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This Day in History: Americans' critical effort over the skies of Tokyo

On this day in 1944, a United States Army Air Forces crew conducts a solitary reconnaissance mission over the skies of Tokyo. It was the first time an American crew had flown over the Japanese mainland since Jimmy Doolittle’s raid in April 1942.

The story of Captain Ralph D. Steakley and his crew is nearly lost to history, yet it was critical to the Allied effort in the Pacific.

The crew of Tokyo Rose after the men received their medals.

These brave men had no idea what they were flying into.

Steakley and his men left Saipan early on November 1, flying for hours before they entered Japanese airspace. “We did not know what to expect,” Steakley said, “and we were excited.” Crew members knew they’d arrived at Tokyo when they saw the snow-capped Mount Fuji.

“We settled down soon because we had work to do,” Steakley concluded.

The men were flying in a Boeing F-13A Reconnaissance Superfortress. It was flying high at 32,000 feet as the crew snapped pictures of the areas in and around Tokyo—especially the industrial areas.

The Japanese were presumably taken off guard, but they scrambled fighters. These particular planes were fast and they could climb quickly, but there was a limit to how high they could go. Once they got too high, the aircraft effectively floated more than they flew. It made them less maneuverable at high altitudes and less of a threat to the American crew. Down on the ground in Tokyo, antiaircraft batteries likewise fired with little to no effect.

Unsurprisingly, the activities of the American plane created havoc on the ground.

“Japanese radio announcers,” American newspapers later reported, “screamed frantically that U.S. planes were over the city, then added as a face-saving afterthought that ‘an American plane fled before our attack.’”

Japanese officials surely knew that a single plane flying over their city was a dangerous omen, even if they wouldn’t say so in front of their citizens.

“[The mission] was no picnic,” the crew agreed, “but worth every bit of a few anxious moments when we heard the Jap radio announcers holler . . . .” The crew soon named their bomber Tokyo Rose, after the radio broadcasters who’d spread so much propaganda in Japan.

Tokyo Rose’s crew returned with 7,000 photos. They were “amazingly clear pictures,” American newspapers reported, and they “outlined Tokyo and environs like a diagram.”

Allied forces had the information they needed. Just three weeks later, they began a sustained strategic bombing campaign—and the American people finally learned about the reconnaissance mission.

"So far as is known, these were the first non-Japanese airphotos ever to show the imperial palace,” one newspaper reported. “Any foreigner looking down on the palace, according to Japanese custom, is subject to death. Tokyo residents will shortly become accustomed to going to their air raid shelter in the palace grounds while SuperForts are overhead.”

The effort had proven valuable, and Steakley received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his “major contribution to the success of the war against Japan.” Navigator Claude K. Stambaugh received an Oak leaf cluster to an Air medal, and the rest of the crew received Air Medals.

Perhaps it’s a good day to remember the lesser-known heroes of the Greatest Generation.

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