During the 1920s, U.S. Army Air Service commander Brig. Gen. William C. “Billy” Mitchell drove himself into an early grave while frantically trying to convince the ground-bound generals of the U.S. Army that the airplane was the weapon of the future.
Mitchell’s efforts reached the point of insubordination, for which he was court-martialed in the fall of 1925 and suspended from further service for five years. The verdict led Mitchell to resign from the Army, and he soon succumbed to the ill health his battle had earned for him. But his name would live on in the tactics he had advocated and in the bomber that was named in his honor.
In 1939, the U.S. Army Air Corps put in an order for new class of “medium” bomber that would fall between the light bomber, as represented by the Douglas B-18, and the heavy bomber, which was symbolized by Boeing’s famous B-17 Flying Fortress. The proposal called for a twin-engine plane capable of flying 300 mph, carrying a 3,000-pound bomb load, and having a 2000-mile range.
Four aircraft manufacturers designed and built airplanes for the role, and the Army decided to accept both Martin and North American’s types, with the Martin designated as the B-26 and the North American as the B-25. North American executive Lee Atwood suggested that the company’s new bomber be called the “Billy Mitchell” in honor of the controversial general.
Doolittle Sought Experienced B-25 Pilots for a Secret Mission
The first B-25s were delivered to the 17th Bombardment Group at McChord Field outside of Tacoma, Wash., in 1941. The War Department also approved the sale of several Mitchells to the Dutch government-in-exile for service with the Netherlands East Indies Air Force in Southeast Asia, but deliveries had yet to commence when war came. When the United States entered the war, the 17th Bombardment Group was the only operational B-25 group; the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron was also equipped with Mitchells, as was the 39th Bombardment Squadron, which flew them on antisubmarine patrol on the East Coast with the 13th Bombardment Group.
Having moved to Portland, Oreg., from Tacoma, the 17th’s squadrons were put to work patrolling the South Pacific Coast for several weeks. In February, the group moved across the country to Columbia, SC, to join the new Eighth Air Force, which was being formed to support the planned invasion of North Africa. They soon had a visit from Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, who had been assigned to a special project by Army Air Corps commander General Henry H. Arnold. Doolittle was looking for experienced B-25 pilots to volunteer for a secret mission.
Doolittle stated in his autobiography that his project was one of several that were planned for a buildup of American air power on the Chinese mainland. The War Department planned to establish a heavy bomber group equipped with Consolidated Aircraft B-24 Liberators, a fighter group equipped with Curtiss P-40s, a transport group equipped with Douglas Aircraft C-47s, and a medium bomber group of B-25s in China. Arnold chose to have one squadron of B-25s delivered to China by aircraft carrier, with an en route flyover of the Japanese main island on the way, in response to a White House request for a mission to bomb Tokyo.
As the project officer, it was Doolittle’s task to organize the mission, determine the proper aircraft, find and train the crews, then coordinate their movement to the West Coast. He was not the commander, nor was he supposed to go on the mission. Launching the mission from an aircraft carrier limited the choice of bombers to just two: Martin’s B-26 and North American’s B-25. Doolittle decided to use Mitchells. After recruiting enough crews from the 17th Bombardment Group and the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron, Doolittle put them through a short training program at Eglin Field, Fla., where they learned to take off in the shortest possible distance.
On April 1, 1942, the 16 B-25s were loaded on board the carrier USS Hornet at Alameda, Calif. Doolittle had managed to get a semblance of permission from General Arnold to lead the mission himself. Eighteen days later, he and his men flew into the pages of history.
None of the B-25s Were Lost in Enemy Space
In a military sense, the Doolittle Raid was a failure. The small task force of which he and his crews were the centerpiece was detected while Hornet was still 150 miles short of the intended takeoff point. The B-25s were launched on a contingency plan to save the carrier– to clear the flight deck so its fighters could be positioned for launch to defend against attack. Doolittle and the Navy had agreed to sacrifice the bombers in the event the task force was detected by the Japanese. With the task force having been spotted, the mission had been compromised and the airplanes were sent out with the crews knowing it was unlikely that they would reach China.
Although the B-25s managed to achieve the element of surprise, the military effectiveness of the raid was minor, even though all of the B-25s bombed successfully, reportedly on military targets, and none were lost in enemy airspace. One crew reported hitting the Japanese carrier Ryuso, which was resting in dry dock at Yokosuka Naval Base.
The Tokyo Raiders were blessed with a fortuitous east wind that allowed them to cover the distance across the East China Sea to the vicinity of Chuchow, where they were supposed to land. Without the wind, it they might not have reached land at all. When they reached the Chinese coast, however, their luck ran out—darkness had fallen and low clouds and rain shrouded the region. Furthermore, the raiders were two days early and the Chinese had not been alerted to expect them, in part due to the secrecy surrounding the mission.
The airfields where they were supposed to land had not been illuminated so the bomber pilots could find them. Confronted by miserable conditions and unable to locate the landing strips, some crews elected to take to their parachutes, while a few others decided to take their chances with emergency landings. Although all of the crew members but one survived the bailouts and crash-landings, not a single airplane arrived in China intact.
One crew ended up in Russia, and two crews came to earth in Japanese-held territory. They were captured and put on trial as war criminals. Three men were executed, but four finished the war as POWs. One, former Corporal Jake DeShazer, returned to Japan after the war as a Baptist missionary. A Baptist missionary already in China, a young man named John Birch, guided Doolittle and his crew—as well as several other raiders—to safety.
Doolittle recommended the young man to General Claire Chennault. Captain John Birch would become a hero of the war in China for his efforts as an intelligence officer operating deep inside enemy territory. One of his responsibilities was directing B-25s against targets deep inside Japanese-held parts of the country.
Doolittle’s Medal of Honor
Doolittle believed that the mission was a failure. He knew the importance of the B-25s to the war in China and how their loss would delay Allied efforts in the region. As it was, the first intact B-25s did not arrive in the China-Burma-India Theater until September. He fully expected to be subjected to a court-martial when he returned to Allied control. Instead, he was welcomed as a hero and awarded the coveted Medal of Honor, which he did not believe he deserved.
The Chinese who had provided sanctuary for Doolittle and his men were not so lucky. The Japanese went on an offensive to capture all territory from which bombers could attack Japan, including the region around Chuchow. In the process, they killed a quarter-million Chinese. They also undertook the task of building a defense against future air attack, a military element that had previously been lacking in Japan because of the distances involved in striking the islands. Japan also increased its offensive operations in the Southwest Pacific, moving farther southward in the Solomons and along the shores of New Guinea toward Australia.
The mission was a success as far as the White House was concerned. Newspapers trumpeted the news that Tokyo had been bombed, thus bringing a lift in morale to the American public and helping guarantee President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reelection to an unprecedented third term in November.
The takeoff from the carrier Hornet for the raid on Japan was not the first time a B-25 had flown off of the decks of a carrier, nor for that matter was it the first from Hornet. In early 1942, right after the 39th Bombardment Squadron switched from B-18s to B-25s, three squadron crews took three airplanes to the naval airfield at Norfolk, Va., to test their airplane’s short-field takeoff and landing capabilities.