Doolittle’s Raiders: The Men Who Got Payback on Japan After Pearl Harbor

July 16, 2021 Topic: World War II Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Doolittle RaidPearl HarborJapanWorld War IIHistory

Doolittle’s Raiders: The Men Who Got Payback on Japan After Pearl Harbor

Just four months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States mounted an audacious air raid on the enemy capital, signaling a portent of things to come.

Launched in 1940 as the second ship of the Enterprise-class of aircraft carriers, the USS Hornet displaced 20,000 tons, had space for up to 100 fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers, and had of crew of slightly more than 2,000 officers and men. Normally the ship’s power lay in the average 80-85 planes it carried. But now, with all its own aircraft stowed away below decks and its deck crammed with Army bombers, the Hornet was defenseless. To protect the mission and the carrier, it would sail as a part of Task Force 16.2 under the command of Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, Jr.

Task Force 16.2 included the carrier USS Enterprise (commanded by Captain George D. Murray, USN), a group of four cruisers under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, and two destroyer divisions under the command of Captain Richard L. Connolly, commander of Destroyer Squadron 6 (Desron 6). Two Navy oilers under Commander Houston L. Maples would accompany the task force part of the way to provide sufficient fuel for the return journey. The Hornet joined with Task Force 16.2 between Midway and the Aleutians on the morning of April 16.

By the next day, TF 16.2 had sailed to within a thousand miles of Tokyo and refueled from the two oilers before leaving the oilers and destroyers behind and racing toward Japan. Unknown to Doolittle, bad weather in China had prevented the fields in China, on which he expected to land and refuel, from being readied for his arrival. 

It had already been calculated that to reach the Chinese airfields after the bombing of Japan, the B-25Bs would have to take off from the Hornet within 500 miles of the Japanese coast. Admiral Halsey had planned to launch a night attack at that distance on April 18. Thirteen planes would strike Tokyo, three others Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. Doolittle’s plane would lead and drop incendiaries on Tokyo to light the way for the following planes.

“To Col. Doolittle and Gallant Command, Good Luck and God Bless You.”

Most of the planes carried a small payload: three 500-pound bombs and one incendiary; Doolittle’s plane carried four of the firebombs. Even if they reached and successfully bombed their targets, the expected damage would be minimal. But the morale boost it would give the American people—and the shock to the Japanese who thought they were invulnerable—would be enormous.

The Japanese, however, had thrown a monkey wrench into the works. Unknown to the Americans, they had established a picket line of small craft well east of their own coastline. In the darkness of the morning of April 18, the radar aboard the leading ships indicated contacts ahead, some 700 miles from the enemy coast. TF 16.2 altered course to avoid the contact.

As dawn broke, the Enterprise launched scout planes to search ahead of the task force. Shortly before 6 am, they spotted a picket boat and reported that they thought they had also been seen by the Japanese. Soon after, another vessel was sighted, and Japanese radio signals were picked up, indicating that the task force’s presence was being reported to Japan.

The USS Nashville, one of the cruisers, sank the picket boat (and picked up survivors), but the cat was out of the bag. With surprise lost, Admiral Halsey had two choices. He could launch the planes knowing that they were 150 miles short of gaining the Chinese airfields, or he could turn back. After conferring with Doolittle, the decision was made to launch the Army bombers then and there.

He sent a message to Doolittle: “Launch planes. To Col. Doolittle and gallant command, good luck and God bless you.”

The Raiders Approach Tokyo

At 8:03 am, the Hornet’s skipper swung her into the wind and the first plane, piloted by Doolittle, took off some 623 miles from the Japanese coast and 668 miles from Tokyo. There was a strong wind and the sea was rough, causing many observers to fear that the planes would never make the takeoff. It was a close call but all 16 aircraft did make successful liftoffs, at three-minute intervals, helped by the Hornet’s 20-knot speed and headwinds blowing at another 30 knots. 

What was supposed to be a clandestine night strike made within a specified flight distance was now a daylight strike against an alerted enemy with little hope of landing safely at the end of the mission. The last aircraft lifted off at 8:54 am, and a moment later, Mitscher changed the Hornet’s course for home. The 80 Doolittle Raiders were on their own.

