North American B-25 Mitchell

The Doolittle Raid

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The Doolittle Raid - The B-25's

The Doolittle Raid - The crew

The April 1942 air attack on Japan, launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet and led by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, was the most daring operation yet undertaken by the United States in the young Pacific War. Though conceived as a diversion that would also boost American and allied morale, the raid generated strategic benefits that far outweighed its limited goals.

The raid had its roots in a chance observation that it was possible to launch Army twin-engined bombers from an aircraft carrier, making feasible an early air attack on Japan. Appraised of the idea in January 1942, U.S. Fleet commander Admiral Ernest J. King and Air Forces leader General Henry H. Arnold greeted it with enthusiasm. Arnold assigned the technically-astute Doolittle to organize and lead a suitable air group. The modern, but relatively well-tested B-25B "Mitchell" medium bomber was selected as the delivery vehicle and tests showed that it could fly off a carrier with a useful bomb load and enough fuel to hit Japan and continue on to airfields in China.

Gathering volunteer air crews for an unspecified, but admittedly dangerous mission, Doolittle embarked on a vigourous program of special training for his men and modifications to their planes. The new carrier Hornet was sent to the Pacific to undertake the Navy's part of the mission. So secret was the operation that her Commanding Officer, Captain Marc A. Mitscher, had no idea of his ship's upcoming employment until shortly before sixteen B-25s were loaded on her flight deck. On 2 April 1942 Hornet put to sea and headed west across the vast Pacific.

Joined in mid-ocean on 13 April by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey's flagship Enterprise, which would provide air cover during the approach, Hornet steamed toward a planned 18 April afternoon launching point some 400 miles from Japan. However, before dawn on 18 April, enemy picket boats were encountered much further east than expected. These were evaded or sunk, but got off radio warnings, forcing the planes to take off around 8 AM, while still more than 600 miles out.

Most of the sixteen B-25s, each with a five-man crew, attacked the Tokyo area, with a few hitting Nagoya. Damage to the intended military targets was modest, and none of the planes reached the Chinese airfields (though all but a few of their crewmen survived). However, the Japanese high command was deeply embarrassed. Three of the eight American airmen they had captured were executed. Spurred by Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, they also resolved to eliminate the risk of any more such raids by the early destruction of America's aircraft carriers, a decision that led them to disaster at the Battle of Midway a month and a half later.

USS Hornet (CV-8), 1941-1942
Overview and Special Image Selection

USS Hornet, a 19,800 ton Yorktown class aircraft carrier, was constructed at Newport News, Virginia. Commissioned in October 1941, she spent the next four months shaking down in the Atlantic. Transferred to the Pacific in March 1942, Hornet was immediately employed on the Doolittle raid. On 18 April 1942, she launched 16 Army B-25 bombers to attack Japan, a strike that caused relatively little damage, but which had enormous strategic implications.

Hornet was then sent to the South Pacific to reinforce U.S. units there following the Battle of Coral Sea, but was recalled to Pearl Harbor in mid-May. She then took part in the Battle of Midway, on 4-6 June, during which her planes shared in the sinking of the Japanese cruiser Mikuma.

In August 1942, Hornet returned to the South Pacific to join in the fight for Guadalcanal. During much of September and October, she was the only operational U.S. aircraft carrier available to oppose the Japanese in that area. On 26 October 1942, during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, her planes attacked and badly damaged the Japanese carrier Shokaku. In return, however, Hornet received heavy bomb and torpedo damage, necessitating her abandonment. Though accompanying U.S. destroyers attempted to scuttle her, she remained afloat until torpedoed and sunk by Japanese ships early in the morning of 27 October.

B-25's on board USS Hornet

The sixteen bombers employed on the Doolittle Raid were all B-25B models, third production version of North American Aviation's B-25 "Mitchell" medium bomber design. Delivered in 1941, these aircraft were stripped of some of their defensive guns and given extra fuel tanks to extend their range. Two wooden dowels were placed in each plane's plastic tail cone, simulating extra machine guns that might hopefully persuade enemy fighters to keep their distance. Each B-25 carried four 500-pound bombs on the mission. One bomb was decorated with Japanese medals, donated by Navy Lieutenant Stephen Jurika, who had received them during pre-war naval attaché service and now wished to pointedly return them to a hostile government.

The planes were parked on USS Hornet's flight deck in the order they were to leave. There was no room to rearrange them, and their long, non-folding wings made it impossible to send them below. During the two week's outward passage, planes received regular maintenance and engine testing to ensure they would be ready. The leading bomber, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle, had but a few hundred feet of deck run to reach flying speed, but every subsequent one had a little more. Each was helped off a Navy launching officer, who timed the start of each B-25's take-off roll to ensure that it reached the forward end of the flight deck as the ship pitched up in the heavy seas, thus giving extra lift at a critical instant.