Tell us the Secrets: What We Don't Know About the Famous "Doolittle Raid"

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Tell us the Secrets: What We Don't Know About the Famous "Doolittle Raid"

Some 70 years later, Jimmy Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo still mystifies.

April 18, 1942, will forever live in American military glory as the date of the Jimmy Doolittle Raid on Tokyo––a gutsy, never-before-attempted combat mission to fly North American B-25 Mitchell bombers off the deck of an aircraft carrier and attack an enemy capital.

Although the damage from the bombing of Japanese targets was a blip on the screen compared to the devastation that Japan delivered to Pearl Harbor, this American retaliatory action shattered the island nation’s inscrutable veneer and reminded the Japanese that they, too, were vulnerable. Although it came so early in the war, the raid launched the beginning of the Land of the Rising Sun’s downward spiral and eventual defeat in World War II.

The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo was America’s first joint action with the Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy. This groundbreaking mission shipped 16 B-25B Mitchell land-based bombers and their five-man crews aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to within 500 miles of the Japanese coastline. The mission climaxed with the planes bombing Tokyo and other industrial centers. The leader of the improbable raid was the legendary aviator and World War I pilot Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle.

Because the success of the raid depended entirely on the element of surprise, there was a code of silence so widespread that paper trails were often nonexistent and information cryptic. Two days after the raid, the U.S. War Department reported the mission to America but not its staging point. President Franklin Roosevelt maintained this clandestine air by coyly saying the pilots had taken off from “Shangri la,” in reference to English author James Hilton’s 1933 best-selling book, Lost Horizon. The raid began and ended in secrecy and, some 70 years later, the secrecy still flies high––the mysteries of the Jimmy Doolittle Raid remain.

The Mystery of Plane 8

The eighth plane to take off from Hornet was the only B-25 that became mired in controversy due to its inauspicious landing in Russia and the aftermath. Although all 16 of the planes were low on fuel due to the forced premature launch from the carrier, all 15 headed for China after dropping their bombs. Plane 8 broke ranks and landed in Vladivostok, Russia. An air of complicity that the landing was “ordered” has tailed the plane and crew ever since.

There were many questions that plagued Lieutenant Nolan A. Herndon, the bombardier-navigator on Plane 8 who, along with pilot Captain Edward J. “Ski” York, co-pilot Lieutenant Robert G. Emmens, and two other crewmen, was interned for 13 months in Russia after the unauthorized landing. Herndon felt that the true reason for the detour was to test Russia’s wartime allegiance and find out if their plane would be permitted to refuel and continue to China, and also to collect information about Russia’s airfield for use in possible future attacks on Japan. Herndon believed that both Emmens and York were privy to the flight’s surreptitious purpose.

While the defining document instructing Plane 8 “off course” remains elusive, there is a significant black-and-white paper trail that leads to Russia’s landing fields. The very last line in Doolittle’s February 1942 feasibility report to General “Hap” Arnold states, “Should the Russians be willing to accept delivery of 18 B-25-B airplanes, on lease lend, at Vladivostok our problems should be greatly simplified.…” Vladivostok was some 600 miles from Japan, while China’s fields were double that distance, hence Russia’s cooperation would have simplified  matters.

The United States had its eye on Russian soil for the post-bombing landing as evidenced by Doolittle’s report and the Lend-Lease Program enacted on March 11, 1941, which provided billions of dollars of war matériel to the Allied nations including the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet Union wanted to keep its distance from the United States, so the mission went forward without Russia’s cooperation and the 15 courageous crews either bailed out over or crash landed in China due to low fuel, except for one.

Debriefing papers that were filed following the raid by Plane 8’s pilot, Captain York, fueled Herndon’s suspicions. York reported low fuel as his only reason for flying to the Soviet Union and also provided significant information about the airfields around Vladivostok. “In the later years of the war, 250 U.S. pilots flying B-17s from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands would seek refuge in the Soviet Union,” he wrote.

