The Doolittle Raid, also known as the Tokyo Raid, on Saturday, April 18, 1942, was an air raid by the United States of America on the Japanese capital Tokyo and other places on the island of Honshu during World War II, the first air raid to strike the Japanese Home Islands. It demonstrated that Japan itself was vulnerable to American air attack, served as retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941, and provided an important boost to American morale. The raid was planned and led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, United States Army Air Forces.
Sixteen U.S. Army Air Forces B-25B Mitchell medium bombers were launched beyond fighter escort range from the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Hornet deep in the Western Pacific Ocean, each with a crew of five men. The plan called for them to bomb military targets in Japan, and to continue westward to land in China—landing a medium bomber on Hornet was impossible. Fifteen aircraft reached China, but all crashed, while the 16th landed at Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. All but three of the 80 crew members initially survived the mission. Eight airmen were captured by the Japanese Army in China; three of those were later executed. The B-25 that landed in the Soviet Union was confiscated and its crew interned for more than a year. Fourteen complete crews, except for one crewman who was killed in action, returned either to the United States or to American forces.
After the raid, the Japanese Imperial Army conducted a massive sweep through the eastern coastal provinces of China, in an operation now known as the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign, searching for the surviving American airmen and inflicting retribution on the Chinese who aided them, in an effort to prevent this part of China from being used again for an attack on Japan.
The raid caused negligible material damage to Japan, but it achieved its goal of raising American morale and casting doubt in Japan on the ability of its military leaders to defend their home islands. It also contributed to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s decision to attack Midway Island in the Central Pacific—an attack that turned into a decisive strategic defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) by the U.S. Navy in the Battle of Midway. Doolittle, who initially believed that the loss of all his aircraft would lead to his court-martial, received the Medal of Honor and was promoted two steps to brigadier general.
The raid had its start in a desire by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, expressed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a meeting at the White House on 21 December 1941, that Japan be bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale after the disaster at Pearl Harbor.
Doolittle later recounted in his autobiography that the raid was intended to bolster American morale and to cause the Japanese to begin doubting their leadership, in which it succeeded:
The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable … 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. There was a second, and equally important, psychological reason for this attack … Americans badly needed a morale boost.
The concept for the attack came from Navy Captain Francis Low, Assistant Chief of Staff for anti-submarine warfare, who reported to Admiral Ernest J. King on 10 January 1942 that he thought twin-engine Army bombers could be launched from an aircraft carrier, after observing several at a naval airfield in Norfolk, Virginia, where the runway was painted with the outline of a carrier deck for landing practice. The attack was planned and led by Doolittle, a famous military test pilot, civilian aviator and aeronautical engineer before the war.
Requirements that the aircraft have a cruising range of 2,400 nautical miles (4,400 km) with a 2,000-pound (910 kg) bomb load resulted in the selection of the B-25B Mitchell to carry out the mission. The range of the Mitchell at the time was only about 1,300 miles, so the bombers had to be heavily modified to hold nearly twice the normal fuel reserves. The Martin B-26 Marauder, Douglas B-18 Bolo and Douglas B-23 Dragon were also considered, but the B-26 had questionable takeoff characteristics from a carrier deck and the B-23’s wingspan was nearly 50% greater than the B-25’s, reducing the number that could be taken aboard a carrier and posing risks to the ship’s island (superstructure). The B-18, one of the final two types considered by Doolittle, was rejected for the same reason.
The B-25 had yet to be tested in combat, but subsequent tests indicated it could fulfill the mission’s requirements. Doolittle’s first report on the plan suggested the bombers might land in Vladivostok, shortening the flight by 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) on the basis of turning over the B-25s as Lend-Lease. Negotiations with the Soviet Union for permission to land were fruitless because it had signed a neutrality pact with Japan in April 1941.
Bombers attacking defended targets often relied on a fighter escort to defend them from enemy fighters; not only did Doolittle’s aircraft lack a full complement of guns to save weight, but it was not possible for fighters to accompany them.
When planning indicated that the B-25 was the aircraft best meeting all specifications of the mission, two were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet at Norfolk, Virginia, and subsequently flown off the deck without difficulty on 3 February 1942. The raid was immediately approved and the 17th Bomb Group (Medium) was chosen to provide the pool of crews from which volunteers would be recruited. The 17th BG had been the first group to receive B-25s, with all four of its squadrons equipped with the bomber by September 1941. The 17th not only was the first medium bomb group of the Army Air Corps, but in the spring of 1942 also had the most experienced B-25 crews. Its first assignment following the entry of the United States into the war was to the U.S. Eighth Air Force.
