The Doolittle Raid on Japan ; a Saga of Courage
The Route of the attack
An Audacious Attack on Japan
The Attack on Pearl Harbor
The Second World War saw the rise of the aircraft carrier. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 3 December 1941 the entire American nation was in a state of anguish. President Roosevelt wanted a bombing raid to be carried out on Japan. This was easier said than done as the US Army Air Force had no aircraft to launch an attack on Japan or a base near enough to mount a bombing mission.
The Plan of Francis Low
Credit must go to one man named Francis Low, a submariner who put forward a theory to his superior officer to mount a raid on Japan by taking an aircraft carrier close to the Japanese coast. The proposal through proper channel reached Admiral King who Okayed the proposal. The US admiralty was convinced that this was the only way to strike at Japan immediately. President Roosevelt was also informed. The newly launched aircraft carrier the USS Hornet was zeroed on for this task. This was a 26000 ton aircraft carrier and had been launched in November 1941 a month before the Imperial Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Charles Doolittle and the USS Hornet
After speedy trials the aircraft carrier sailed through the Panama Canal in early 1941 and entered the Pacific Ocean. The plan envisaged launching the B-25 bomber from the deck of the USS hornet when it had steamed to about 400 NM of the Japanese coast. The aircraft were expected to bomb Japan and continue to China for sanctuary as the Bombers could not land back on the flight deck of the Hornet. It was an audacious plan and required dare devilry of a high order. The man chosen to head this mission was Lt Colonel James Doolittle, who later rose to the rank of general US Army Air Force.
On 20 March the USS Hornet with its complement of B-25 bombers sailed for enemy seas. It was escorted by the carrier USS enterprise. It neared the enemy sea by 17 April, when it was 550 NM from the Japanese cost. The weather was appalling and worse a Japanese fishing boat sighted the Hornet. It immediately radioed information to the imperial naval headquarters in Tokyo. After the war it was learnt that the message was received in garbled form and nothing much could be made about it.
This information was not known to the US task force and an immediate decision was taken to launch the strike. With weather also worsening, the decision to strike Japan was voted up.The aircrew were assembled one hour before the mission and briefed about the raid. Many of the aircrew came to know about their mission only at that time. It is on record that not one stepped back from the mission. On 18 April 1942, 16 B-25 took off from the USS Hornet after short intervals to bomb Tokyo. They flew in single file and headed for the Japanese Coast.
The Japanese were surprised and there was only sporadic Anti aircraft fire. Not a single of the B-25 were hit and all dropped their payload bombs on military targets in Tokyo and other places, but the damage was minimal as the bombers were carrying a limited number of 500Lb bombs.
Landing in China
The 16 bombers as per plan continued to China, but bad weather forced almost all of them to crash land on the China coast. The planes were total wrecks. but all crew members escaped. One plane made it to Vladivostok in Russia and the crew and plane were interred there. They were released towards the end of the war.
Four of the crew were captured and killed by the Japanese, but the others escaped to safer areas with the help of partisan Chinese fighters. Unfortunately the Chinese paid a heavy price for helping the crew of the B-25 and almost 250 of them were executed as the Japanese searched for them. Doolittle also escaped and returned back to the USA.
The Doolittle raid is a romantic episode and deserves to be remembered, not for any damage inflicted on Japan but for its sheer bravery and courage shown by the airmen.
But it had another effect as Admiral Yamamoto realized that the US carrier fleet had to be neutralized and that precipitated the battle of Midway and the destruction of the Imperial navy’s Carrier fleet.