Doolittle raid gave America a boost
The deck of USS Hornet (CV 8), code named “Shangri-la,” pitched and rolled in the swells of the Western Pacific Ocean. Sixteen B-25B Mitchell medium bombers were preparing for a historic takeoff — 467 feet and no room for error.
The morning of April 18, 1942, Army Air Corps Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle and his 80 “Raiders” were already wide awake. They had trained for this day for months: It was time to bring the battle to the Rising Sun’s doorstep.
The planning for the raid was the fruition of a Dec. 21, 1941 meeting, just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, between then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable.” wrote Doolittle in his autobiography “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.” “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.”
Military strategists gathered intel and calculated aircraft fuel consumption – how could their warplanes make the flight to the Japanese homeland? Carriers could only get so close without being spotted and taking off from Japanese controlled Korea was out of the question. It seemed like impossibility.
In January 1942 while in Norfolk, Virginia, Navy Captain Francis Low looked at the painted outline of the deck of an aircraft carrier – used for training pilots to make the 300-foot takeoff and landing – and was struck with a brilliant, yet crazy idea. A medium bomber (named for size of bombloads it carried and distance) could make that!
Low was the assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare Adm. Ernest King, and proposed his idea.
The aircraft would need to have a range of 2,400 nautical miles (more than 2,700 miles) and be capable of carrying a 2,000-pound bomb load.
Armed with a list of possible aircraft, bomber after bomber was tested and retested again and again. The B-26 Marauder’s wingspan was too long and would have collided with the carrier’s super structure and the wingspan of the B-23 Dragon was 50% greater than that of the B-25. It came down to two aircraft, the B-25B Mitchell and the B-18 Bolo for Doolittle to choose from. Due to B-18 longer wingspan, the B-25B was chosen to carry out the raid.
Two B-25s were loaded onto USS Hornet in Norfolk and on February 3, 1942 they successfully took off from the flight deck without difficulty. Next Doolittle needed the most experienced men, pilots and enlisted alike. He scoured the medium Bomb Groups (BG) for men fitting this description. The 17th Bomb Group was stationed in Pendleton, Oregon and had already been on submarine patrols along the coast. The 17th had four active squadrons before 1942, and commanders hand-picked 20 five-man crews from a group of volunteers.
The plan was coming together; however, the B-25 was initially only capable of traveling a maximum of 1,350 nautical miles, it needed to go nearly twice the distance. Engineers, mechanics and pilots worked together and heavily modified 24 aircraft for the flight.
From Modification to Departure
The removal of the lower gun turret as well as the heavy liaison radio set helped lighten the aircraft. Mechanics installed de-icers and anti-icers to combat the cold at high altitude, a 160-gallon collapsible neoprene auxiliary fuel tank in the bomb bay and additional fuel cells in crawlways and the lower gun turret. This increased the planes’ fuel capacity from 646 to 1,141 gallons. Mock gun barrels were installed in the tail cone to make the B-25 appear more intimidating and deadly as they made their bomb runs.
Another modification was a new bomb sight. These bombers would be dropping their payloads at a much lower altitude than was normal. The more expensive and precise Norden bomb sight, used for higher altitude bombing runs, would be replaced with what the press would later call “the 20-cent bombsight.” Developed by pilot Capt. Charles Ross Greening specifically for the raid, the bombsight was proven more accurate at low altitude than the Norden. Two bombers would also be outfitted with motion cameras to record the bombing.
On March 1, 1942, crews picked up the 24 modified bombers in Minneapolis and from there flew them to Eglin Field, Florida. The crews trained in simulated carrier flight deck takeoffs, both low-level and night flying, low-altitude bombing and navigating over water for three weeks.
A Navy flight instructor from Naval Air Station Pensacola, Lt. Henry Miller, supervised their takeoff training and accompanied the crews on the Hornet for the launch. For his instruction and efforts in the raid, Miller is considered an honorary member of the Raiders.
No men were lost during training but some aircraft had been damaged.
Twenty-two were flown to NAS Alameda, California outside of San Francisco. A total of 16 planes made up the mission. April 1 arrived and 71 officers and 130 enlisted men boarded Hornet with their 16 bombers and embarked on a mission that would forever change military aviation. The following morning at 8:48, Hornet departed San Francisco Bay and steamed a path through the Pacific to the Empire of Japan.
There was another hitch in this plan. This would be a one-way trip.
The plan was to make it to China before the fuel tanks ran dry.
SS Hornet (CV 8) steamed out of San Francisco Bay, April 2, 1942, with 16 modified B-25 Mitchell bombers and about 200 men led by Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle.
Best known as the “Raiders,” their mission was so secret that neither the Hornet nor the base (Alameda Naval Station) was ever mentioned until years later. President Franklin D. Roosevelt only referred to it as “Shangri-la.”
