Doolittle's Raid

Colonel Doolittle (second from left) and his flight crew.

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

After Japanese air power struck a stunning tactical blow to the U.S. military forces at Pearl Harbor, a retaliatory strike against the Japanese was a priority for president Frankin D. Roosevelt, who challenged his general staff to devise a way to attack the heart of Japan.


By mid-January 1942, a carrier-based air strike against Japan was accepted as the most plausible solution to FDR's request. When Admiral Ernest J. King, chief of Naval Operations, was asked to evaluate the possibilities, he passed the idea to General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, who then asked Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle to work out the details with the Navy. In the days immediately after Pearl Harbor, service rivalries took a back seat to striking a blow against the enemy.

After preliminary test flights, the North American B-25 Mitchell bomber was selected for the mission. Eighteen B-25s flew from their Oregon home base to Indiana for modifications. The range of the unmodified Mitchell was only 1,300 miles on a favorable day, so additional internal tanks were added to allow for more fuel. At the last second, 10 five-gallon cans of gas were stowed in the radio operator's seat. The heavy guns were removed, along with the highly secret Norden bombsight, whose classified technology couldn't fall into Japanese hands. In the planned scenario, the Norden bombsight wouldn't have been very accurate at the low altitude that would be flown anyway, so it was replaced with a simple metal aiming sight. Aircraft radios were also removed, since the mission would be executed under strict radio silence. These changes allowed each aircraft to carry just over 1,100 gallons of usable fuel, which under typical flight conditions would allow for a range of 2,400 miles. After all of these radical modifications, four 500-pound bombs barely fit into the bomb bay.

The Army and Navy finally agreed on a near-dusk takeoff and night raid on Tokyo as the plan that stood the best chance of achieving complete surprise. he plan depended on a fast carrier run-in at night to get as close to the mainland as possible just prior to launch. After the planes were away, the fleet would make an immediate turn back toward Hawaii and run for waters beyond the range of Japanese land-based aircraft to preserve the limited fleet that remained in the Pacific. On April 13, Naval Task Force 16 gathered near Hawaii and proceeded toward the Japanese mainland with 16 ships, including Vice Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey's flagship, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.


Doolittle's plan was to lead 16 planes with five-man crews ahead of the rest of the aircraft, to attack Tokyo with incendiary bombs, and to set fires that the others could follow to the city. But the B-25 crews were forced to launch early when the nighttime attack plan was disrupted by Japanese picket boats that spotted Task Force 16 early on the morning of the 18th. There were no other acceptable options; the mission had to launch immediately.

Owing to the added distance at the takeoff point, there was no plan for how or where to land these aircraft when Doolittle took off at 8:20AM. Doolittle recognized that the mission was already in jeopardy and might end with a parachute bailout at sea. Halsey and Doolittle shared the responsibility for the launch decision, with the clear intention of completing the mission.


The USS Hornet steered into the wind while the deck pitched in heavy seas. Engines roared to life and Doolittle taxied his plane forward a few feet onto three cork pads that provide enough friction for the tires to hold the B-25 s the engines were pushed to full throttle. Minimum-distance takeoff procedures practiced on dry land in Florida worked as advertised on the deck of the ship.

After traveling more than 700 miles, miniscule errors in heading control were amplified, putting the pilots many miles off course. Several of the B-25 crews were totally lost when they finally made landfall around noon. Doolittle himself flew well north of his planned route, but quick work by his navigator steered him back on course. Those following him were much relieved at the rapid course correction. The sun was shining brightly about half past noon when Doolittle became the first pilot to bomb the Japanese homeland in fulfillment of FDR's orders.


Unknown to Doolittle's Raiders, the aircraft carrying the homing radio beacons for the landing fields in China had crashed, and with it any chance of finding the strips at night and in bad weather. Fortunately, the original targets planned for night recognition and attack were large industrial zones, so hitting at least part of the complex would be much easier in broad daylight.

The attack was not intended to do maximum damage; rather, it was intended to make a spectacle. The attack was designed do that the Japanese people would clearly know that a foreign enemy had bombed Tokyo. In the original plan, Doolittle had hoped to set fires to serve not only as beacons to the following 15 B-25s, but also to dramatically -and undeniably- announce that the capital city had been bombed. An order forbidding the bombardment of the radio towers near Tokyo indicated that immediate dissemination of the news by Japanese radio was desired and expected.


In almost every case, primary targets were bombed. The damage done far exceeded expectation largely as a result of highly inflammable Japanese construction, the low-altitude attack, the clear weather over Tokyo, and the careful target studies that the crew had done. All 16 planes had descended to extremely low altitudes, attacked, and egressed the target area at high speed. All 16 crews began to calculate how much fuel they had left and how far they could fly. Initial calculations were not encouraging. Navigator Lieutenant Eugene F. McGurl halfheartedly joked, "Hey, I don' t think we're gonna have to swim more than one hundred miles."

Doolittle's Raiders got another lucky break that evening. A stiff tailwind had developed between japan and China and, much to the surprise of the navigators, several of the planes appeared to be getting pretty good gas mileage and making good time. Only one bomber had insufficient fuel to make the Chinese mainland and diverted to Russia instead. That plane's five crewmen were interned in Russia until they managed to escape into Iran in May 1943.

Once the raiders made landfall over China, luck ran out. The Chinese, fearing air raids by the Japanese and not knowing of the timing of Doolittle's raid on the Japanese capital, extinguished all ground lights when the B-25 engines were heard. In addition, bad weather over the China coast made safe landings impossible and all of the planes either landed in the water near the coast or the crews parachuted out. Four were killed during bailout or ditching and eight were captured by the Japanese. Four of those who were captured survived until they were freed by U.S. troops in 1945.

Doolittle's Raiders in China.


The Tokyo raid was the first, and at that time, the only combat mission flown by these 80 men. In the weeks following the raid, American morale soared. For the planning, execution, and leadership during the raid, Doolittle received the nation's highest military award. On May 19, 1942, President Frankin D. Roosevelt, the man who had ordered the mission, personally decorated the newly-promoted Brigadier General James H. Doolittle with the Medal of Honor in a private White House ceremony.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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