The 17th BG, then flying antisubmarine patrols from Pendleton, Oregon, was immediately moved cross-country to Lexington County Army Air Base at Columbia, South Carolina, ostensibly to fly similar patrols off the east coast of the United States but in actuality to prepare for the mission against Japan. The group officially transferred effective 9 February to Columbia, where its combat crews were offered the opportunity to volunteer for an “extremely hazardous”, but unspecified mission. On 17 February, the group was detached from the Eighth Air Force.
Initial planning called for 20 aircraft to fly the mission, and 24 of the group’s B-25B Mitchell bombers were diverted to the Mid-Continent Airlines modification center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With support provided by two senior airline managers, Wold-Chamberlain Field’s maintenance hangar was the first modification center to become operational. From nearby Fort Snelling, the 710th Military Police Battalion provided tight security around this hangar. Modifications included:
The 24 crews selected picked up the modified bombers in Minneapolis and flew them to Eglin Field, Florida, beginning 1 March 1942. There, the crews received concentrated training for three weeks in simulated carrier deck takeoffs, low-level and night flying, low-altitude bombing and over-water navigation, operating primarily out of Eglin Auxiliary Field #1, a more secluded site. Lieutenant Henry L. Miller, a U.S. Navy flight instructor from nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola, supervised their takeoff training and accompanied the crews to the launch. For his efforts, Miller is considered an honorary member of the Raider group.
Doolittle stated in his after-action report that the crews reached a “safely operational” level of training, despite several days when flying was not possible because of rain and fog. One aircraft was heavily damaged in a takeoff accident and another removed from the mission because of a nose wheel shimmy that could not be repaired in time.
On 25 March 1942, the remaining 22 B-25s took off from Eglin for McClellan Field, California. They arrived two days later at the Sacramento Air Depot for inspection and final modifications. A total of 16 B-25s were subsequently flown to NAS Alameda, California, on 31 March. Fifteen made up the mission force and the sixteenth, by last-minute agreement with the Navy, was loaded for launch shortly after departure from San Francisco to demonstrate to the Army pilots that sufficient deck space remained for a safe takeoff. Instead, that bomber was made part of the mission force.
On 1 April 1942, the 16 modified bombers, their five-man crews and Army maintenance personnel, totaling 71 officers and 130 enlisted men, were loaded onto the USS Hornet at Naval Air Station Alameda. Each aircraft carried four specially constructed 500-pound (225 kg) bombs. Three of these were high-explosive munitions and one was a bundle of incendiaries. The incendiaries were long tubes, wrapped together in order to be carried in the bomb bay, but designed to separate and scatter over a wide area after release. Five bombs had Japanese “friendship” medals wired to them—medals awarded by the Japanese government to U.S. servicemen before the war. The bombers’ armament was reduced to increase range by decreasing weight. Each bomber launched with two .50-caliber (12.7 mm) machine guns in an upper turret and a .30-caliber (7.62 mm) machine gun in the nose. The aircraft were clustered closely and tied down on Hornet’s flight deck in the order of launch.
Hornet and Task Force 18 got underway from San Francisco Bay at 11:48 on 2 April with the 16 bombers in clear view. At noon the next day parts to complete modifications that had not been finished at McClellan were lowered to the forward deck of the Hornet by Navy blimp L-8. A few days later the carrier rendezvoused with Task Force 16, commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.—the carrier USS Enterprise and her escort of cruisers and destroyers in the mid-Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii. Enterprise’s fighters and scout planes provided protection for the entire task force in the event of a Japanese air attack, since Hornet’s fighters were stowed below decks to allow the B-25s to use the flight deck. The combined force was two carriers, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers and two fleet oilers. The escort ships—Salt Lake City, Northampton, Vincennes, Nashville, Balch, Fanning, Benham, Ellet, Gwin, Meredith, Grayson, Monssen, Cimarron and Sabine—then proceeded in radio silence. On the afternoon of 17 April, the slow oilers refueled the task force, then withdrew with the destroyers to the east while the carriers and cruisers dashed west at 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph) toward their intended launch point in enemy-controlled waters east of Japan.
