Seventy years ago this month, April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25Mitchell”
(medium)bombers took off from the deck of the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier, in the Pacific Ocean not far from the Japanese Islands. Their mission? They intended to bomb Japan, a thing that had not, so far, been done or even attempted- not ever-not by anybody. It was risky indeed. If this tiny group of bombers was spotted prior to reaching Tokyo, and the chances of this were high, they could be shot down and the entire thing rendered a miserable disaster, an awkward, embarrassing historical footnote. And another bloody disaster was one thing the US did not need.
Smug and confident, Japanese leaders had assured their people, whenever the subject arose, that such a thing would never happen. Against the spirit warriors of Japan, descendants of the mighty Samurai, no enemy would ever prevail, especially the weak, cowardly, misgided Americans. Bomb Japan? This would be suicidal, and Americans, as any fool in Japan was well aware, had no stomach for suicide. Furthermore, the simple logistics of such a thing prevented it. For a bomber to appear over Japan, it’s base needed to be located no more than seven hundred miles from Japan. In early 1942, the closest US base was not hundreds but thousands of miles away. No bomber had that kind of range. Bombers carried a limited amount of fuel. No, the Japanese rested easy-nothing to worry about. The very idea of enemy bombers flying over Japan was preposterous. No, the Emperor and his military advisers were confident that the US would soon sue for peace and allow the Japanese to rule over their part of the world with little Western interference.
Cocky as they may have seemed at the time, the Japanese were right about one thing. It was, for the United States and her allies, a dark time indeed. In the opening months of the war, between December of 1941 and April, 1942 it was one disaster after another. First, there was the attack on Pearl Harbor which put most of the Pacific Fleet on the bottom of the harbor and took about two thousand Americans out of the war. This was followed by the loss of our outpost on Wake Island. The British, our allies, lost Singapore. The Dutch lost their East Indies and their entire Asian fleet at the battle of Java Sea. It seemed that Australia and maybe New Zealand would be next to fall to the Japanese juggernaut. And then, worst of all for the US, was the sorry business in the Philippines, where thousands of American and Filipino servicemen on the Bataan Peninsula had surrendered on April 9 and then subjected to a cruel seventy-mile forced march by their Japanese captors, the infamous “Bataan Death March.” Reports were filtering in to American authorities of terrible atrocities being inflicted upon thousands of helpless US prisoners.
By mid-April only the doomed garrison on the island of Corregidor out in Manila Bay remained. The brave defenders there were exhausted, sick, and running short on all supplies. Getting relief to them was impossible. Because the Imperial Japanese navy ruled the waters, any rescue or resupply mission was doomed to failure. Douglas McArthur, their commander, nicknamed by his men, “Dugout Doug” had escaped to Australia. Indeed, the gallant defenders of Corregidor were on their own. Their surrender was a foregone conclusion; it was simply a matter of time. And their time was fast running out.
Back home on the US mainland it wasn’t much better. A few miles off the West coast Japanese submarines or “E-boats” roamed the waters taking occasional shots at shipping or shore installations, causing no real damage but doing enough to create a mild state of panic. Though it was highly unlikely, millions of jittery, nervous Californians and others along the coast feared an invasion. Since angry, fearful Americans were able to do very little about the real enemy they turned their anger upon certain of their neighbors, those who looked like and often talked like and had cultural ties to the enemy. Japanese -Americans, the Issi and Nisei, suffered the consequences. With the signing of the infamous Executive Order 9066 “Exclusion zones” covering most of the West coast and California were established and tens of thousands of these now ostracized people were forced to either take their chances in unknown parts of the country where they doubted that they would be welcome or else go to live more or less as prisoners in vast camps established by the US government. The vast majority , for various reasons, chose to do the latter. Few of their fellow US citizens protested this drastic measure. Even the American Civil Liberties Union refused to intervene. Earl Warren, then the attorney general of California, supported it.
