on 18 April 1942, was the first air raid by the United States to strike the Japanese Home Islands (specifically Honshu) during World War II. By demonstrating that Japan itself was vulnerable to American air attack, it provided a vital morale boost and opportunity for U.S. retaliation after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The raid was planned and led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Forces. Doolittle later recounted in his autobiography that the raid was intended to bolster American morale and to cause the Japanese to begin doubting their leadership, to which it succeeded:
>The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable … An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders. There was a second, and equally important, psychological reason for this attack … Americans badly needed a morale boost.
Sixteen U.S. Army Air Forces B-25B Mitchell medium bombers were launched from the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Hornet deep in the Western Pacific Ocean, with five men per plane. The plan called for them to bomb military targets in Japan, and to continue westward to land in China—landing a medium bomber on the Hornet was impossible. Fifteen of the aircraft made it to China and the other one made it to the Soviet Union. All but three of the crew survived but all the aircraft were lost. Eight crewmen were captured by the Japanese Army in China and three of these were executed. The B-25 that landed in the Soviet Union at Vladivostok was confiscated and its crew interned for more than a year. Thirteen entire crews, and all but one crewman of a 14th, returned either to the United States or to American forces.
However, an estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians were killed by the Japanese during their search for Doolittle’s men.
The raid caused negligible material damage to Japan only hitting non-military targets or missing completely, but it succeeded in its goal of helping American morale and casting doubt in Japan on the ability of the Japanese military leaders. It also caused Japan to withdraw its powerful aircraft carrier force from the Indian Ocean to defend their Home Islands, and the raid contributed to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s decision to attack Midway—an attack that turned into a decisive rout of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) by the U.S. Navy near Midway Island in the Central Pacific.
The raid had its start in a desire by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, expressed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a meeting at the White House on 21 December 1941, that Japan be bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale after the disaster at Pearl Harbor.
The concept for the attack came from Navy Captain Francis Low, Assistant Chief of Staff for anti-submarine warfare, who reported to Admiral Ernest J. King on 10 January 1942 that he thought twin-engine Army bombers could be launched from an aircraft carrier, after observing several at a naval airfield in Norfolk, Virginia, where the runway was painted with the outline of a carrier deck for landing practice. It was subsequently planned and led by Doolittle, a famous civilian aviator and aeronautical engineer before the war.
Requirements for the aircraft for a cruising range of 2,400 nautical miles (4,400 km) with a 2,000-pound (910 kg) bomb load resulted in the selection of the B-25B Mitchell to carry out the mission. The Martin B-26 Marauder, Douglas B-18 Bolo and Douglas B-23 Dragon were also considered, but the B-26 had questionable takeoff characteristics from a carrier deck and the B-23’s wingspan was nearly 50% greater than the B-25’s, reducing the number that could be taken aboard a carrier and posing risks to the ship’s island (superstructure). The B-18, one of the final two types considered by Doolittle, was rejected for the same reason.
The B-25 had yet to be tested in combat, but subsequent tests with B-25s indicated they could fulfill the mission’s requirements. Doolittle’s first report on the plan suggested the bombers might land in Vladivostok, shortening the flight by 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) on the basis of turning over the B-25s as Lend-Lease. Negotiations with the Soviet Union (which had signed a neutrality pact with Japan in April 1941) for permission, however, were fruitless.
When planning indicated that the B-25 was the aircraft best meeting all specifications of the mission, two were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet at Norfolk, Virginia, and subsequently flown off the deck without difficulty on 3 February 1942. The raid was immediately approved and the 17th Bomb Group (Medium) chosen to provide the pool of crews from which volunteers would be recruited. The 17th BG had been the first group to receive B-25s, with all four of its squadrons equipped with the bomber by September 1941. The 17th not only was the first medium bomb group of the Army Air Corps, but in the spring of 1942 also had the most experienced B-25 crews. Its first assignment following the entry of the United States into the war was to the U.S. Eighth Air Force.[
The 17th BG, then flying antisubmarine patrols from Pendleton, Oregon, was immediately moved cross-country to Lexington County Army Air Base at Columbia, South Carolina, ostensibly to fly similar patrols off the East Coast of the United States but in actuality to prepare for the mission against Japan. The group officially transferred effective 9 February to Columbia, where its combat crews were offered the opportunity to volunteer for an “extremely hazardous” but unspecified mission. On 17 February the group was detached from the Eighth Air Force.
