The 1942 Doolittle Tokyo Raid

Recounting the 75th Anniversary of America’s Daring Response to Pearl Harbor.

Striking Back from Shangri La.

The USS Shaw explodes during the attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Library of Congress photo.

In the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, the calm of the Hawaiian Islands was shattered by massive explosions and gunfire as air and naval forces of the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack against the US fleet at Pearl Harbor and other US military bases on Oahu. Additional attacks by Japan on other US and British bases throughout the Pacific quickly followed. 

Thousands of American servicemen and women were killed or wounded in the initial attack at Pearl Harbor. Much of the US Navy’s proud Pacific Fleet was sitting on the muddy bottom of the harbor. Hundreds of US combat aircraft were destroyed on the ground. America, still isolationist and badly unprepared for a global conflict found herself at war. 

FDR signs the formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan on December 8, 1941. National Archives photo.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the military brass to quickly come up with a way strike back - to bomb Japan. However, due to the limited range of American combat aircraft and the vast distances involved, an air attack on the Japanese heartland was considered impossible. Or was it?

With no land bases within the operational range of American bombers, senior Army and Navy officers were at a complete loss. FDR even asked Soviet leader Joseph Stalin if he would allow America to launch a raid from the far eastern reaches of the USSR. “Nyet” was Stalin’s icy response.

While nominally an American ally, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin refused to allow any raid against Japan to be launched from the USSR.

B-25s were tested to prove the concept using runways painted like aircraft carrier flight decks.

However, an imaginative Navy submarine officer, Captain Francis Low had noticed the outlines of carrier decks painted on Navy airfield runways that were used for carrier landing practice. Could a fully loaded Army medium bomber take off from a Navy carrier?

Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle in an early photo.

The one Army pilot with enough knowledge, experience, skill and pure guts to try it was Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle. A scrappy bantam-weight boxer and pioneer military aviator, Doolittle had earned his wings back in 1918. Since then he had been a test pilot, earned his doctorate in aeronautical engineering from MIT, helped develop critical aircraft instruments like the artificial horizon and gyroscope and worked with Shell Oil to develop better aircraft fuels.

Added to all that, Doolittle had a very successful career in the 1930s as an air racer, even setting a world speed record of 296 MPH in 1932. He was also the first pilot to successfully take-off, fly and land his aircraft totally on instruments.

A young Jimmy Doolittle waves from the open cockpit of a racing plane in the 1930s.

The B-25 was the only American bomber capable of carrying out the daring Doolittle Raid on Japan. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Doolittle examined all the medium bombers then in the US inventory and decided the only one with the potential to accomplish the carrier-launched mission was the Mitchell B-25 built by North American Aviation. Unfortunately, the stock B-25 had a limited operational range and, worse, it had not as yet seen any actual combat.

To increase the aircraft’s operational range, Doolittle ordered all the B-25 bombers to be used on the raid stripped of every non-essential piece of equipment. Heavy armor plates, crew comfort items, the highly-classified Norden bombsight, numerous Browning .50 caliber machine guns and their ammo racks (and anything else that wasn’t actually crew, fuel or bombs) was quickly removed from the planes. (See "The John Browning Connection" below for additional details on the armament found on the raiders B-25 light bombers.

A diagram of the B-25’s armament and protective armor. Most of it was removed to save weight and increase operational range for the Doolittle raid.

The John Browning Connection.

By the time of the mission, the stripped-down B-25s were reported to be only armed with one lightweight .30 caliber Browning machine gun in the nose, a pair of .50 caliber Browning’s in the top turret and, ironically, only a pair of wooden broomsticks painted black in the tail gunner’s position installed in hopes of bluffing enemy fighters attacking from behind. (This seemed to have worked, as none of the Raiders were attacked from astern.) These few Browning machine guns, plus the John M. Browning designed Model 1911 .45 Automatic pistols carried each member of the aircrew were the sum total of each aircraft’s defensive armament.

Some B-25s were fitted with up to 14 Browning 50s and .30s. This ground attack version had eight in the nose alone.

