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For the 72 Million

The Doolittle Raid, April 18, 1942

In March 1942, the Allies were on the retreat everywhere. Most of the targets the Japanese high command had wanted were in their hands, or soon would be. The Americans began to realize that a bold stroke was needed to raise the morale of the public and of the fighting forces.

Most of occupied Europe had been under Nazi domination for at least two years. While there was no immediate threat of the Allies losing the war, the Allied command, especially the British, wanted to win a battle in order to raise morale at home and abroad.

In contrast, the morale of the Japanese couldn’t be higher. Both the public and many servicemen thought the war was progressing well. It was inconceivable that anything could stop the Imperial forces. The arrogance of the west was shown in the superiority of the Japanese war technology, tactics, and in the individual fighting man. The Allies did not have the heart to fight.

Many Japanese Officers and civilians who had traveled to the United States, like Combined Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, knew that it was a matter of time before the Allies struck back. And when the American industrial capacity reached full stride, then they would be able to field numerically superior forces. But no one in Japan doubted that the Japanese spirit would win the day; that the home islands would come under attack was not ever considered.

What they did not expect or even could predict was that plans were already underway to attack Japan itself within the month. In contrast to the inter-service rivalry that plagued the Japanese throughout the war, the Americans could work together; if not in harmony, then in consensus. This consensus had married the long-range United States Army B-25 Mitchell bomber to the United States Navy carrier USS Hornet. An air racing hero, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, commanded the mission. The Hornet was a new ship, commissioned in October 1941. Its 800-foot flight deck was crammed with sixteen of the twin-engined bombers, the last one’s tail sticking out over the fantail. The USS Enterprise escorted to provide air cover.

The plan was simple, yet against the limits of all theory: fly a land-based bomber off of a carrier deck, bomb Japan, and fly to China to support operations there. The bombers could not obliterate a target, but that wasn’t the point. The Japanese pride would be deflated, the fight would be brought to the Home Islands.

On April 18, 1942, Doolittle and his flyers were hours away from takeoff when general quarters sounded. The fleet had run into the picket ships some 600 miles away from the Japanese coast. A fishing boat was quickly sunk, but fearing surprise was lost, the bombers were launched.

Doolittle took off first. The bombers had to use the power of their engines to pull enough air over the wings to take off. He cleared the bow by several feet, and led his aircraft aloft. The fleet turned and ran for Hawaii.

The B-25 was a tactical bomber, with little defensive armament except for its speed. They had little to fear, since the primary target, Tokyo, was undergoing air raid drill and it was assumed the incoming planes were part of the test. They dropped their bombs on factories, military targets, and one bomb fell inside the Imperial Palace.

Flying on to China, all of the bombers crashed at the extreme range of their fuel, never joining the Chinese Air forces. Doolittle thought his mission was a failure because he wasn’t able to deliver any of the bombers. Chiang Kai-Shek, who was kept in the dark fearing leaks in his security, never alerted his forces to support the bombers’ landing.

When Doolittle got back to the United States, he was unprepared for the greeting he received. He was the first genuine hero, and he was acclaimed wherever he went. He became a commander in the European Theater of Operations. Eight of Doolittle’s flyers were executed after the Japanese captured them.

For the Japanese, the idea that the enemy could bomb Tokyo, bomb the Imperial Palace, sent shock waves through the War Cabinet and the Imperial High Command. Fighter groups were recalled from abroad for home defense.

If the High Command had any idea of how Doolittle’s raid were the first of thousands of sorties to come to Japan, they would have begun building defenses much earlier. But it was not until late 1943, when the Allies began to acquire bases close enough to Japan to attack by air, that regular air raid drills were practiced.

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