The Legendary Doolittle Raid at 75: American Bombers Over Tokyo Brought Confidence to the Allies

Up until a spring day in April 1942, about five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese likely felt a sense of invincibility against Allied forces. They had severely damaged the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, seized Hong Kong, conquered southeast Asia, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines, and terrorized the Indian Ocean with a naval sweep. Singapore had surrendered and Bataan fell. The Allies had suffered major losses at sea and in the air. The tiny U.S. garrison of Corregidor in the Philippines held out, but its days were numbered. Everywhere the Japanese were victorious, and the Allies faced their darkest hour.

All of this changed on April 18, 1942 when  Lt. Col. James (“Jimmie”) H. Doolittle led the crews of 16 B-25B Mitchell medium bombers deep into Japanese territory in a daring raid against Tokyo and nearby points in Japan. While the physical damage inflicted was minor, the psychological impact was profound. The courage of these crews and those who supported them became legendary, heartening the Allies at a low point in the war and foretelling counteroffensives yet to come. The Japanese were no longer invincible.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged his military leaders to bomb Japan as soon as possible, both to retaliate and to offer Americans a glimmer of hope for ultimate victory. The U.S. Army and Navy pieced together an innovative plan. Army Air Forces bombers would launch from the Navy’s USS Hornet beyond the range of Japanese aerial surveillance, fly to and strike Tokyo, and continue on to friendly Chinese airfields. The bombers could not return to the Hornet, because they were too big to land on it. Even still, raid planners expressed doubt that pilots could safely get the B-25Bs in the air from the deck of the aircraft carrier.

Modified to carry twice their normal fuel supply and four 500-lb bombs, Doolittle’s B-25Bs all got safely aloft, despite this being the first time any of their crews had flown off of an aircraft carrier. They launched 200 miles further from the target than planned due to fear of Japanese interception. Speeding along at wave-top level to avoid detection, the medium bombers raced towards Japan. Six hours later, about noon Tokyo time, they reached Japan and quickly climbed to a bombing altitude of 1,500 feet. The American bombers swiftly struck ten targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama and one in each of four other nearby cities.

The attacking B-25Bs were virtually untouched, as they had achieved complete surprise. One plane took minor damage from anti-aircraft fire, and two others shot down Japanese planes that belatedly rose to intercept them. After additional strafing, the bombers flew on towards China. They ran out of fuel before they could land at the friendly Chinese airfields. Nightfall, deteriorating weather, and the unplanned extra 200 miles they had flown conspired against them. The planes crash-landed, and 69 of the 80 crewmen escaped death or capture with the assistance of local Chinese. One plane landed near Vladivostok instead, and was interned by the Soviets.

Embarrassed and outraged by the daring attack, the Japanese committed to push their security envelope even further from their home islands, leading to overextension and the failed campaigns at Midway and the Solomon Islands. They also embarked on further costly campaigns in China, to deny the Americans the use of airfields. The Japanese Army and Navy had both lost face, and their over-reaction would expose Japan to even greater defeats.

Doolittle himself went on to command the Twelfth, Fifteenth and Eighth Air Forces. The crewmen who escaped with him flew again against Germany and Japan in China, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and over Europe. All the crewmen became the stuff of which legends are made. Their courage, competence and sacrifice heartened a beleaguered nation when it needed it most.

About ABMC:
Established by Congress in 1923, the American Battle Monuments Commission commemorates the service, achievements, and sacrifice of U.S. armed forces. ABMC administers 14 cemeteries and 10 memorials, monuments, and markers specific to those who served in World War II. Nearly 175,000 Americans are honored by name at these sites. The 75th anniversary of key World War II events will be commemorated by ABMC through articles, new resources and special events.

Recommended Reading

Glines, C.V., The Doolittle Raid: America’s Daring First Strike Against Japan (Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 2000)

Lawson, Ted W., Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (New York: Random House, 1953)

Scott, James M., Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015)