Planning the raid had taken months: Finding the right aircraft and the bravest and most skilled pilots and crews had been challenging. Commanders had handpicked 16 five-man crews from a pool of volunteers. Each man knew this was a one-way trip. The danger that they might not come home was very real.
“It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological,” Doolittle said in a July 9, 1942 interview. “Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production.”
Strength in Numbers
As the Hornet made her way through the Pacific north of Hawaii, she rendezvoused with Task Force 16, commanded by Vice Adm. William “Bull” Halsey Jr. The task force included the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and her escort of cruisers and destroyers.
The ships steamed toward the Japanese homeland in radio silence. As the sun reached its zenith, April 17, the slower oilers refueled the fleet, then withdrew along with the destroyers while the carriers and cruisers dashed west at 20 knots toward the enemy-controlled waters east of Japan.
At 7:38 a.m., April 18, the Japanese patrol craft Nitt Maru spotted the remaining ships. It radioed the attack warning before being sunk by USS Nashville. The Hornet was still about 650 nautical miles away from Japan.
Doolittle and the Hornet’s commanding officer, Capt. Marc Mitscher, decided to launch immediately — 10 hours early and nearly 170 nautical miles from their intended launch point.
Doolittle would launch first and lead the attack run; his bombs would be markers for the rest of the crews to follow.
At 8:20 a.m., Doolittle, his copilot Lt. Richard Cole, navigator Lt. Henry Potter, bombardier Staff Sgt. Fred Braemer and engineer gunner Staff Sgt. Paul Leonard taxied into position as the flight deck of the Hornet pitched and rolled in the Pacific swells.
The twin cyclone engines powered up and tail rudders and flaps moved through their pre-flight checks. There would be no looking back, no second chances: It was now or never. Doolittle revved the engines and began his take off down the flight deck: He had just 467 feet to get the bird airborne. On a hope and a prayer, he pulled the yoke back, edging the nose of his B-25 up and into the blue skies above.
Although none of the pilots, including Doolittle, had launched from a carrier before that morning, all 16 planes were safely airborne by 9:20 a.m. their noses pointed toward the Rising Sun of the Japanese Empire.
From America with Love
The crews had 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. Each aircraft was loaded with four specially constructed 500-pound bombs. Three were high-explosive munitions and one was a bundle of incendiaries. The incendiaries were wrapped together so they could be carried in the bomb bay, but when released, they would separate and scatter over a wider area.
Prior to the war, the Empire of Japan had awarded US service members with “friendship” medals. Five of these were wired to bombs for return to Japan.
The aircraft began arriving over Japan about noon Tokyo time, six hours after launching from the Hornet. They climbed to 1,500 feet and began their bomb runs. Some of the planes encountered light antiaircraft fire and a few enemy fighters. Raiders only had two .50-caliber machine guns in an upper turret and a .30-caliber machine gun in the nose for defense and were able to shoot down three Japanese planes.
When the weapons in the upper turret of one B-25 malfunctioned, the crew dropped their payload early as they came under attack. As the bombers finished their runs, all 16 aircraft were still airborne.
Not All is Lost
After the early launch and longer flight, the planes were running low on fuel. The pilots realized that making it to China might not be possible.
Upon departing Japanese air space, 15 aircraft turned southwest and made their way across the South China Sea. The 16th, piloted by Capt. Edward York, was extremely low on fuel. He did not want to risk his crew by force ditching into the South China Sea. Instead, he made the risky decision to head for the Soviet Union – which at the time had a neutrality pact with Japan.
As Doolittle and 14 other bomber crews made their way to China, they ran in many challenges: Not only were they running low on fuel, the weather was taking a turn for the worse and night was fast approaching. If it hadn’t been for a strong tail wind increasing their ground speed an extra 25 knots, none of them would have reached the China coastline. As it was, none would reach the intended bases in China, leaving them two options: Either crash land in China or bail out over open water.
Doolittle and his crew parachuted into China, Doolittle landing in a dung heap, which probably saved him from breaking an already injured ankle. Doolittle’s crew received assistance from Chinese soldiers and civilians as well as John Birch, an American missionary in China. Other crews received similar assistance at great cost to the local Chinese villagers. During Japanese searches for Doolittle’s men, some 10,000 Chinese civilians were murdered for helping the Americans escape.
As Doolittle sat on what was left of his B-25, he felt the raid had been a complete failure: All the aircraft were lost, some of his men were unaccounted for and he expected to be court-martialed when he returned home.
“I was very depressed,” Doolittle recalled in a later interview. “Paul Leonard took my picture. He tried to cheer me up. He said, ‘What do you think will happen when you go home, Colonel?’
“’Well, I guess they’ll send me to Leavenworth,’” Doolittle replied.