Initial planning called for 20 aircraft to fly the mission, and 24 of the group’s B-25B Mitchell bombers were diverted to the Mid-Continent Airlines modification center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With support provided by two senior managers of Mid-Continent Airlines, Wold-Chamberlain Field’s maintenance hangar was the first modification center to become operational. From nearby Fort Snelling, the 710th Military Police Battalion provided tight security around this hangar. Modifications included:
- Removal of the lower gun turret
- Installation of de-icers and anti-icers
- Steel blast plates mounted on the fuselage around the upper turret
- Removal of the liaison radio set (a weight impediment)
- Installation of a 160-gallon collapsible neoprene auxiliary fuel tank fixed to the top of the bomb bay, and support mounts for additional fuel cells in the bomb bay, crawlway and lower turret area to increase fuel capacity from 646 to 1,141 U.S. gallons (538–950 imperial gallons; 2,445–4,319 L)
- Mock gun barrels installed in the tail cone, and
- Replacement of their Norden bombsight with a makeshift aiming sight devised by pilot Capt. Charles Ross Greening and called the “Mark Twain”. The materials for the bombsight cost only 20 cents.
Two bombers also had cameras mounted to record the results of bombing. The 24 crews selected picked up the modified bombers in Minneapolis and flew them to Eglin Field, Florida, beginning 1 March 1942. There the crews received intensive training for three weeks in simulated carrier deck takeoffs, low-level and night flying, low-altitude bombing and over-water navigation, primarily out of Wagner Field, Auxiliary Field 1. Lieutenant Henry Miller, USN, from nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola supervised their takeoff training and accompanied the crews to the launch. For his efforts, Lt. Miller is considered an honorary member of the Raider groupDetailed map portraying the bombing and crash sites of the Doolittle Raiders.
Doolittle stated in his after-action report that an operational level of training was reached despite several days when flying was not possible because of rain and fog. One aircraft was heavily damaged in a takeoff accident and another scratched from the mission because of a nose wheel shimmy that could not be repaired quickly enough.
On 25 March 1942, the remaining 22 B-25s took off from Eglin for McClellan Field, California. They arrived two days later at the Sacramento Air Depot for final modifications. A total of 16 B-25s were subsequently flown to NAS Alameda, California, on 31 March. Fifteen raiders were the mission force and a 16th aircraft, by last-minute agreement with the Navy, was squeezed onto the deck to be flown off shortly after departure from San Francisco to provide feedback to the Army pilots about takeoff characteristics. The 16th bomber was made part of the mission force instead.
On 1 April 1942, the 16 modified bombers, their five-man crews and Army maintenance personnel, totaling 71 officers and 130 enlisted men, were loaded onto the USS Hornet at Naval Air Station Alameda. Each aircraft carried four specially constructed 500-pound (225 kg) bombs. Three of these were high-explosive munitions and one was a bundle of incendiaries. The incendiaries were long tubes, wrapped together in order to be carried in the bomb bay, but designed to separate and scatter over a wide area after release. Five bombs had Japanese “friendship” medals wired to them—medals awarded by the Japanese government to U.S. servicemen before the war.The bombers’ armament was reduced to decrease weight (and thus increase range). Each bomber launched with two .50-caliber (12.7 mm) machine guns in an upper turret and a .30-caliber (7.62 mm) machine gun in the nose. The simulated gun barrels mounted in the tail cones, intended to discourage Japanese air attacks from behind, were cited afterward by Doolittle as being “particularly effective”. The aircraft were clustered closely and tied down on the Hornet‘s flight deck in the order of their expected launch.
The B-25s then flew towards Japan, most in groups of two to four aircraft before flying single file at wave-top level to avoid detection. The aircraft began arriving over Japan about noon (Tokyo time; six hours after launch) and bombed 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. Although some B-25s encountered light antiaircraft fire and a few enemy fighters over Japan, no bomber was shot down. Only the B-25 of Lt. Richard O. Joyce received any battle damage, minor hits from antiaircraft fire. B-25 No. 4, piloted by Lt. Everett W. Holstrom, jettisoned its bombs before reaching its target when it came under attack by fighters after its gun turret malfunctioned.At least one Japanese fighter was shot down by the gunners of the Whirling Dervish, piloted by Lieutenant Harold Watson. Two other fighters were shot down by the gunners of the Hari Kari-er, piloted by Ross Greening. Many military targets were strafed by the bombers’ nose gunners.
Fifteen of the sixteen aircraft then proceeded southwest along the southern coast of Japan and across the East China Sea towards eastern China, where several fields in Zhejiang province were supposed to be ready to guide them in using homing beacons, then recover and refuel them for continuing on to Chongqing, the wartime Kuomintang capital. The primary base was at Zhuzhou, toward which all the aircraft navigated, but Halsey never sent the planned signal to alert them, apparently because of a possible threat to the task force. One B-25, piloted by Capt. Edward J. York, was extremely low on fuel, and headed instead for the closer Soviet Union.
The raiders faced several unforeseen challenges during their flight to China: night was approaching, the aircraft were running low on fuel and the weather was rapidly deteriorating. None would have reached China if not for a tail wind as they came off the target that increased their ground speed by 25 knots for seven hours. As a result of these problems, the crews realized they would probably not be able to reach their intended bases in China, leaving them the option of either bailing out over eastern China or crash landing along the Chinese coast. Fifteen aircraft reached the Chinese coast after thirteen hours of flight and crash landed or bailed out; the crew who flew to the Soviet Union landed 40 miles (65 km) beyond Vladivostok, where their B-25 was confiscated and the crew interned. It was the longest combat mission ever flown by the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, averaging approximately 2,250 nautical miles (4,170 km). Although York and his crew were well-treated, diplomatic attempts to return them to the United States ultimately failed. Eventually they were relocated to Ashgabat, 20 miles (32 km) from the Iranian border, and York managed to “bribe” a smuggler, who helped them cross the border and reach a nearby British consulate on 11 May 1943. The smuggling was actually staged by the NKVD, according to declassified Soviet archives, because the Soviet government was unable to repatriate them legally in the face of the neutrality pact with Japan.
Doolittle and his crew, after parachuting into China, received assistance from Chinese soldiers and civilians as well as John Birch, an American missionary in China. As did the others who participated in the mission, Doolittle had to bail out but fortunately landed in a heap of dung (saving a previously injured ankle from breaking) in a paddy in China near Quzhou. Doolittle felt the raid had been a terrible failure because all the aircraft were lost, and he expected to be court-martialed on his return. He subsequently recommended Birch for intelligence work with Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers.
One crewman, Corporal Leland D. Faktor, flight engineer/gunner with Gray, was killed during his bailout attempt over China, the only man in that crew to be lost. Two crews (10 men) were missing.
Fate of the missing crewmen
The Japanese military began the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign to intimidate the Chinese from helping downed American airmen. All airfields in a range of some 20,000 square miles (50,000 km2) in the areas where the Raiders had landed were torn up. The use of germ warfare and other atrocities were committed, and those found with American items were shot. The Japanese killed an estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians during their search for Doolittle’s men.
The crews of two aircraft (ten men in total) were unaccounted for: Hallmark’s crew (sixth off) and Farrow’s crew (last off). On 15 August 1942, the United States learned from the Swiss Consulate General in Shanghai that eight of the missing crew members were prisoners of the Japanese at the city’s Police Headquarters. Two crewmen drowned after crash landing in the ocean. On 19 October 1942, the Japanese announced that they had tried the eight prisoners and sentenced them all to death, but said several had received commutation of their sentences to life imprisonment. No names or details were given.
The story of the missing crews was revealed in February 1946 during a war crimes trial held in Shanghai to try four Japanese officers charged with mistreating the eight captured crewmen. It was learned that two of the missing crewmen, Staff Sgt. William J. Dieter and Sgt. Donald E. Fitzmaurice, drowned when their B-25 crashed into the sea. The other eight were captured: Lieutenants Dean E. Hallmark, Robert J. Meder, Chase Nielsen, William G. Farrow, Robert L. Hite, and George Barr, and Corporals Harold A. Spatz and Jacob DeShazer. On 28 August 1942, pilot Hallmark, pilot Farrow and gunner Spatz faced a war crimes trial by the Japanese for allegedly strafing Japanese civilians. On 14 October 1942, all three crewmen were advised they would be executed the next day. At 16:30 on 15 October 1942, they were taken by truck to Public Cemetery Number 1 outside and executed by a firing squad.
