At noon on April 18, 1942, the citizens of Tokyo looked up into the sky and saw the impossible.
Zooming low over the imperial capital was a flight of twin-engined bombers. Nothing surprising about that in wartime Japan. Except that these aircraft were painted olive-drab, with red-white-and-blue stars on their wings and fuselage.
They were American planes dropping bombs on the sacred soil of Japan. As the crump of explosions and the drone of aircraft motors faded, and the air raid sirens belatedly wailed, Tokyoites asked themselves a fateful question:
What just happened?
The Doolittle Raid seventy-five years ago was more than one of history’s most momentous air attacks. It was also one of the most economical. The Allies dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Germany, and the United States dropped seven million tons on Vietnam. And still the Nazis and the Communists continued to fight. Yet sixteen B-25 bombers carrying perhaps sixteen tons of bombs managed to change the course of history.
It was a stunning reversal. In war, momentum is everything, and Japan was the one that had it in the early spring of 1942. Within four months, they had decimated the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, conquered Southeast Asia, the oil-rich Dutch East Indies and the islands of the Central Pacific, and were about to compel the last battered U.S. defenders in the Philippines to surrender.
America needed to reverse the momentum with a victory— any kind of victory—to bolster morale and take back the initiative. President Roosevelt had the right idea: days after Pearl Harbor, he called for the Japanese homeland to be bombed in retaliation. But how? Not with heavy bombers like the B-17, because with the air bases in the Philippines gone, land-based planes were out of range. Carrier-based aircraft? U.S. Navy carrier planes had a combat range of perhaps 250 miles, and the Navy didn’t dare sail its handful of precious carriers that close to Japan.
Then a Navy officer had a bright idea: was it possible for U.S. Army Air Force land-based bombers, with much longer range than carrier planes, to be launched off an aircraft carrier sailing near Japan? It turned out that the new twin-engined B-25B Mitchell medium bomber could perform the mission.
The problem was that while the B-25s could take off from a carrier, they couldn’t land. Which meant that they had return to an airfield on the ground. In effect, these bombers would be a sort of manned cruise missile launched on a one-way mission.
By stripping them down and overloading them with fuel, America could fly the B-25s from a carrier several hundred miles off Japan, bomb their targets, and then continue on to land on airfields in China. Again consider the audacity of the concept. It’s as if a U.S. aircraft carrier sailed into the Baltic, and launched F-15E strike jets for a strike on Moscow, after which the Eagles would have to fly across Russia to land in Turkey.
Onto the carrier USS Hornet were loaded sixteen B-25s under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle. The Hornet was accompanied by the carrier Enterprise, four cruisers and eight destroyers under the command of the legendary Admiral “Bull” Halsey. The small force sailed from Hawaii and then west across the Central Pacific toward Japan. With the Hornet’s flight deck packed with B-25s, that left only the Enterprise’s fighters and bombers to provide air cover. Had the task force run into Japan’s Combined Fleet—especially the six carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor—the battle would have been short rather than merciful.
Luck was with the Americans—at first—as they sailed from Hawaii. The intrepid force remained undiscovered until April 18, when it was about 650 miles from Japan. Then it ran into the Nitto Maru , one of the little fishing boats that Japan had stationed as cheap picket ships. The boat was quickly sunk by gunfire (its captain committed suicide, though five of the eleven crew were rescued), but not before getting off a signal. Japanese naval forces immediately sortied from Japan, while the carriers from the Pearl Harbor raid—already en route from the Indian Ocean to Japanese waters—headed toward the area.
But knowing the short range of American carrier aircraft, the Japanese assumed that the U.S. task force would not be within range of Japan until the following day, April 19, which would allow ample time for interception. Aware from radio monitoring that their presence had been discovered, the Americans decided to launch the raid from nearly two hundred miles further out than planned. Between eight and nine a.m. on April 18, sixteen Mitchells lurched off the Hornet’s deck.
They arrived at about noon over Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya, Osaka, Yokohama and Yokosuka. Had they run into real fighter opposition, the bombers would have been wiped out. But Japanese air defenses that day were astoundingly lethargic; antiaircraft fire was negligible, and the few lightly armed Ki-27 “Nate” fighters that did manage to take off either failed to intercept or did little damage (the bombers actually shot down three fighters). Tokyo’s air-raid sirens didn’t even blare until after the attack was over.