At 07:38 on the morning of 18 April, while the task force was still about 650 nautical miles (1,200 km; 750 mi) from Japan (at approximately 35°N 154°E), it was sighted by the Japanese picket boat No. 23 Nittō Maru, a 70-ton patrol craft, which radioed an attack warning to Japan. The boat was sunk by gunfire from USS Nashville. The chief petty officer who captained the boat committed suicide rather than be captured, but five of the 11 crew were picked up by Nashville. Doolittle and Hornet skipper Captain Marc Mitscher decided to launch the B-25s immediately—10 hours early and 170 nautical miles (310 km; 200 mi) farther from Japan than planned. After re-spotting to allow for engine start and runups, Doolittle’s aircraft had 467 feet (142 m) of takeoff distance. Although none of the B-25 pilots, including Doolittle, had ever taken off from a carrier before, all 16 aircraft launched safely between 08:20 and 09:19.
The B-25s then flew toward Japan, most in groups of two to four aircraft, before flying single file at wave-top level to avoid detection. The aircraft began arriving over Japan about noon Tokyo time, six hours after launch, and 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. Only the B-25 of 1st Lt. Richard O. Joyce received any battle damage, minor hits from antiaircraft fire. B-25 No. 4, piloted by 1st Lt. Everett W. Holstrom, jettisoned its bombs before reaching its target when it came under attack by fighters after its gun turret malfunctioned. At least one Japanese fighter was shot down by the gunners of the Whirling Dervish, piloted by 1st Lt. Harold Watson. Two other fighters were shot down by the gunners of the Hari Kari-er, piloted by 1st Lt. Ross Greening. Many military targets were strafed by the bombers’ nose gunners. The subterfuge of the simulated gun barrels mounted in the tail cones was described afterwards by Doolittle as effective, in that no airplane was attacked from directly behind.
Fifteen of the sixteen aircraft then proceeded southwest along the southern coast of Japan and across the East China Sea toward eastern China, where several fields in Zhejiang province were supposed to be ready to guide them in using homing beacons, then recover and refuel them for continuing on to Chongqing, the wartime Kuomintang capital. The primary base was at Zhuzhou, toward which all the aircraft navigated, but Halsey never sent the planned signal to alert them, apparently because of a possible threat to the task force. One B-25, piloted by Captain Edward J. York, was extremely low on fuel, and headed instead for the Soviet Union rather than be forced to ditch in the middle of the East China Sea.
The raiders faced several unforeseen challenges during their flight to China: night was approaching, the aircraft were running low on fuel and the weather was rapidly deteriorating. None would have reached China if not for a tail wind as they came off the target, which increased their ground speed by 25 kn (46 km/h; 29 mph) for seven hours. 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. Fifteen aircraft reached the Chinese coast after 13 hours of flight and crash-landed or the crews bailed out; the crew who flew to the Soviet Union landed 40 miles (65 km) beyond Vladivostok, where their B-25 was confiscated and the crew interned. The mission was the longest ever flown in combat by the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, averaging approximately 2,250 nautical miles (4,170 km).
Although York and his crew were well-treated, diplomatic attempts to return them to the United States ultimately failed. Eventually, they were relocated to Ashgabat, 20 miles (32 km) from the Iranian border, and York managed to “bribe” a smuggler, who helped them cross the border and reach a nearby British consulate on 11 May 1943. The smuggling was actually staged by the NKVD, according to declassified Soviet archives, because the Soviet government was unable to repatriate them legally in the face of the neutrality pact with Japan.
Doolittle and his crew, after parachuting into China, received assistance from Chinese soldiers and civilians as well as John Birch, an American missionary in China. As did the others who participated in the mission, Doolittle had to bail out, but fortunately he landed in a heap of dung (saving a previously injured ankle from breaking) in a paddy in China near Quzhou. Doolittle felt the raid had been a terrible failure because all the aircraft were lost, and he expected to be court-martialed on his return. He subsequently recommended Birch for intelligence work with Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers.
One crewman, Corporal Leland D. Faktor, flight engineer/gunner with 1st Lt. Robert M. Gray, was killed during his bailout attempt over China, the only man in that crew to be lost. Two crews (10 men) were missing.
