They were called Doolittle’s Raiders. It was a raid planned in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was an intrepid plan staffed with all brave volunteers on a one-way trip to bomb Tokyo and then try to bail out or crash land in China.
The mission consisted of 16 modified B-25 bombers with nicknames like “Whiskey Pete,” “Ruptured Duck,” “Whirling Dervish,” “Hari-Kari-er,” “Fickle Finger,” and “The Avenger,” loaded onto the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) and headed deep into enemy territory in the Pacific.
Their crews had never before taken off from a real aircraft carrier, just practicing simulated take-offs from Eglin Field, Florida runways with the outline of a carrier deck painted on the tarmac.
They had no fighter escorts, and their modified B-25s had been stripped of several defensive gun turrets to allow for increased bomb loads and additional fuel tanks for twice their normal capacity for the extended mission of 2,400 miles. They were flying virtually defenseless deep into enemy territory and they knew it was a one-way trip…. no B-25 had ever landed on an aircraft carrier.
The Doolittle Raid on Saturday, April 18, 1942, was a daring air raid by the United States on the Japanese capital Tokyo and other places on the island of Honshu, the first air strike to attack the Japanese home islands in World War II.
On the morning of the raid, the carrier Hornet was spotted by a Japanese picket ship, so the launch was made 10 hours earlier than planned and 200 miles further from Tokyo. With Doolittle piloting the first B-25 off the carrier, all 16 bombers successfully launched for the six-hour flight to their targets.
The aircraft began arriving over Japan about noon Tokyo time on April 18, and successfully bombed 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. Although some B-25s encountered light antiaircraft fire and a few enemy fighters over Japan, no bomber was shot down.
Bombing mission complete, the raiders then proceeded southwest off the coast of Japan and across the East China Sea toward eastern China. (One B-25, extremely low on fuel, headed instead for the Soviet Union rather than be forced to ditch in the middle of the East China Sea.)
The raiders faced several daunting, unforeseen challenges during their flight to China: night was approaching, the aircraft were running low on fuel, and the weather was rapidly deteriorating. The crews realized they would probably not be able to reach their intended bases in China, leaving them the option of either bailing out over eastern China or crash-landing along the Chinese coast.
Miraculously, all fifteen aircraft reached the Chinese coast after an exhausting 13 hours of flight and crash-landed or the crews bailed out. The sixteenth B-25 flew to the Soviet Union where the aircraft was confiscated and its crew interned.
Most of the B-25 crews that reached China eventually achieved safety with the help of Chinese civilians and soldiers. Of the sixteen planes and 80 airmen who participated in the raid, all either crash-landed, were ditched, or crashed after their crews bailed out.
Despite the loss of these fifteen aircraft, 69 airmen escaped capture or death, and only three were killed in action. Eight airmen were captured and held as prisoners of war. Three of those were later executed by the Japanese, while one died in captivity. The remaining four were released and repatriated after Japan surrendered.
James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the United States Army Air Forces, who planned and led the raid, was later awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt and promoted two grades to Brigadier General.
All 80 Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and those who were killed or wounded during the raid were awarded the Purple Heart, while two airmen received the Silver Star for helping wounded crewmembers evade capture by Japanese troops in China.
The mission demonstrated that Japan itself was vulnerable to American air attack, served as retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and provided a huge boost to American morale. For the first time, America was taking the fight to the enemy right on his doorstep.
On this 75th anniversary of their intrepid mission, these heroic airmen will be remembered for their bravery and sacrifice that contributed to shifting the tide of World War II in the Pacific and to the ultimate defeat of Japan.
RIP, you magnificent airmen!