America and Britain were reeling back from months of repeated jackhammer blows in the Pacific Theater. Seemingly everywhere Japan attacked they scored a major victory or advance. In addition to victories at Pearl Harbor, Philippines, Burma, Singapore and other South Pacific locations the Japanese Navy currently had a carrier group marauding the Indian Ocean sinking British ships at will.
The first glimmer of hope for the Allies would come from the air.
It was a big idea, more of a wish really.
But the nearest airfield was much too far away.
Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the U.S. Army Airforce would come up with a visionary plan. (The U.S. Air Force as a separate branch of service would be created after World War II.)
The top secret solution was impossible at first glance. Launch B-25 bombers, designed for long land based runways, from a pitching, rolling aircraft carrier.
Normally the largest plane a carrier would launch would be small two man torpedo-bombers .
The B-25 was a five-man, two-engined plane that was so large, once they were airborne they could not return to the carrier. They would have to find a runway on land.
Each aircraft that failed on takeoff would kill five men in the Pacific Ocean.
The pilots had practiced short takeoffs in Florida and two trial takeoffs had been completed from the carrier Hornet in February off of the Virginia coast.
On paper the plan was the 16-ship navy task force would steam under radio silence to within 400-500 miles of Japanese homeland, launch the attack and immediately return to Hawaii. Sixteen aircraft would bomb six targets then fly to bases in China where the bombers would be given to the Chinese armed forces battling Japan.
The Soviet Union had refused permission to land claiming they did not want to incite war on a second front. They were pushed to the brink by German forces to their west and did not want to take on the Japanese
Seventy years ago weather went from moderately rough to worse. Rain squalls and heaving 30-foot seas blew heavy salt spray across the deck. After more than two weeks tied down to the metal aircraft carrier, compasses and gyroscopes needed to be re-calibrated.
To make matters worse the task force was spotted by Japanese radio-equipped picket boats 650 miles from the coast. This was 150 miles further out than planned. The aircraft had already been stripped of unnecessary weight and were lightly loaded. Even with the fuel economy training the crews had been given this would put the air crews dangerously far away.
Admiral Halsey flashed a message from his flagship to the carrier Hornet at 8:00 a.m.
LAUNCH PLANES X TO COL DOOLITTLE AND GALLANT COMMAND GOOD LUCK AND GOD BLESS YOU.
Army men went to their planes and Navy men worked pitching and heaving slick flight deck to prepare for launch.
In retrospect the material damage caused was slight and all 16 aircraft were lost, 15 in crash landings and the last was confiscated and the crew interned in the Soviet Union. The storm may have contributed a beneficial tail wind that allowed many of the fliers to reach the mainland despite Having over as much as 250 miles added to their flight distance.
Ironically the raiders dropped bombs as an air raid drill on the ground was in effect. Eight primary targets were struck as well as five secondary targets.
Eleven crewmen were killed or captured and three of the captured men were later executed by the Japanese.
As many as 250,000 Chinese civilians were massacred by the Japanese Army for assisting the American aviators in their escape.
At first the mission designer and commander judged the effort a failure and feared he would be court martialed.
In fact Dolittle would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and be promoted two grades to Brigadier General. All the flyers would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The importance of the raid would be psychological but would have tangible consequences.
As James Doolittle wrote (with Carrol V. Glines) in book “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again”
“America was in it’s darkest hour.”
“The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable. Their leaders had told them Japan could never be invaded…An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders.”
American morale got its first real lift, a blow had been struck upon Japanese home soil, including the capitol city Tokyo. Japanese leaders lost face, the promise that there would be no home consequences to attacking America were proven false. The Japanese carrier group that had been sinking British shipping in the Indian Ocean as far away as Sri Lanka (Ceylon) were recalled.
A Japanese counter strike at the American outpost of Midway would soon be hastily planned.
Initial reports came to the newspapers via Japanese radio broadcasts. This accounts for the same day coverage. The War Department did not officially confirm these reports but it seemed clear that reporters had been told that there was some truth in the propaganda broadcasts though there was a lot of mis-information as well. The War Department did not reveal details of the mission but did squelch false Axis propaganda claims. Joe Alex Morris, United Press Foreign Editor was told that the claim that the carrier Yorktown was involved and sunk was false. Also strongly discounted was the report that B-17 bombers from China were the cause. The war of information was a part of the overall picture and it was becoming clear that America had struck a blow and the Axis powers were confused and fishing for details.
As of this writing five of the airmen survive, four attended a reunion at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Seventy years ago they were closer to the enemy capitol than home.