Jimmy Doolittle’s Raiders official website corroborated other events with its own repository of military reports and records from the raid. A rather incriminating disclosure revealed that Herndon once asked Doolittle about the flight to the Soviet Union and received this cryptic answer: “I’ll tell you one thing, Herndon: I didn’t send you there.” Doolittle’s rather sideways response spoke volumes. If he didn’t send him there, then did someone else? And, if so, who?

There were also skeptics within the ranks of the raiders. A 2007 Los Angeles Times article reported that Tom Casey, manager of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders organization, called Herndon’s story a “mystery” that “military officials never would confirm or deny,” while Carroll V. Glines, the raiders’ historian who has written three books on the subject and co-wrote Doolittle’s autobiography, said, “All I know is, Nolan was there, and I wasn’t, but I could never find any clues to confirm that it happened that way.”

Although Herndon was mostly a lone voice of dissent over the years, Plane 9’s navigator, Lieutenant Thomas C. Griffin, shared his view. In notes from a 2007 roundtable discussion, Griffin recounted seeing York at a raider reunion in which “Ed was just as evasive then as he was when Davey [Jones] and I ran across him in Washington prior to the raid.” Later on, Griffin said, “I guess we will never find out if the State Department or the Secret Service set up ‘Ski’ York for a special secret mission. It is my belief that his clandestine mission instructions were never put in writing.”

Some 50 years later, Plane 8’s co-pilot, Lieutenant Robert G. Emmens, opened up about the controversial flight and the questionable conditions of his crew’s formation in a letter to a friend in 1989. “Ours was sort of a bastard crew made up of guys left over at Eglin [Air Force Base, Florida] flying on the B-25 that was a last-minute substitute for the one that bellied in the last day of training at Eglin. We formed as a crew after all the rest of the planes had left Eglin for the West Coast. We had never flown together before and had never made a practice take-off before the real one we made off the Hornet.”

Emmens’s admission that Plane 8’s crew formed at the 11th hour leaves the door wide open for speculation as to why this plane was ever called into action. There were 24 crews (though only 16 would fly the mission) that spent three weeks at Eglin training and honing the critical carrier take-off skills––except for Plane 8’s crew. All the planes had their carburetors carefully adjusted at Eglin to fly the 2,000-mile mission without refueling––except for Plane 8. So, why were an untrained crew and unadjusted plane called into service when there were already modified planes and trained crews at the ready?

Maybe someday those instructions for Plane 8’s “AWOL” flight will surface, which might also explain why York and Emmens just happened to start speaking fluent Russian when the plane touched down in Vladivostok. Until those papers surface, however, the true story of Plane 8 remains up in the air.

The Mystery of the Long Beach Flight

A secret B-25 flight from Long Beach, California, to Gary, Indiana, that tested the bomber’s maximum range was then—and still is—completely off the radar screen. In January 1942, when the top-secret raid was on the planning table, it remained to be seen if a land-based bomber could take off from an aircraft carrier and go the distance. On February 2, 1942, the well-known Norfolk, Virginia, test flight off the Hornet proved that the B-25s could get in the air. Then, sometime later that month, the distance was put to the test with the mysterious Long Beach flight.

The only known story about this flight appeared 61 years later in the Fall 2003 (September) publication of the Jimmy Doolittle Air & Space Museum Foundation NEWS at Travis Air Force Base in California. In Fernando Silva’s article, “Behind the Scenes of the Doolittle Raid,” he explains that in February 1942 his father’s crew (separate from Doolittle’s men and planes) was instructed to fly a B-25 “configured to carry a dummy bomb load of 2,000 pounds” from the Long Beach Airport (then a USAAF Air Transport Command Base) to Gary, Indiana, near Chicago, while another crew flew a separate mission to Canada.

According to Silva’s article, the flight’s purpose was “to determine the maximum range that could be squeezed from every drop of gas by setting the correct throttle, prop pitch and mixing the controls … raw data was then turned over to North American Aviation’s engineers.” Since the B-25s used in the raid were manufactured in Inglewood, California, about 15 miles from Long Beach, that would have given the test flight access to an unmodified B-25 for the 1,700-mile flight to Gary, which approximated the raid’s greatest distance.