As planned, the aircraft flew low over the Pacific, averaging barely 200 feet above the waves. The pilots and co-pilots took turns at the controls while the gunners closely watched the fuel gauges, filling up the third tank as necessary. Fuel consumption was on everyone’s mind, as they understood they did not have enough to reach the designated Chinese airfields. Ditching at sea or crash landing were the only available options.

During the flight, some of the crews flew over or near Japanese warships and Doolittle’s plane “flew directly under an enemy flying boat that just loomed at us suddenly out of the mist.” None of the Japanese encountered seemed to take any notice.

Once across the enemy coast, the pilots turned toward their individual targets. Again, many enemy aircraft were sighted, but none seemed to spot them. Nor was there any antiaircraft fire against the intruders. One reason was because Tokyo was, fortuitously, in the midst of an air-raid drill, and both civilians and the military believed the American aircraft were Japanese and part of the drill.

The other reason was the supreme confidence of the Japanese military hierarchy, which simply could not conceive of the despised Americans daring to attack Japan itself. Still, with the warnings provided by the picket boats, the Japanese 26th Air Flotilla, charged with guarding the eastern air and sea approaches to the home islands, was on full alert. Warships were also manned and prepared for any attack. Oddly, though, Tokyo did not alert the eight million residents that an attacking force was on its way.

The Tokyo-bound flight was roaring over the landscape at treetop level. Several Japanese warplanes flew by in the opposite direction, never breaking formation or giving any indication they knew the Americans were there. Dick Cole, Doolittle’s co-pilot, later wrote, “The people on the ground waved to us and it seemed everyone was playing baseball.”

As he approached his target from the north, Doolittle lifted his plane to 1,200 feet and prepared to drop his bombs. Doolittle’s incendiaries, probably the first ever dropped on Tokyo, struck at 12:30 pm, Tokyo time. Each bomb held 128 four-pound bomblets that were designed to spread out over a wide area. 

Once his bombs were away, Doolittle descended again to minimum height and headed for the sea. Despite the desires of his men, Doolittle had strictly forbidden any bombing of the Imperial Palace and any strafing with machine guns, fearing the repercussions should any of his men be captured.

As bombing raids go, this one was negligible in terms of death and destruction. Only about 50 homes and stores (as well as two schools and a hospital) were set on fire by the bombs from Doolittle’s plane. Two civilians died and 19 were wounded. Thirty-one unexploded bomblets were later found and recovered.

As Doolittle headed west and then south, away from the flaming structures below, antiaircraft fire rose up to pepper the sky; the planes in Doolittle’s wake had to brave the munitions coming up at them.

The high-explosive bombs the other Raiders dropped did far more damage than did Doolittle’s incendiaries. More buildings—including several steelworks—were hit and more civilians died. Japanese fighters were now up and chasing the later bombers, which barely escaped getting shot down.

The escape was much more difficult than the attack had been. Some planes, including Doolittle’s, ran into strong headwinds that further reduced the range of the planes and their limited gasoline supply. Others hit bad weather, which had the same consequences. But all 16 aircraft successfully bombed their targets and left Japanese air space, some with opposition from antiaircraft guns and fighters, others without any opposition at all. 

What Happened to Doolittle’s Raiders After the Bombing Run

The planes flew toward China. Each was searching for some signal that there was a field prepared for them to land. None found any. Eventually 15 of the planes were forced to crash land; other crews had to parachute to safety.

Doolittle’s plane (40-2344) flew on until it was flying on fumes. Rather than crash land in the darkness in unfamiliar terrain, Doolittle and the crew decided to parachute to safety. They had been flying for 13 hours and had no idea of where they were or if the territory below was in friendly or enemy hands. 

Doolittle remembered, “This was my third parachute jump to save my hide. It was impossible to see anything below, so all I could do was wait until I hit the ground. My concern as I floated down was about my ankles, which had been broken in South America in 1926. Anticipating a sudden encounter with the ground, I bent my knees to take the shock. When I hit, there wasn’t much impact. I had landed in a rice paddy and fallen into a sitting position in a not-too-fragrant mixture of water and ‘night soil.’”