Fate of the Missing Raiders
Captain Edward York, who had flown to the Soviet Union, landed at Vozdvizhenka Air Base near the western coast. His plane was confiscated, York and his crew interned as per the neutrality pact with Japan. York and his crew were well-treated, but diplomatic attempts to return them to the United States fell through as the Soviet Union did not want war with Japan. When the Americans were relocated to Ashgabat, near the Iranian border, York managed to bribe a smuggler, who helped them cross the border and reach a nearby British consulate, May 11, 1943.
The smuggling of York and his crew had actually been staged by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs – the predecessor of the KGB – according to declassified Soviet archives. Unable to repatriate them legally, helping the Americans escape by smuggler was the only option for the Soviets.
With York and his men held in a Soviet prison and men from the 13 crews that had crash-landed in China accounted for, two crews had bailed out over the South China Sea and were missing. (Corporal Lelan Faktor, assigned to Lt. Robert Gray’s crew, was killed during bailout over China.)
The truth of what had happened to the missing Raiders would not be fully known for years.
Bombardier Staff Sgt. William Dieter and flight engineer Sgt. Donald Fitzmaurice, both from Lt. Dean Hallmark’s crew, had drowned when their B-25 crashed into the sea.
The Imperial Japanese police captured Hallmark, 1st Lt. Robert Meder, Lt. Chase Nielsen, 1st Lt. William Farrow, Lt. Robert Hite, Lt. George Barr, Cpl. Jacob DeShazer and Sgt. Harold Spatz after they bailed out over the South China Sea.
The United States didn’t learn their fate until August 15, 1942, when the Swiss Consulate General in Shanghai sent message that eight crew members were prisoners of the Japanese at the city’s police headquarters.
On August 28, 1942, Hallmark, Farrow and Spatz faced a war crimes trial in a Japanese court, alleging they strafed and murdered Japanese civilians. At 4:30 p.m., October 15, 1942, they were taken by truck to Public Cemetery Number 1 and executed by firing squad. The Japanese announced the sentencing four days later. The surviving crewmembers would serve life sentences.
Meder, Nielsen, Hite, Barr and DeShazer were kept in military confinement and put on a starvation diet. Their health deteriorated rapidly. Meder died in Nanking, China, Dec. 1, 1943.
In August 1945, just days after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American troops arrived at the prison camp and freed the men. By the time they were liberated, Barr was near death and remained in China to recuperate until October. He transferred to Letterman General Hospital, a military hospital in Clinton, Iowa. Barr began to experience severe emotional problems, most likely PTSD. Without proper treatment, he became suicidal and was committed. After Doolittle personally intervened in November, convincing doctors to change Barr’s treatment, he eventually recovered.
The true fate of the POWs was revealed in a February 1946 war crimes trial in Shanghai. Four Japanese officers were found guilty of mistreating the eight captured Raiders and sentenced to hard labor. Three served five years and one nine years.
One of those POWs would return to Japan years later.
DeShazer graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 1948 and served as a missionary in Japan for more than 30 years.
When Doolittle returned to the States, he was still under the assumption he would face disciplinary action. But the raid was considered a success, for it had provided a much-needed morale boost.
Doolittle received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House, May 19, 1942, “For conspicuous leadership above and beyond the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life,” his citation read. “With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland.”
Doolittle was also promoted two pay grades to brigadier general.
Sevent-two years after Doolittle received the Medal of Honor, his Raiders were recognized, May 19, 2014, when the United States House of Representatives voted to pass H.R. 1209. The bill would award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Doolittle Raiders for “outstanding heroism, valor, skill, and service to the United States in conducting the bombings of Tokyo.”
The award ceremony took place at the Capitol Building, April 15, 2015, with retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hudson, the director of the National Museum of the Air Force, accepting the award on behalf of the Doolittle Raiders.
The mission was the first against the Japanese homeland and the longest ever flown in combat by the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, averaging approximately 2,250 nautical miles. And like the B-25s they once flew, these 80 brave men flew onto the pages of history.
After the raid, the Japanese Imperial Army began the Operation Sei-go. Its goal was purely aimed at preventing the eastern coastal provinces of China from being used again for an attack on Japan. Airfields within an area of 20,000 square miles where the Raiders had landed were rendered unusable. Japanese occupiers used germ warfare and committed other atrocities, and anyone found with American items was shot on sight. About 250,000 Chinese were killed during the Sei-go campaign.
From the late 1940s until 2013, the Doolittle Raiders held an annual reunion almost every year. In a private ceremony during each reunion, the surviving Raiders would perform a roll call and toast their fellow Raiders who had died during the previous year.
Each Raider had a special silver goblet, engraved with his name right side up and upside down. The goblets of those who died were inverted.
In 2013, the last public Doolittle Raiders reunion was held at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, not far from where the crews had trained at Eglin Air Force Base. The goblets are maintained at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
Of the 80 Raiders, only Col. Richard Cole remains at 101 years young.
“I was scared,” recalled Cole in a 2015 “All Hands” interview. “But I decided there’s no sense in trying to second guess and worry about what’s going to happen, because it’s going to happen anyway.