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Doolittle Raid Remembered for Impact

April 05, 2012

Seventy years ago this month, 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers dropped bombs on the Japanese homeland, just 132 days after the disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor, boosting U.S. morale in the darkest days of World War II for America and setting a course for ultimate victory in the Pacific.

Lt. Col. Doolittle with on of the bombers that was used for the raid.

James H. Doolittle during a San Angelo visit. Photo courtesy of the West Texas Collection.

The “Doolittle Raid” as it came to be known in honor of its commander, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, was a pivotal moment in World War II, resulting in strategic implications far beyond the modest damage it did to the Japanese homeland, according to Dr. Robert S. Ehlers, an authority on airpower and director of Angelo State University’s Center for Security Studies.

Eighty aviators, including 13 from Texas, one of whom was born in nearby Robert Lee, struck a retaliatory blow on a mission that marked the first time a foreign power had successfully attacked the island nation. The raid dramatically re-shaped Japanese strategy, disastrously as it turned out, in the early months of the American conflict in the Pacific.

“The raid led directly to the Japanese decision to attack Midway,” said Ehlers, “and the Battle of Midway became the turning point in the Pacific War, though the fighting would continue for more than three years.”

Mere hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked his military planners to come up with a way to hit back at Japan, primarily to give the home front something to cheer about. Japan was so far removed from American airfields that U.S. aircraft carriers offered the only chance of U.S. retaliation, but because four American aircraft carriers were basically all that stood between Japan and total domination of the Pacific, any move bringing them within flying distance of Japan put them within range and danger of Japanese land-based aircraft.

“Not a single man opted out when Lt. Col. Doolittle gave them the option to do so. They were extraordinarily courageous, committed to their mission and confident in their capabilities.”

Robert Ehlers

In addition to distance, the plan faced a severe technical problem as no medium- or long-range bomber had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier. Even if such a plane could go airborne from a carrier deck, landing was out of the question. In other words, the raid would be a one-way trip for the American fliers.

The B-25 medium bomber was selected for the mission, and Doolittle, a pilot with a national reputation and one of the best aeronautical engineers in the country, was chosen to lead the operation. Ehlers said Doolittle was the first pilot to successfully fly entirely on instruments, his cockpit being blacked out so that he could see nothing but his instrument panel from takeoff through landing. As a member of the board of Shell Oil Co., he had earlier convinced the federal government and the Army Air Corps to purchase 100-octane fuel, which provides higher performance and better mileage for aircraft, a decision that later would help save the lives of him and 68 other raiders.

“His engineering prowess, combined with brilliant flying exploits and a creative mind, allowed him to conceptualize and work the technical specifics of the raid in the planning and training stages,” Ehlers said.

Doolittle solicited volunteers for the dangerous but otherwise unspecified Special Aviation Project No. 1, then issued orders that the men were not even to speculate about the secret mission to come. Under normal flying circumstances, a fully-loaded B-25 required a thousand or more feet of runway to take off. For Special Aviation Project No. 1 to ever get airborne, the Army pilots would have to accomplish liftoff in half that distance or less from the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet, which by then was one of only three surviving U.S. carriers in the Pacific.

View looking aft from the island of USS Hornet (CV-8), while en route to the mission's launching point. USS Nashville (CL-43) is in the distance. Eight of the mission's sixteen B-25B bombers are visible on the carrier's flight deck. Aircraft at right is tail # 40-2250, which was mission plane # 10, piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Richard O. Joyce, which attacked targets in the Tokyo area.

Eight of the mission’s sixteen B-25 bombers are visible on the flight deck of the USS Hornet. U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command Photograph

“Given the Hornet’s short deck,” said Ehlers, “the B-25s had to start at maximum power and be stripped of everything except bombs, fuel and other mission-essential items to succeed.”

To reduce weight, the first things to go from the bombers were armaments and ammunition. The machine guns were replaced with broomsticks painted black to give the appearance—but not the punch—of actual guns. By reducing all nonessentials, the planes could maximize the bomb and fuel loads for the one-way mission. The plan was for the carrier to launch them within range of China so the planes could attack their targets then land in China at prearranged airfields with homing devices.

Unfortunately, the details for the landings were never finalized with or implemented by the Chinese military, which had its hands full fighting Japanese invaders. In the end, the Doolittle Raiders would be on their own after bombing the home island.

The Army aviators boarded the Hornet in San Francisco where their planes were loaded by crane on the carrier deck. On the foggy morning of April 2, 1942, the Hornet sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, accompanied by seven ships in her task force. It would be the last time the carrier would ever see the continental United States, fated to sink that October in the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands.

Once the carrier was at sea, Doolittle finally announced to his men that their destination was Tokyo and, as one airman remembered, that “the chances of you making it back are pretty slim.”

“Not a single man,” said Ehlers, “opted out when Lt. Col. Doolittle gave them the option to do so. They were extraordinarily courageous, committed to their mission and confident in their capabilities.”

Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle (left front), leader of the attacking force, and Captain Marc A. Mitscher, Commanding Officer of USS Hornet (CV-8), pose with a 500-pound bomb and USAAF aircrew members during ceremonies on Hornet's flight deck, while the raid task force was en route to the launching point.

Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle (left front), leader of the attacking force, and Captain Marc A. Mitscher, commanding officer of USS Hornet, pose with USAAF aircrew members during ceremonies on the Hornet’s flight deck. U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command Photograph

Two days later, the Hornet’s captain revealed the audacious plan to his crew. Four days after that, the U.S.S. Enterprise departed Pearl Harbor to provide air cover for the Hornet, which could neither launch nor land planes with the 16 B-25s strapped to its deck.

The two carriers retraced some of the same North Pacific waters that Japanese carriers had traversed to attack Pearl Harbor. This northern route was less active militarily and provided the best course for secrecy. The goal was to get within 450 miles of Japan and launch planes at dusk on April 19 so they would attack Tokyo at night, limiting their vulnerability to Japanese fighters and giving the Army air crews daylight to make their landings by the time they made it to China.

The farther from Japanese shores they launched the B-25s, the longer the odds. At 550 miles they had little margin for error. Any launch beyond 650 miles meant they would likely never reach China and the possibility of safety.

To reduce weight, the first things to go from the bombers were armaments and ammunition. The machine guns were replaced with broomsticks painted black to give the appearance of actual guns.

“This was a relatively risky maneuver,” Ehlers said, “but a calculated one based, ironically, on the same kind of logic the Japanese used for the Pearl Harbor attack that very little or no shipping would be present along the ‘northern route’ of the North Pacific Ocean. The plan worked until the task force ran into Japanese trawlers, which had orders to relay all intelligence to the Home Islands.”

At about 6:30 a.m. on April 18, a Japanese fishing trawler equipped with a military radio for just such occasions sent a communique to headquarters announcing the surprise visitors. The Enterprise picked up both the radio message and the ship on its radar. The American fleet was 688 miles from Japan and well within range of land-based bombers. After sinking the trawler, the fleet commander faced a difficult decision to either launch the planes and escape or to move in closer and risk the carriers.

Doolittle was for fulfilling his mission. He gave his men one last chance to back out. When none did, Doolittle and the other 79 airmen ran to their planes and prepared for takeoff. The Hornet turned into the wind, and one by one the 16 bombers lumbered down the deck and into the air with Doolittle leading the way.

Doolittle’s Raiders came from 34 states and Hawaii. Thirteen Texans flew with Doolittle, more than twice as many as the five from both Massachusetts and Oregon, the second most represented states. Plane two carried Texans from Temple and Mineola. Planes three, four and five carried Lone Star residents from Killeen, Pampa and Taylor, respectively. The towns of Greenville, Houston and Bowie were represented on Planes eight, nine and 11 while Planes 12, 13, 14 and 16 carried Texans from Archer City, Ennis, Sherman and Odell.

The ill-fated plane six was piloted by Dean Edward Hallmark, who had been born in Robert Lee and spent time as a kid in Bronte where his grandparents lived. Prior to 1930, he moved to Greenville, where he played high school football.

As soon as the 16th and final plane was launched, the American task force with the irreplaceable carries turned from Japan and high-tailed it back to Pearl Harbor, leaving the airborne Army pilots to their own devices. Ten of the planes bombed Tokyo, two each attacked Yokohama and Nagoya and one each hit Nagoya and Kobe. The 16 aircraft and 80 crewmen caused negligible material damage to their targets, but spawned a tremendous impact on the psyche of two nations.

Wires a Japanese medal to a bomb, for “return” to its originators in the first U.S. air raid on the Japanese Home Islands, April 1942. Photographed on board USS Hornet (CV-8), shortly before Lt. Col. Doolittle's B-25 bombers were launched to attack Japan.