Fate of the missing crewmen:
Following the Doolittle Raid, most of the B-25 crews who had 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 (with the single exception of Capt. Edward York and his crew (eighth off—AC #40-2242), which landed in Soviet Russia and the crew interned), all either crash-landed, were ditched or crashed after their crews bailed out. Nevertheless, 69 escaped capture or death, with only three killed in action (KIA) as a result of the loss of their aircraft. When the Chinese helped the Americans escape, the grateful Americans in turn gave them whatever they had on hand. The people who helped them paid dearly for sheltering the Americans. Eight Raiders were captured (POW), but their fate was not fully known until 1946.
Accounted for as KIA shortly after the raid was Faktor, the flight engineer/gunner on Gray’s crew, (third off—AC #40-2270). The citation for his posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross reported that after Faktor successfully bailed out with the rest of his crew over mountainous terrain near Suichang, Zhejiang Province, China, he was killed shortly afterwards when he fell down a cliff.
The crews of two aircraft (ten men in total) were unaccounted for: those of 1st Lt. Dean E. Hallmark (sixth off) and 1st Lt. William G. Farrow (last off). On 15 August 1942, the United States learned from the Swiss Consulate General in Shanghai that eight of the missing crew members were prisoners of the Japanese at the city’s Police Headquarters. Two crewmen drowned after crash-landing in the ocean. On 19 October 1942, the Japanese announced that they had tried the eight prisoners and sentenced them all to death, but said several had received commutation of their sentences to life imprisonment. No names or details were given.
The story of the missing crews was revealed in February 1946 during a war crimes trial held in Shanghai to try four Japanese officers charged with mistreating the eight captured crewmen. It was learned that two of the missing crewmen, bombardier S/Sgt. William J. Dieter and flight engineer Sgt. Donald E. Fitzmaurice of Hallmark’s crew, drowned when their B-25 crashed into the sea. The other eight were captured: Hallmark, Farrow, 1st Lt. Robert J. Meder, 1st Lt. Chase Nielsen, 1st Lt. Robert L. Hite, 2nd Lt. George Barr, Cpl. Harold A. Spatz and Cpl. Jacob DeShazer. On 28 August 1942, Hallmark, Farrow, and gunner Spatz faced a war crimes trial by a Japanese court alleging they strafed and murdered Japanese civilians. At 16:30 on 15 October 1942, they were taken by truck to Public Cemetery Number 1, and executed by firing squad.
The other captured airmen remained in military confinement on a starvation diet, their health rapidly deteriorating. In April 1943, they were moved to Nanking, where Meder died on 1 December 1943. The remaining men, Nielsen, Hite, Barr and DeShazer, eventually began receiving slightly better treatment and were given a copy of the Bible and a few other books. They were freed by American troops in August 1945. Four Japanese officers were tried for war crimes against the captured Doolittle Raiders, found guilty, and sentenced to hard labor, three for five years and one for nine years. Barr had been near death when liberated and remained behind in China recuperating until October, by which time he had begun to experience severe emotional problems. Untreated after transfer to Letterman General Hospital and a military hospital in Clinton, Iowa, Barr became suicidal and was held virtually incommunicado until November, when Doolittle’s personal intervention resulted in treatment that led to his recovery. DeShazer graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 1948 and returned to Japan as a missionary, where he served for over 30 years.
Total crew casualties: 3 KIA: 2 off the coast of China, 1 in China; 8 POW: 3 executed, 1 died in captivity, 4 repatriated. Of the surviving prisoners, Barr died of heart failure in 1967, Nielsen in 2007, DeShazer on 15 March 2008, and the last, Hite, died 29 March 2015.
Service of the returning crewmen:
Immediately following the raid, Doolittle told his crew that he believed the loss of all 16 aircraft, coupled with the relatively minor damage to targets, had rendered the attack a failure, and that he expected a court-martial upon his return to the United States. Instead, the raid bolstered American morale to such an extent that Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt, and was promoted two grades to brigadier General, skipping the rank of colonel. When General Doolittle toured the growing Eglin Field facility in July 1942 with commanding officer Col. Grandison Gardner, the local paper of record (the Okaloosa News-Journal, Crestview, Florida), while reporting his presence, made no mention of his still-secret recent training at Eglin. He went on to command the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa, the Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean, and the Eighth Air Force in England during the next three years.
Corporal David J. Thatcher (a flight engineer/gunner on Lawson’s crew) and 1st Lt. Thomas R. White (flight surgeon/gunner with Smith) each received the Silver Star for helping the wounded crew members of Lt. Lawson’s crew to evade Japanese troops in China. All 80 Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and those who were killed or wounded during the raid awarded the Purple Heart. Every Doolittle Raider was also decorated by the Chinese government.
