The mission was top secret, and during their training in Florida and South Carolina, the Army Air Corps pilots were ordered not even to discuss among themselves their guesses about the mission. Their leader, James H. Doolittle, again told them they could drop out “for whatever reason and nothing would ever be said about it.” No one left.
Barely four months after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, on April 18, 1942, Doolittle led his volunteers from the Seventeenth Bombardment Group on a daytime raid on Tokyo. The daring action is one of the terrific stories author Winston Groom describes in his book “1942: The Year That Tried Men’s Souls.” B-25 bombers were launched – at near stalling speed – from the aircraft carrier Hornet. After the Hornet task force left San Francisco, and “when they were out of sight of land, the skipper, Captain Marc Mitscher, sent a signal to all ships: ‘This force is bound for Tokyo.’ Within moments great cheers began to rise toward the darkening Pacific skies.” Groom cites Doolittle’s book, “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.”
The Doolittle Raiders did much of their training just up the road at what was then the Columbia Army Air Base, where surviving members gathered in April 2002 for a 60th anniversary celebration. It was a tough time for the U.S. in the war. Allied naval forces suffered huge losses in the Battle of the Java Sea and the Battle of Sunda Strait. The Philippines surrendered. The United States seriously needed a victory.
Doolittle’s plan was to bomb Tokyo by launching bombers at sea, an audacious plan. But the Hornet and Enterprise task forces were seen by Japanese fishing ships, meaning our B-25s would have to be launched hours away from the planned spot. They would be over Tokyo in daylight, and they could run out of fuel before they made it from Tokyo to landing spots in China. Instantly, Doolittle made the decision to go ahead.
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The raiders surprised the Japanese just as they had surprised U.S. forces in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. The raiders’ 32,000 pounds of bombs didn’t do all that much, “but damage was done.” Chinese farmers paid dearly for helping the B-25 crews that bailed out or crash-landed as they ran out of fuel. “Many were injured in the landings and, miraculously, only three were killed,” Groom writes. Eight of the crew members were captured by Japanese troops and executed. However, 67 pilots and crewmen found friendly Chinese forces and eventually returned to the United States.
Emperor Hirohito approved a “punitive bloodbath” against all Chinese in the areas where Americans were helped and “four months later some 250,000 Chinese civilians had been murdered, many by the most barbaric methods.” Here, Groom writes, “the Doolittle raid achieved the desired effect on American morale. … all Americans felt that somehow Pearl Harbor and all the rest of it had been at least partially avenged.”
The war in the Pacific would continue for more than three years but Doolittle’s fliers showed the gallantry and grit that won WWII. Watching the B-25s take flight off the Hornet 71 years ago today, Admiral William F. Halsey called the raid on Tokyo “one of the most courageous deeds in military history.”