John Moses Browning=designed M2 50 calibers were normally fitted on most B-25 Mitchell light bombers. There were special versions adapted for aircraft use like on the B-25 Mitchell. John Browning is shown testing an early version of his 50 caliber design, known later as the M2. Although Mr. Browning had died by WWII, he would have been proud of his contribution to the success of the raid.

Anything that wasn’t actually crew, fuel or bombs was quickly removed from the planes.

Doolittle then added multiple auxiliary fuel tanks to increase the plane’s range, even putting one in the now empty belly gun turret. With these modifications, the B-25 could (hopefully) make it from the anticipated launch point offshore near Japan, fly in low to hit their targets and then continue on to land safely at airfields in China that were not in enemy hands.

Now came the recruitment, training and deployment of more than 100 Army pilots and crewmen, plus their support personnel, all of which had to be done in absolute secrecy. Pilots trained for a mere three weeks at Eglin Field in Florida under the supervision of Doolittle, with the able assistance from naval aviators stationed at nearby NAS Pensacola. The training included low level bombing, over-water navigation, night flying and, most importantly, very short takeoffs.

After reaching an “operational” level of competence, the raid’s 22 aircraft and their crews were sent to Alameda, California and the best 16 planes were loaded aboard the carrier USS Hornet. The ship departed at noon on April 2, 1942, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was not until they were well at sea that Doolittle was able to tell his pilots and crews about their ultimate destination…Japan.

The American fleet carrier USS Hornet heads to sea. As you can clearly see that’s a really short and really, really narrow flight deck, especially for a fully-loaded B-25. US Navy photo.

It was not until they were at sea that Doolittle was able to tell his pilots and crews about their ultimate destination…Japan.

Task Force 16.2, consisting of the carriers USS Hornet, and USS Enterprise plus their support ships steamed steadily westward toward their rendezvous with history. Using two of the Navy’s most capable fleet carriers on this mission was a huge political and tactical risk. The loss of one or both ships could well have cost American any credible toehold in the Pacific and even left the West Coast of the US open to enemy invasion.

The 16 Army planes would be fully fueled and each was loaded with a one ton payload, typically three 500 pound conventional bombs and one 500 pound incendiary. (Even by the technological standards of early WWII this was a long and dangerous trip with a very small payload.) As a further gesture of defiance, Doolittle even wired several friendship and goodwill medals the US had earlier received from Japanese diplomats to the tails of his bombs.

LTCOL Doolittle wires Japan’s friendship medals to the tails of his bombs. US Navy photo.

The plan was sneak within 400 miles of the Japanese coast, launch the B-25s from the Hornet and then have the entire Navy task force turn east and high tail it back to Hawaii. Unknown to American mission planners, the Japanese military had stationed a line of radio equipped picket boats a full 650 miles offshore, which spotted the Americans in the early morning mist of April 18th and radioed a warning back to the Japanese mainland. 

With both engines at full power an Army B-25 starts down the flight deck of the Hornet. Next stop…somewhere in the heart of Japan. US Navy photo.

Once spotted by the enemy the situation called for some hastily-revised time/distance/fuel consumption calculations. It would be close. Very close. Each plane took on additional fuel in 5 gallon tins which they would use to top of their tanks in flight.

With a crisp salute to the Hornet’s bridge, LTCOL Doolittle piloted the first plane off the heaving flight deck, going wheels up at 8:20AM. One by one the rest of the Army bombers moved into takeoff position and pushed their throttles to the firewall, their screaming twin propellers biting hard into the gusty headwind. Their part of the mission completed, the US Navy’s Task Force 16.2 turned and headed east to home waters.

LTCOL Doolittle pilots the first B-25 launched off the USS Hornet. US Navy photo.

LTCOL Doolittle piloted the first plane off the heaving flight deck of the Hornet.

A little after noon on April 18, 1942, LTCOL Jimmy Doolittle cranked the doors on his B-25’s bomb bay open and triggered his four 500 pound bombs away, diplomatic medals still attached, directly into the heart of Tokyo’s factory sector. The other Raiders did the same over their targets in Japan’s other major cities and ports.