Aboard the USS Hornet, Doolittle wires a Japanese medal to a bomb, for “return” to its originators in the first U.S. air raid on the Japanese Home Islands, April 1942. U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command Photograph

“The impact on American morale was tremendous,” said Ehlers. “My parents and in-laws talked all the time about what a huge morale-booster the raid was, and how their parents laughed at FDR’s comment that the bombers had come from Shangri-La. The Japanese who witnessed the event had a negative response, but the really decisive thing—and this is why the raid had such a huge grand strategic impact—was the effect it had on the Japanese leadership.”

“The raid led directly to the Japanese decision to attack Midway and, in the process, bring the American aircraft carriers to battle and destroy them,” he continued. “The strategy backfired.”

Ehlers explained that the Japanese Army and Navy high commands had different strategies for defeating the Allies. The army was heavily engaged in China, had advanced to the borders of India, and wanted the navy to support an Indian Ocean strategy that would allow the Japanese to capture Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), an island with major British naval and air bases at the time. Using Ceylon as a base for attacks on merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean, the army hoped to defeat the British force in India, then ultimately link up with the German Army and defeat the Allies with a unified force.

By contrast, the Japanese Navy wanted to maintain the integrity of the defensive barrier it had created in the Pacific and to take New Guinea and at least parts of Australia, along with all the islands in that region, to keep the Americans from sending reinforcements there, Ehlers said. Then the navy would go after the remaining American carriers to ensure Japanese naval mastery and freedom of action in the Pacific.

“The Doolittle Raid,” said Ehlers, “gave the Japanese Navy what it wanted, especially since the Emperor weighed in, a very rare thing, on the Navy’s side in an effort to ensure there wasn’t another American attack on the Japanese Home Islands. So, the raid set Japanese strategy in such a way that Midway became the decisive meeting point, and the Indian Ocean strategy went out the window.”

An Army Air Force B-25B bomber takes off from USS Hornet (CV-8) at the start of the raid, 18 April 1942. Note men watching from the signal lamp platform at right.

An Army Air Force B-25 bomber takes off from USS Hornet at the start of the Doolittle Raid, April 18, 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives collection.

Not quite two months later, the Battle of Midway between June 4–7, 1942, would mark the turning point in the war. U.S. cryptologists had broken the Japanese naval code and set an ambush with the Navy’s three remaining Pacific carriers. Though the U.S. would lose one of the carriers, the U.S.S.Yorktown, the Japanese lost four large fleet carriers, all of which had been involved in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. American forces sustained slightly more than 300 killed while the Japanese toll was more than 3,000, including the pilots to some 248 carrier-based aircraft and more than 40 percent of their trained aircraft mechanics and technicians. Today, the Battle of Midway is considered the turning point in the Pacific conflict.

Without the Doolittle Raid, Midway would likely never have occurred and the course of the war would have been changed. Most of the raiders overcame the slim odds their commander Doolittle had given them. All but 11 of the 80 survived the mission, though 12 of their planes crashed in China, three ditched in the China Sea and one landed in Russian-held Siberia. Of the 16 crews, 13 survived intact and a fourth lost only one man.

Plane six, named “Green Hornet” and piloted by Dean Edward Hallmark, originally of Robert Lee, was the unluckiest of all. Two enlisted crewmen drowned when the Green Hornet ditched in the China Sea three miles from shore. The three surviving officers were captured by the Japanese. Hallmark was one of three raiders executed by Japanese firing squads. A second survivor of the Green Hornet starved to death in a Japanese POW camp. The one Green Hornet survivor willed himself to live and one day testify against the Japanese tormentors of the Doolittle captives. After the war, Hallmark’s ashes were returned to the United States and buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Doolittle himself survived a crash landing and evaded capture by the Japanese to return to the United States and play an even bigger role in the war effort. Ehlers said Doolittle went on to earn three-star general rank, commanding strategic bomber forces in the North African and Italian campaigns, and then taking over command of 8th Air Force and leading that huge unit in its bombing of Germany. He, like his fellow raiders, was highly decorated for his bravery.

“When Doolittle won the Congressional Medal of Honor and received it from the president,” Ehlers said, “he told FDR that he was deeply honored, and that now he’d do his best to earn it! In other words, he was so self-effacing that he believed that what he’d done didn’t merit the Medal of Honor. He was, like the best men of any generation, dedicated to doing what was right, and what had to be done.”

In the collection at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is a case presented to the survivors in 1959. Inside the case are 80 silver goblets, each inscribed with the name of a Doolittle Raider. As each member of the Doolittle Raid dies, his goblet is inverted. As of the beginning of the 70th anniversary year of the raid, five of those goblets remained upright.