70 Years Since Doolittle Raid on Tokyo

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On this day seventy years ago (April 18, 1942), America’s already famous pioneer aviator and air force Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Doolittle (1896-1993) led the intrepid and celebrated first U.S. air raid on Tokyo. The raid, carried out by 80 airman and 16 specially modified B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from the windswept deck of the carrier Hornet, did much to dissipate the darkness and foreboding overhanging the Pacific war. 

In the four and half months since the surprise attack upon U.S. naval and air installations at Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s aircraft carriers, Japan had enjoyed one success after another: the seizure of Guam; the surrender of Hong Kong and later Singapore; the destruction from the air of the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulse; the further destruction of the British aircraft carrier Hermes and the cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall off Ceylon; the invasion of a brace of Pacific islands, including the Philippines and New Guinea, the bombing of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory and so on. Imperial Japan had appeared unstoppable. The Doolittle Raid permitted a different inference.

In a day, the notion that Japan was invulnerable to attack because of its sudden, far-flung conquests and the long arm of its navy was dissolved. The U.S. Navy had demonstrated that it could penetrate to within range of metropolitan Japan and launch a squadron of medium bombers upon the imperial capital itself. 

The American public were heartened. With the war in the Pacific still raging, MGM produced a faithful, patriotic but non-sensationalized cinematic account of the exploit, based on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by the pilot of the seventh B-25 launched, Lieutenant Ted W. Lawson, with Spencer Tracy playing Doolittle and Van Johnson playing Lawson.

The raid itself was unusual in concept: launching medium bombers off an aircraft carrier never designed to carry them was considered a technical impossibility: carriers could only accommodate smaller fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo bombers of no use to the task envisaged. Modifications in aircraft design, weight and method of take off had to be effected before the operation was pronounced feasible.

The B-25s were to have been launched about 480 miles west of Japan to carry out the raid before flying on to friendly territory in China but, on the appointed date, the Hornet was sighted by a Japanese patrol boat still 650 miles out, necessitating an early launch of the bombers. Though none of the pilots, including Doolittle, had ever flown a B-25 off a carrier, all sixteen launched safely. All but one found their targets, all but one evaded hits from anti-aircraft fire and all but one flew on as planned to China. The sole exception was the B-25 piloted by Captain  Edward J. York which, low on fuel, headed for ostensibly friendly Soviet territory, where he and his crew were interned for over a year before escaping.

Operating at such extreme range, none of the planes were able to reach friendly airfields and all crews were forced to parachute. Doolittle himself came down in a rice paddy, preserving an already injured ankle from further injury. Lawson fared less well, crash-landing at Nantien and lacerating his left leg, which later required amputation. Others fared even less well: eight crew members from the sixth and sixteen planes were captured by Japanese forces. Three were executed by firing squad and the remaining five imprisoned, one of them, Robert J. Meder, dying in captivity. Today, one of the four survivors, Robert E. Hite, is among the five living veterans of the Raid to celebrate its 70th anniversary today, as is Doolittle’s own co-pilot, Colonel Richard E. Cole.

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  • Gary from Jersey

    My uncle was a navigator on that raid. It was one of the most audacious military adventures ever and set the precedent that the United States was going to win that war. It's so sad that so few Americans know of Doolittle, the raid or even the war.

    • Stephen_Brady

      Here's one American who knows the story, and I honor your uncle, and ask God's blessings on him.

  • wctaqiyya

    If only we had leaders with that audacious faith in the ability of America now. But we don't, so our enemies, even the weakest of them like N. Korea, Cuba and Venezuela spit in our face every single day. Can somebody give me a good reason why Cuba is not yet liberated? And please don't quote me the agreement Kennedy made with the now extinct evil empire. I'll take any good reasons except the most obvious one, Obama. Do many people know that the U.S. is the best place Chavez can refine his dirty, heavy crude oil? Yep. It's the same reason we send heavy tar sand oil to Houston for refining. But, instead of drilling for enough to replace what we import from Chavez , he continues to poop on our carpet. If we had good leaders, we could and would tell Chavez to eat his oil. The blame for the decline of America belongs to Americans. With just a little effort, we could brush aside or render moot many of our troubles.

  • Amused

    With each passing day , these heroes pass on , this GHreat Generation that battled true evil and defeated it .As a kid my neighborhood was filled with them , my Barber -, tthe Butcher , my Dentist ,the Postman ,the Bus Driver ,my Scout Leader. Of the twenty houses on my block , 11 were owned by WW2 GI's .My best frends Dad survived the Bataan death march , another got his left ear shot off in Italy , another flew cargo planes over the Himalyas to supply Burma , my own Dad a Liuetenant Commander on Merchant Convoys across the North Atlantic, yet none ever spoke about it ,we'd find out from the Mom's or Aunts etc. Our toys resembled their statures ,our games reflected their bravery , our movies spoke of their sacrifices and victory .And STILL DO . Soon these men ,will all be gone ,and deserve all honor .These men were my examples growing up .

  • tagalog

    On the news last night, the interviewer asked one of the men who was on the mission who's still alive if he didn't think at the time it was a suicide mission, flying a small group of slow-flying bombers over the as-yet untouched Japan. He didn't answer directly because that generation of MEN didn't think that way; he said he wanted strike a blow for his country and the armed forces to show the Japanese they couldn't get away scot free with Pearl Harbor.

    Of course they must have thought it was a suicide mission. They didn't think about that much; they thought what they did was what any red-blooded American MAN should do after that sneak attack. We still have MEN who think like that, but the number gets smaller every day.

    It's a shame that they didn't talk about their experiences; we would have had a huge reservoir of stories to sustain this country and society in the future. But their unwillingness to talk about their sacrifices is also so admirable that I continue to weigh in my own postwar boomer thoughts their admirable reticence against the desire to know their personal histories.

    My neighborhood was like Amused's: nearly every man had served in the war, and almost none of them talked about it. What stories they did tell were the amusing stories of scrounging for booze and building a serviceman's club on some pacified island after the fighting was over (my father -13th Air Force, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, the Philippines- made me promise not to tell my mom what the name of the servicemen's club, The Lack-a-Nookie Club, meant). I didn't find out until he was dead a long time that one of my neighbors had waded through the lagoon at Betio, and that another had been gassed in France in World War I. Another did patrols as a member of the First Special Service Force at Anzio, along the Mussolini Canal, and fought the Germans at Mount La Difensa. They were just fathers of my friends, going to work and puttering around with household chores. Those battle jackets that they wore were like the Army surplus stuff that we kids bought. NOT. Maybe they told their stories at the American Legion and VFW halls where they were members, I don't know. They were real men.

  • Amused

    The Remarkable thing about the Doolittle Raid was that , it wasn't a suicide mission per se , as in Kamikazee , or the jihadis of present times , it was a mission in which the odds of coming home were very small, and the intent was NOT to die , but to accomplish the mission,accepting the great risk and odds that they would not return .