As far as the US conflict with the real enemy went, it was, on the opposite coast, worse, much worse. A dozen German U-boats, a tiny band, were busy sinking ships, both ours and those of our allies. There was little to stop them. Few US planes were in the air and only a pitiful few destroyers, Coast Guard or anti-submarine vessels were actively patrolling the waters. The stealthy U-boats were hard to spot and even harder to sink. From the beginning of the year to early June, only two U-boats were sunk. German Admirals couldn’t believe the fantastic reports they were getting from the U-boat captains, of how easy it was to sink ships coming in and out of ports such as Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Miami or even New York. On several occasions beachcombers stumbled across bodies washed up on the shore. Nighttime crowds often gathered at seaside resorts to watch ships burning in the distance. The Roosevelt administration did what it could to keep the situation out of the papers. In this they were mostly successful, but they knew that this suppression of the news couldn’t last. A general panic was just around the corner.
By mid-April, 1942, the war was not going well at all for the US. We needed a morale boost. Something to smile about. And we needed it bad.
Fortunately something was in the works. Earlier that year, on a cold day in January, Captain Francis “Frog” Low of the US Navy was making a report to his superiors in Norfolk when he noticed some planes taking off from long lines painted on a huge mass of asphalt representing the outline of an aircraft carrier. He had an idea. Could the US somehow do the same to Japan as Japan had done to the US at Pearl Harbor? Get an aircraft carrier or carriers within range and launch attack planes against a major Japanese military installation, perhaps even Tokyo itself. But this time it would be have to be bombers, not fighters. The range of a fighter was much too limited, a carrier could never get close enough undetected to launch fighters. Besides, a fighter, carrying one 500 lb bomb couldn’t pack much of a punch anyway. A bomber had a longer range and carried a heavier payload (more bombs) than a fighter. Surely there was a bomber in the US arsenal that could be launched from a carrier. It had never been done. But maybe. Well, he wondered…could this be done?
A few days later when Captain Low met with Admiral Ernest King in Washington, he found the admiral receptive to the idea. King ordered him to get an appointment with General “Hap” Arnold of the US Army Air Corps whose office was nearby. Low did as ordered. In that fateful meeting with Arnold he told the general that it a might be possible to tie some B-25 medium bombers onto a carrier and get them airborne on the high seas. Of course, they would have to land elsewhere after disposing of their payload. And the planes would be sacrificed, they couldn’t fly them home, any US base was too far away. But it would be an attack on the Japanese mainland and that was what mattered.
Like King, the good-natured Arnold was interested and wanted the matter studied further. At the conclusion of their meeting when Low rose to leave his office Arnold frowned and said: “If what you’re proposing is feasible, I think I’ve got the man for the job. But Captain, keep this under your hat. Don’t tell a soul.”
Enter Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. This extraordinary man, a native of California, was a genuine aviation pioneer at a time when millions of young men, including my uncle RE Hardaway, my father’s older brother, wanted above all else to be a pilot. It was the golden age of aviation, a time when dashing young pilots like Doolittle, Howard Hughes, and Charles Lindbergh, were big stars. His accomplishments were many. Keenly aware of every pilot’s sensual limitations, he became, in 1929, the first pilot ever to take off, fly, and land a plane using instruments alone- a stunning achievement at the time. He also won numerous trophies and took first place at many air races and competitive events. As a daredevil test pilot he did not seem to know the meaning of the word “fear.” When the US went to war in late 1941, at forty-five years old, Jimmy Doolittle stood at the top of his game. No other pilot possessed his credentials. No other pilot, especially since Lindbergh had recently fallen out of favor with the Roosevelt administration, was held in such high regard.
Doolittle loved the idea of a raid on Japan and once the plan was officially approved immediately went about raising and training his bomber crews. About eighty men, enough to operate sixteen bombers, were chosen. After being told by Col. Doolittle that the special mission for which they were training would be extremely dangerous and that they could, without dishonor, seek to be reassigned, not a single man flinched.
