In a day, the notion that Japan was invulnerable to attack was dissolved.
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.
Derided by Japanese propaganda as the ‘Do-nothing Raid’ - the bombers carried only 2000 pounds of bombs each and, as was to be expected, inflicted only limited damage on selected targets - the Doolittle Raid actually had far-reaching consequences. Though he publicly uttered his thoughts more than once on the Raid, Doolittle was to write in depth about it in his memoirs only very late in life, so I felt a certain frisson when, still in high school, I wrote to him and received a reply which included this assessment of the importance of the raid:
The morale effect of the first raid on Tokyo was much greater than the destruction caused. It gave the American public the first good news they had received and therefore had an important morale effect for us. It caused the Japanese to question their war lords who a assured the people that the homeland would never be attacked, so it had a bad morale effect on the Japanese.
Indeed, Japan withdrew its carrier force from the Indian Ocean to protect the home islands and the commander of the Japanese Imperial Navy, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, felt impelled to take the fateful decision to attempt the elimination of America’s carrier forces (providentially preserved from destruction by their absence on the day from Pearl Harbor) by seizing the strategic atoll at Midway and luring them into combat. A mere six weeks later, four of Nagumo’s carriers (and, no less important, their irreplaceable pilots and technicians) were ablaze off Midway and the Imperial Japanese Navy never recovered.
The Doolittle Raid rightly entered the annals and became a byword for American initiative and daring. In his farewell address to the nation in January 1989, President Ronald Reagan recalled it with these words: “We've got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important: Why the pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant.” It meant courage and a sense of patriotic duty of the highest order in a dark hour, something not lost by any means today in the U.S. armed forces but, sadly, less celebrated in the popular imagination.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.