The Doolittle Raiders then headed southwest, trying to lock in on a radio homing beacon that would guide them to a safe landing in China. As is so common in the fog of combat, the beacon was not on the air. It was every pilot and plane for himself. Of the 16 planes in the raid, 15 headed toward the China coast where they either crash landed or were abandoned in flight as their aircrews “hit the silk.’ One plane, running low on fuel, headed into far eastern Russia, where it landed and the crew was interned by the Soviets. The following year the crew, with some help from their Soviet hosts escaped into Iran.

All 16 planes were lost on the mission. Of the 80 men who took part in the raid, 69 escaped capture or death. Several flyers were captured and executed by the enemy or died of maltreatment. Only 4 Raiders were repatriated from Japan at the end of the war. Enemy retaliation against Chinese civilians who aided the Doolittle Raider’s escape was said to be brutal.

While Doolittle was concerned that the loss of all 16 aircraft meant the mission would be considered a failure, the exact opposite was true. As news of the Doolittle Raid was made public, America went wild with excitement and civilian morale soared. Doolittle was advanced in rank two grades to brigadier general and personally awarded the Medal of Honor by FDR. When the President was asked by reporters where the raid was launched from, he replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Why, from Shangri La!” (The name comes from James Hilton’s best-selling novel “Lost Horizons” about a fictional paradise somewhere high in the Himalayas.)

GEN Doolittle receives the Medal of Honor from FDR. Looking on are GEN Hap Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces, Mrs. Doolittle and GEN George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff. FDR Presidential Library photo.

All 80 Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In addition, the wounded and dead received the Purple Heart, and two Raiders also received Silver Stars for helping LT Ted Lawson’s crew avoid capture by the enemy. Lawson’s exploits as a Raider were later recounted in his bestselling book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which was made into a popular motion picture in 1944 starting Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson.

After their service on the Doolittle Raid, many of the Army aircrew remained in the Far East to continue the fight, and a number of them were killed in action. General James H. Doolittle remained on active duty in the Army Air Forces, going on to take the command the 12th Air Force in North Africa, the 15th Air Force in the Med, and finally lead the mighty 8th Air Force in England, helping to bring Nazi Germany to its knees.

He returned to reserve status after the war and pursued a management career with Shell Oil. Doolittle remained active in aerospace technology and research. He retired from the Air Force in 1959 with three stars on his shoulder boards and finally passed away in 1993.

LTGEN James Harold Doolittle. He would receive a fourth star from President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

From that point forward it was “press on to victory.”

The mission was summed up best in the after-action report submitted by General James H. Doolittle on 9 July 1942. "It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological. Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production. The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction on the American people."

The actual bombing damage inflicted by the Doolittle mission was small, especially when stacked against the massive damage inflicted by the Allies’ heavy sustained air bombardment conducted later in the war. However, the political and psychological damage to the Japanese society’s deeply held sense of invulnerability was shaken to its very core.

The final outcome of the Doolittle mission, especially its positive impact on the then-sagging American morale cannot be overstated. It was the milestone that marked the psychological turning point in America’s war in the Pacific. From that point forward it was “press on to victory.”

So here’s a proud salute and a heartfelt “Well Done” to all those who flew on the Doolittle Raid 75 years ago. (Even if they had to leave so many of their beloved and trusted Browning machine guns behind.)

Learn More. You can learn more about all the brave men who participated in the 1942 Doolittle Raid at www.doolittleraider.com

You will enjoy James H. Doolittle’s colorful personal autobiography I Could Never Be That Lucky Again.

We can also recommend Ted Lawson’s bestselling book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and the popular 1944 motion picture by the same title starting Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson.

Watch the movie trailer on YouTube. 

Vintage movie poster for the movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

The title page of a 1943 wartime edition of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted Lawson. Browning photo.

Copyright Browning, 2017. Written by Browning staff writer Scott Engen. Photos copyright by Browning, from Browning company archives (used with permission) in the public domain or as indicated in the caption.