When the final decision was made to do the thing, a plan was formulated and the details had to be worked out quickly. Sixteen bombers were to be lashed to the deck of the carrier USS Hornet and carried to within five hundred miles of the Japanese mainland before launching against targets in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe. After releasing their bombs they would head for a friendly part of China not occupied by the Japanese and put down there. Only after the carrier left port were the men aboard, including the pilots and crews of the planes, to be informed of the true nature of their mission. The crews trained hard and furious. Because of weather –related issues, the raid had to occur on April 18. The carrier left San Francisco on April 2-destination: Japan. It was about as dangerous and risky a mission as could be imagined-just the sort of thing Jimmy Doolittle loved. He arranged not only to command the mission, but to pilot the first plane to launch. And so he did.
When the Hornet and her task force, (a group of accompanying vessels) entered Japanese waters in the wee morning hours of April 18 they soon encountered Japanese patrol and fishing vessels. With the element of surprise in jeopardy, Doolittle had no choice but to give the order to launch immediately, two hundred miles short of their intended launching point. This meant that the planes might not even have the fuel to make it to mainland China at all but be forced to land in the sea where their chances of survival were slim. They launched anyway. All sixteen planes got into the air successfully and made for their targets to the cheers and good wishes of the Hornet’s crew. The last plane to make it off the deck was called “Bat Out of Hell.”
The premature launch also meant that they would go over their targets not just before nightfall as planned but in the afternoon, in broad daylight giving the Japanese plenty of time to respond, both with antiaircraft guns or with interceptors, placing the sixteen crews in even more danger. At this point, only a fool with money to lose would have wagered on the safe return of any of those men. Realistically speaking, their chances of dropping a single bomb on Tokyo had diminished greatly. Once the cheering stopped on the Hornet, most of the men sadly assumed that the planes would be shot down before they ever reached their target. This already risky mission had suddenly become a suicide mission.
Survivors of the mission later said that the whole thing was surreal, almost like a dream, especially when Mount Fuji came into view. Due to the premature launch, destination plans changed and all planes stayed together and headed for Tokyo. They flew in formation practically at treetop level. Below them villagers smiled and waved, thinking them Japanese planes. Only when they reached the big city of nearly eight million souls and heard the explosions as the bombs hit their targets did the shocked Japanese realize that they were under attack. As the title of the book later penned by one of the bomb crew survivors suggests, THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO, the bombers made one run over their targets lasting about thirty seconds and were gone and over the sea before Japanese anti-aircraft crews could fire more than a few ineffective rounds. The whole thing happened very quickly. The Japanese were taken completely by surprise.
Once they realized what had just happened the Japanese were furious. Nothing like this had ever happened in their entire history. No foreign enemy had ever trod their soil or entered their airspace. It was, in many respects, Pearl Harbor in reverse.
Having done what they came to do, the Americans now had to make their escape and get to friendly territory. Their planes were to be sacrificed. They were short on fuel. Making it to safety seemed unlikely. Astonishingly enough, only one plane landed in the water and after many adventures on Chinese soil, most of the bomber pilots and crew members eventually made it home including Colonel Doolittle who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Brave Chinese allies made their return possible. And for their trouble thousands of Chinese in the following weeks paid a bitter price at the hands of the angry Japanese.
Little real damage was done to the industrial targets in Tokyo. But that wasn’t the point, the mission was purely psychological. The US wanted give the “Japs” a good scare and they did. Americans cheered up for the first time since December 7. When a smiling President Roosevelt was asked by reporters how the US had pulled it off, with that famous twinkle in his eye, he took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and said that the planes had taken off from bases in Shangri-La (a mythical place in the Himalayas made famous in a recent novel and movie).
I have a photo of my uncle RE with three new buddies posing outside their barracks at Kelly Field in Texas where they had entered air cadet basic training a couple of weeks before. They are obviously cheerful about something. According to my best calculations, the picture was taken sometime in late April, 1942 I’ve often wondered if they had just received the news of the Doolittle Raid.
Now things only got worse for Japan. In the April 18, 1942 Doolittle Raid the myth of Japanese invincibility was dealt it’s first in a long series of powerful blows that would shatter it completely, a small fore-taste of the bitter medicine the Japanese would have to swallow in the months and years to come culminating finally in the March 8, 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo and the terrible atomic mushroom cloud over Hiroshima the following August.