Twenty-eight of the crewmen remained in the China Burma India theater including the entire crews of planes 4, 10, and 13. Flying missions, most for more than a year, five were killed in action.[Note 8] Nineteen crew members flew combat missions in the Mediterranean theater after returning to the United States, four of whom were killed in action and four becoming prisoners of war.[Note 9] Nine crew members served in the European Theater of Operations; one was killed in action. Altogether 12 of the survivors died in air crashes within 15 months of the raid. Two survivors were separated from the USAAF in 1944 due to the severity of their injuries.
The 17th Bomb Group, from which the Doolittle Raiders had been recruited, received replacement crews and transferred to Barksdale Army Air Field in June 1942, where it converted to Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In November 1942 it deployed overseas to North Africa, where it operated in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations with the Twelfth Air Force for the remainder of the war.
After the raid, the Japanese Imperial Army began the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign (also known as Operation Sei-go) in order to prevent these eastern coastal provinces of China from being used again for an attack on Japan. All airfields within a range of some 20,000 sq mi (50,000 km2) in the areas where the Raiders had landed were torn up. Germ warfare was used and atrocities committed, and those found with American items were shot. The Japanese killed an estimated 10,000 Chinese civilians during their search for Doolittle’s men. Some estimates are that as many as 250,000 Chinese were killed during the campaign.
Compared with the future devastating Boeing B-29 Superfortress attacks against Japan, the Doolittle raid did little material damage, and all of it was easily repaired. Eight primary and five secondary targets were struck. In Tokyo, the targets included an oil tank farm, a steel mill, and several power plants. In Yokosuka, at least one bomb from the B-25 piloted by 1st Lt. Edgar E. McElroy struck the nearly completed light carrier Ryūhō, delaying her launch until November. Six schools and an army hospital were also hit. Japanese officials reported the two aircraft whose crews were captured had struck their targets.
Despite the minimal damage inflicted, American morale, still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s subsequent territorial gains, soared when news of the raid was released. The Japanese press was told to describe the attack as a cruel, indiscriminate bombing against civilians, women and children. For years before Pearl Harbor, there had been mock air raid drills in every Japanese city,[Note 10] although China’s air force was almost nonexistent; this may have been part of the process of keeping warlike emotion at a high pitch.
The Japanese Navy attempted to locate and pursue the American task force. The Second Fleet, its main striking force, was near Taiwan, returning from the Indian Ocean Raid to refit and replace its air losses. Spearheaded by five aircraft carriers and its best naval aircraft and aircrews, the Second Fleet was immediately ordered to locate and destroy the U.S. carrier force, but failed to do so.
The Imperial Japanese Navy also bore a special responsibility for allowing an American aircraft carrier force to approach the Japanese Home Islands in a manner similar to the IJN fleet to Hawaii in 1941, and permitting it to escape undamaged. The fact that medium, normally land-based bombers carried out the attack confused the IJN’s high command. This confusion and the knowledge that Japan was now vulnerable to air attack strengthened Yamamoto’s resolve to capture Midway Island, resulting in a decisive Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway.
“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.” —General James H. Doolittle, 9 July 1942.
Major Tom Griffin’s signature on a B-25 operated by the Tri-State Warbird Museum
The Doolittle Raiders held an annual reunion almost every year from the late 1940s to 2013. The high point of each reunion was a solemn, private ceremony in which the surviving Raiders performed a roll call, then toasted their fellow Raiders who had died during the previous year. Specially engraved silver goblets, one for each of the 80 Raiders, were used for this toast; the goblets of those who have died were inverted. Each Raider’s name was engraved on his goblet both right side up and upside down. The Raiders drank a toast using a bottle of cognac that accompanied the goblets to each Raider reunion. In 2013 the remaining Raiders decided to hold their last public reunion at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, not far from Eglin Air Force Base, where they trained for the original mission. The bottle and the goblets had been maintained by the United States Air Force Academy on display in Arnold Hall, the cadet social center, until 2006. On 19 April 2006, these memorabilia were transferred to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
On 18 April 2013, a final reunion for the surviving Raiders was held at Eglin Air Force Base, with Robert Hite the only survivor unable to attend.
The “final toast to fallen comrades” by the surviving raiders took place at the NMUSAF on 9 November 2013, preceded by a B-25 flyover, and was attended by Richard Cole, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher.