The Doolittle Raid, also known as the Tokyo Raid, was an air raid on 18 April 1942 by the United States on the Japanese capital Tokyo and other places on Honshu during World War II.
It was the first air operation to strike the Japanese archipelago. It demonstrated that the Japanese mainland was vulnerable to American air attack, served as retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, and provided an important boost to American morale.
Sixteen B-25B Mitchell medium bombers were launched without fighter escort from the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Hornet deep in the Western Pacific Ocean, each with a crew of five men.
The plan called for them to bomb military targets in Japan and to continue westward to land in China. The bombing raid killed about 50 people, including civilians, and injured 400. Fifteen aircraft reached China but all crashed, while the 16th landed at Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. Of the 80 crew members, 77 survived the mission.
Eight airmen were captured by Imperial Japanese Army troops in Eastern China; three were later executed. The B-25 that landed in the Soviet Union was confiscated and its crew interned for more than a year before being allowed to “escape” via Anglo-Soviet-occupied Iran with the help of the NKVD. Fourteen complete crews of five returned to the United States or to American forces, except for one crewman who was killed in action.
The raid was planned, led by, and named after Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, later a Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He was later promoted to the 4-star rank of General in the United States Air Force Reserve in 1985 after he was in Retired status.
Doolittle initially believed that the loss of all his aircraft would lead to his court-martial, but he instead received the Medal of Honor and was promoted two ranks to brigadier general.
In the weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a directive that efforts be made to directly strike Japan as soon as possible.
First proposed at a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 21, 1941, Roosevelt believed that a raid would achieve a degree of retribution, as well as would show the Japanese people that they were not invulnerable to attack.
A potential mission was also seen as a way to boost flagging American morale while causing the Japanese people to doubt their leaders.
While ideas for meeting the president’s request were being sought, Captain Francis Low, the US Navy’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Anti-Submarine Warfare, conceived a possible solution for hitting the Japanese home islands.
Doolittle Raid: A Daring Idea
While at Norfolk, Low noticed several US Army medium bombers taking off from a runway which featured the outline of an aircraft carrier deck. Investigating further, he found that it would be possible for these types of aircraft to take off from a carrier at sea.
Presenting this concept to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, the idea was approved and planning commenced under the command of famed aviator Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle.
An all-around aviation pioneer and former military pilot, Doolittle had returned to active duty in 1940 and had been working with auto manufacturers to convert their plants to producing aircraft. Assessing Low’s idea, Doolittle initially hoped to take off from a carrier, bomb Japan, and then land at bases near Vladivostok in the Soviet Union.
At that point, the aircraft could be turned over the Soviets under the guise of Lend-Lease. Though the Soviets were approached, they denied the use of their bases as they were not at war with the Japanese and did not wish to risk violating their 1941 neutrality pact with Japan.
As a result, Doolittle’s bombers would be forced to fly 600 miles further and land at bases in China. Moving forward with planning, Doolittle required an aircraft capable of flying approximately 2,400 miles with a bomb load of 2,000 pounds.
After assessing medium bombers such as the Martin B-26 Marauder and Douglas B-23 Dragon, he selected the North American B-25B Mitchell for the mission as it could be adapted to achieve the range and payload required as well as possessed a carrier-friendly size. To assure that the B-25 was the correct aircraft, two were successfully flown off USS Hornet (CV-8) near Norfolk, on February 2, 1942.
With the results of this test, the mission was immediately approved and Doolittle was instructed to select crews from the 17th Bomb Group (Medium). The most veteran of all US Army Air Force’s B-25 groups, the 17th BG was immediately transferred from Pendleton, OR to Lexington County Army Air Field in Columbia, SC under the cover of flying maritime patrols off the coast.
In early February, the 17 BG’s crews were offered the opportunity to volunteer for an unspecified, “extremely hazardous” mission. On February 17, the volunteers were detached from the Eighth Air Force and assigned to III Bomber Command with orders to commence specialized training.
Initial mission planning called for the use of 20 aircraft in the raid and as a result 24 B-25Bs were sent to the Mid-Continent Airlines modification center in Minneapolis, Minn. for alterations specific to the mission. To provide security, a detachment of the 710th Military Police Battalion from Fort Snelling was assigned to the airfield.
Among the changes made in the aircraft was the removal of the lower gun turret and Norden bombsights, as well as the installation of additional fuel tanks and de-icing equipment.
To replace the Norden bombsights, a makeshift aiming device, nicknamed the “Mark Twain”, was devised by Captain C. Ross Greening. Meanwhile, Doolittle’s crews trained relentlessly at Eglin Field in Florida where they practiced carrier takeoffs, low-altitude flying and bombing, and night flying.