1942 - Doolittle's Raid

(Courtesy, American Forces Information Service)

In the beginning of 1942, gloom was descending over the United States like a winter twilight. On all fronts, the United States and its allies were reeling from the blows of the Axis powers. In the Pacific, Japan had taken Malaya, Singapore, Java, Guam and Wake Island and was threatening the lifeline with Australia. On April 9, 1942, the "Battling Bastards of Bataan" in the Philippines finally laid down their arms. In the Atlantic, German U-boats were sinking American ships within sight of the U.S. coast. Britain was being strangled, and the German Wehrmacht was in the suburbs of Moscow.

The Axis powers looked invincible.

In the midst of these dark days burst the light of the Doolittle Raid on Japan.

The U.S. Navy conceived the raid as a way to raise morale. It entailed launching Army twin-engine bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier to bomb selected cities in Japan. It was a way to strike back. It was a way to demonstrate that no matter how bleak the future looked, the United States would not give up.

Leading the attack was Army Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle. Jimmie Doolittle was an aviation pioneer and daredevil racer. He pioneered instrument flying. He won the Schneider Race for the Army in 1925. He pushed for higher octane gasoline for aircraft in the 1930s, when he was an employee of Shell.

Doolittle trained the volunteer crews to take off their B-25B Mitchell bombers in only 450 feet instead of the usual 1,200. The planes were loaded aboard the USS Hornet in March 1942.

The plan was to launch the bombers within 400 miles of the Japanese coast. They would then bomb their targets and continue to airfields in China.

But Japanese picket boats discovered the task force about 800 miles off the coast, and the Army planes were launched immediately.

The 16 bombers struck Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya and Yokohama. Because of the added distance, no plane was able to make the Chinese airfields. Most of the planes crash landed in China with one plane landing in the Soviet Union. Of the 75 fliers who landed in China three died in accidents and eight were captured by the Japanese. The rest returned to the United States.

The raid inflicted little physical damage to Japan, but it gave a needed lift to morale in the United States. In Japan, the psychological damage of the attack was more important. The Doolittle Raid convinced Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto, chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, that he had to extend Japan's defensive perimeter. He aimed the extension at Midway Island. If Japan held that strategic mid-Pacific atoll, no carrier task force could approach. The battle of Midway in June 1942, was a decisive victory for the United States. Many called Midway the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

For his leadership of the raid, Jimmy Doolittle received the Medal of Honor.

See the AFHSO publication by George M. Watson, Jr.:
General James H. Doolittle: the Air Force's Warrior Scholar.

Read the Airmen Memorial Museum pamphlet:  Doolittle's Raiders, the Giant Begins to Stir.

See the National Museum of the US Air Force Fact Sheet Doolittle Raid for more information.