The Doolittle Raid, 70 years on

The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese had been devastating in more ways that one. Not only had the Pacific Fleet been dealt a crippling blow with the loss of so many of our mainline warships and sailors, the psyche of the nation had been wounded. The Japanese, suddenly revealed as an enemy, had been able to literally sneak up onto our porch and attack us at our home. And if they could appear out of the morning light from far out over the ocean to attack Honolulu, they could do it to the west coast states as easily, the thinking went. Just as dangerous from a military strategy perspective, the success had given Japan the confidence that the big, scary United States might not be as tough as they thought. It would embolden the Empire to try things that, perhaps, they wouldn’t have even considered before. The most direct, most effective answer to both of those problems was to show both sides that Japan was just as vulnerable. So an Army Air Corp officer, Colonel James Doolittle, proposed a daring plan.

The now-famous Doolittle Raid involved launching 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. On April 18, 1942, with just 400 feet of available runway, Doolittle himself piloted the lead bird into the air. With barely enough fuel to make it to the target and just enough bombs to make the point, the planes flew the 650 miles to Tokyo and hit their targets. Militarily, the raid was barely a pinprick. But the effect on the fighting will of both America and Japan was huge. To the Japanese, it was the a jarring realization that the war could absolutely touch them at home, just as their forces were attacking other nations. It was an undeniable demonstration that the United States could, in fact, strike back. To the Americans it was proof that they weren’t helpless before an unstoppable Japanese navy and that, led with daring, their military men could avenge the sneak attack and stop tyrants yet again.

It’s been 70 years since the Raid and the Washington Times has run a wonderful story interviewing the 5 remaining survivors of the 80 men who lifted off from the Hornet that day.

Seven decades later, the five remaining survivors of the raid led by then-Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle recognize their prominent place in history. Nothing like it had ever been done before. But faced with an enemy that already had proved its ability to strike the U.S. homeland, 80 brave men volunteered for what had all the makings of a suicide mission, its main purposes to satisfy a burning desire for revenge, to boost morale in the war’s darkest days and to demonstrate that the nation’s resolve remained as strong as steel.

Planning for the April 18, 1942, raid combined that need for vengeance with raw American ingenuity. It was the first-ever joint operation between the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF), predecessor to today’s Air Force, and the Navy. B-25 bombers had never taken off from a Navy aircraft carrier before, and Doolittle, selected as mission leader, who piloted the first of the squadron’s 16 planes, had less than 400 feet of runway to work with.

Unable to carry enough fuel for a round trip, Doolittle and his men planned to drop their bombs on Tokyo and several other Japanese cities and make a quick escape toward China, a U.S. ally. American political leaders had tried to hammer out an agreement with Josef Stalin to allow the bombers to land in the Soviet Union after the raid, but the Soviet leader refused, leaving China as the only realistic option.

The story in the Times is a great read and I recommend it highly. My thanks and prayers go to the Raiders who didn’t see the end of that mission and my thanks and admiration to those 5 who are still with us today. Thank you for your sacrifices, gentlemen, and for sharing the story with us.