The other captured airmen remained in military confinement on a starvation diet, their health rapidly deteriorating. In April 1943, they were moved to Nanking, where Meder died on 1 December 1943. The remaining men (Nielsen, Hite, Barr and DeShazer) eventually began receiving slightly better treatment and were given a copy of the Bible and a few other books. They were freed by American troops in August 1945. All of the Japanese officers who were tried for war crimes against the captured Doolittle Raiders were found guilty. Three were sentenced to hard labor for five years, and the fourth received a nine-year sentence. DeShazer eventually became a missionary and returned to Japan in 1948, where he served for over 30 years.
Robert Hite is the only former prisoner alive. George Barr died of heart failure in 1967, Chase Nielsen in 2007, and Jacob DeShazer on 15 March 2008.
Service of the returning crewmen
Immediately following the raid, Doolittle told his crew that he believed the loss of all 16 aircraft, coupled with the relatively minor damage the aircraft had inflicted on their targets, had rendered the attack a failure, and that he expected a court-martial upon his return to the United States. Instead, the raid bolstered American morale to such an extent that Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt, and was promoted two grades to brigadier general, skipping the rank of colonel. When General Doolittle toured the growing Eglin Field facility in July 1942 with commanding officer Col. Grandison Gardner, the local paper of record (the Okaloosa News-Journal, Crestview, Florida), while reporting his presence, made no mention of his still-secret recent training at Eglin. He went on to command the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa, the Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean, and the Eighth Air Force in England during the next three years.
Corporal David J. Thatcher (a flight engineer/gunner on Lawson’s crew) and 1st Lt. Thomas R. White (flight surgeon/gunner with Smith) each received the Silver Star for their efforts in helping the wounded crew members of Lt. Lawson’s crew evade Japanese troops in China. All 80 Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross and those who were killed, wounded or injured as a result of the raid also received the Purple Heart. In addition, every Doolittle Raider received a decoration from the Chinese government.
Twenty-eight of the crewmen remained in the China Burma India theater flying missions, most for more than a year. Five were killed in action. Nineteen crew members flew combat missions from North Africa after returning to the United States, with four killed in action and four becoming prisoners of war. Nine crew members served in the European Theater of Operations, one killed in action. Altogether 12 of the survivors died in air crashes within 15 months of the raid. Two survivors were separated from the USAAF in 1944 due to the severity of their injuries.
The 17th Bomb Group, from which the Doolittle Raiders had been recruited, received replacement crews and transferred to Barksdale Army Air Field in June 1942, where it converted to B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In November 1942, it deployed overseas to North Africa, where it operated in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations with the Twelfth Air Force for the remainder of the war.
Compared with the future devastating Boeing B-29 Superfortress attacks against Japan, the Doolittle raid did little material damage, and all of that readily repaired. Eight primary and five secondary targets were struck. In Tokyo, the targets included an oil tank farm, a steel mill, and several power plants. In Yokosuka, at least one bomb from the B-25 piloted by Lt. Edgar E. McElroy struck the nearly completed IJN aircraft carrier Ryūhō, delaying her launch until November. Unfortunately, six schools and an army hospital were also hit. Japanese officials reported the two aircraft whose crews were captured had struck their targets.
For years before Pearl Harbor, there had been mock air raid drills in every Japanese city, although China’s air force was almost nonexistent. Such may have been part of the process of keeping warlike emotion at a high pitch. The Japanese press was told how to convey the news. The attack was depicted as a cruel, indiscriminate bombing targeted at civilians, women and children.
Despite the minimal damage inflicted, American morale soared when news of the raid was released. Still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s subsequent territorial gains, the American public appreciated knowing that a successful military response had been accomplished.
The Japanese Navy attempted to locate and pursue the American task force. The Second Fleet, its main striking force, was near Taiwan, returning from the Indian Ocean Raid to refit and replace its air losses. Spearheaded by five aircraft carriers and its best naval aircraft and aircrews, the Second Fleet was immediately ordered to intercept the anticipated raid, and then locate and destroy the U.S. carrier force, but was unable to accomplish either mission.
The Imperial Japanese Navy also bore a special responsibility for allowing an American aircraft carrier force to approach the Japanese Home Islands in a manner similar to the IJN fleet to Hawaii in 1941, and likewise permitting it to escape undamaged The fact that large land-based bombers carried out the attack confused the IJN’s high command. This confusion and the knowledge that Japan was now vulnerable to air attack strengthened Yamamoto’s resolve to capture Midway Island, resulting in a decisive Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway.
“It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological. Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production. The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction on the American people.” —General James H. Doolittle, 9 July 1942