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This Day in History: The Doolittle Raiders avenge Pearl Harbor

On this day in 1942, the Doolittle Raid is launched. Americans would not let the attack on Pearl Harbor go unanswered! Instead, the renowned aviator Lt. Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle would lead 16 B-25 bomber crews in a surprise attack on the Japanese homeland.


“The president was insistent that we find ways and means of carrying home to Japan proper, in the form of a bombing raid, the real meaning of war,” Lt. General Henry “Hap” Arnold would later describe.


A B-25 takes off from USS Hornet during the Doolittle Raid.

Military leaders settled on a bold plan: Bombers would be towed across the Pacific by an aircraft carrier, USS Hornet. When they were about 400 miles from Japan, the B-25s would take off, headed for Tokyo and other industrial centers. Bombs would be dropped on military targets, then the planes would head for a Chinese airfield. A return to USS Hornet simply wasn’t feasible.


Doolittle looked to the Seventeenth Bombardment Group for help. The pilots volunteered in the dark, knowing only that the mission was dangerous—and that Doolittle was leading the way. “The name ‘Doolittle’ meant so much to aviators that man, we just volunteered like crazy,” one pilot would say. “He was a real leader. The men loved him and respected him.”


The morning of the raid, April 18, began with rough seas and some bad news: Several Japanese patrol boats had been spotted. The mission had become a race against time. USS Hornet wasn’t quite close enough to Japan, but the B-25s needed to get in the air anyway.


Doolittle was the first to go. “[A] rough sea such as the one in front of us,” he later said, “could ruin a pilot’s day if he ignored the signals of the deck officer and tried a takeoff when the bow of the ship was heading into the waves. It was like riding a seesaw . . . .” One observer described what came next: “First bomber off the Hornet. Miraculous. The carrier is diving, deluging deck with white water. The big plane is just about catapulted as the ship lifts out of the sea.”


No one had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier with such a heavily loaded bomber—but Doolittle had just done it. An hour later, 16 planes were in the sky, headed toward Japan. They were strung out, single file, over the space of about 150 miles.


The bombers arrived at the Japanese mainland by mid-day. They would fly in, bomb their targets, then turn toward China. Japan had put up only a weak defense, but the crews were beginning to run into other problems: Inaccurate maps made targets hard to find. Mechanical problems, fuel shortages, and navigational glitches plagued the pilots. One plane was forced to divert to nearby Russia after its bombing run, but the other 15 crash landed near China’s coast.


Most of the aviators would escape into China and make their way home with the help of locals or missionaries, but three were killed during the crash landings. Eight more were captured by the Japanese. Three were executed, one was starved, and the rest were held as POWs. Meanwhile, the crew that landed in Russia was held for a year.


There had been other problems, too. The raiders had accidentally hit some non-military targets. Moreover, Japan was furious with China and launched a series of horrific raids against the Chinese in the months that followed.


Regardless, Japanese officials had been humiliated. They’d told their citizens that the homeland couldn’t be attacked. The Doolittle raiders had proven them wrong. Japan would retaliate by picking a fight at Midway.


That would prove to be a big mistake! Naturally, the Battle of Midway is a story for another day.


Primary Sources & Further Reading:

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