The Doolittle raid


By Spencer Warren

Sixty-five years ago today, eighty American flyers, led by Lt. Colonel James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, staged our first bombing attack on Japan. Only four months after Pearl Harbor, at a time when Imperial Japan was on the march in China, the Philippines, the western Pacific and southwest Pacific toward Australia, through the Dutch East Indies and Singapore, Malaya, Thailand and Burma, when the Nazi Panzers were striking deeper and deeper into Soviet Russia and Rommel was pushing back the British in Libya toward the Suez Canal, these brave young men struck the first offensive blow that inspired America, and free peoples everywhere.

President Roosevelt wanted to hit back at Japan as soon as possible after Pearl Harbor. But how could we strike Japan with most of our Pacific Fleet sunk or severely damaged? Navy and Army Air Force experts devised the plan whereby Army Air Force bombers—Navy aircraft could not carry enough bomb payload and their range was too limited—would take off from an aircraft carrier that would sail to within 400 miles of Japan. Such large, land-based aircraft had never before taken off from a carrier.

They turned to the renowned aviation pioneer, pilot and aeronautics expert Lt. Colonel Doolittle to supervise and plan the mission in detail. He chose the B-25B Mitchell twin engine medium bomber and with the Navy directed the special, top secret training of the crews—all volunteers, who were told only that they were going on a very dangerous mission. Doolittle also directed the many technical modifications required for the aircraft. Sixteen bombers (five men to each crew) participated in the attack. Although he was forty-five years old, Doolittle asked to lead the mission and went through all the training with his men. Dr. Thomas White felt the mission needed a physician, so he volunteered for gunnery training and served as a crewman.

The sixteen B-25s were loaded on the new carrier, the U.S.S. Hornet, which set sail with its task force from Alameda in California on April 2, 1942. Under the command of Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, they joined up with another carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise (all our carriers providentially were out of Pearl Harbor on December 7th) and steamed across the Pacific. The task force of sixteen vessels included destroyers, cruisers and tankers—our battleships lay under the surface of Pearl Harbor. Utmost secrecy had to be maintained lest they give warning to the vastly superior enemy fleet.

Early on the morning of April 18, 1942, about 650 miles from Japan, they sighted an enemy picket boat, which radioed a warning. The boat was sunk, and it was decided to launch the B-25s immediately, one day early and about 200 miles farther from the targets. None of the aircraft had ever actually taken off from the deck of a carrier, but all launched safely. Flying single-file “on the deck” (200 hundred feet above the tips of the waves) to avoid detection, they climbed as they began their bombing runs about noon, striking military and industrial targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya. On one bomb the men inscribed these messages: “I don’t want to set the world on fire—just Tokyo” and “You’ll get a BANG out of this.” Thanks to Doolittle’s brilliant tactics, they achieved surprise and encountered only generally light anti-aircraft fire and few enemy fighters. The American and British embassies had yet to be evacuated, and the staffs ran to the rooftops when they heard the attack on Tokyo. They were thrilled, and the British drank toasts to the American flyers all that day and into the night. (Doolittle had to direct his men strictly to restrain their desire to bomb the Imperial Palace.)

Fifteen of the sixteen bombers proceeded to China, where a landing field was supposed to await them at Chuchow, beyond the area occupied by the Japanese Army. But they were running out of fuel and became engulfed in a heavy rain storm over the China Sea as night fell. As a result, eleven crews bailed out over land, one aircraft landed in a rice paddy and three ditched in the sea along the coast, all in enemy-occupied territory. The experience of the crew of the ditched bomber Ruptured Duck was recounted in the famous magazine series and book by Captain Ted W. Lawson, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which was made into an MGM movie in 1944 (with brilliant special effects of the raid, including some footage shot by the crews, and the aftermath in China.) Lawson lost a leg, but Doc White saved his life. One other crew headed for neutral (vis-à-vis Japan) Soviet Vladivostok, where they were interned; eventually, in 1943, they escaped from Stalinist Russia into Iran!

Not one raider was lost to enemy action. But two, Sergeants William J. Dieter and Donald E. Fitzmaurice, were killed when their aircraft ditched, and one, Corporal Leland D. Faktor, died after he bailed out. Eight were captured; of these, three—Lieutenants Dean E. Hallmark and William G. Farrow, and Sergeant Harold A. Spatz—were executed, forced to rest on their knees, by firing squad following a mock trial, on October 15, 1942. One, Lieutenant Robert J. Meder, died in captivity from barbaric mistreatment in 1943. The other four were tortured, starved and held in solitary confinement till they were liberated in August 1945. One of these, Corporal Jacob D. DeShazer, found faith studying a Bible he was given in captivity; after the war he became a missionary and served in Japan for more than thirty years.

All the other men, led by Doolittle—a leader with a capital L—made it to safety with the assistance of Chinese partisans and civilians. Having lost all his aircraft, Doolittle thought he had failed and would be court-martialed. Instead, his bold raid electrified a nation that had been reeling from defeat. He was awarded the Medal of Honor personally by President Roosevelt.

Japan, outraged by this attack on its “sacred” home island, retaliated by slaughtering an estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians while searching for the raiders. In addition to the inspiration the raid created at home, it contributed to Japan’s decision to attack Midway Island near Hawaii the following June. This proved to be the decisive battle of the Pacific War. Outnumbered, our three carriers’ aircraft sank all four of the enemy carriers, for the loss of our one, the U.S.S. Yorktown. Only six months after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, the United States had begun the long, arduous road to victory.

This is the “epic deed” recounted in Colonel Carroll V. Glines’s definitive book The Doolittle Raid.

The raiders have held an annual reunion every year since the late 1940’s. Fourteen of the eighty survive, and seven are attending this year’s reunion in San Antonio, Texas, joined by Doolittle’s son, Colonel John Doolittle, his daughter Jonna Doolittle Hoppes (author of a new memoir about her grandparents), and Colonel Glines. The honor roll of raiders attending includes:

Major-General David M. Jones, Pilot, Crew #5
Lt. Colonel Richard E. Cole, Co-Pilot, Crew #1
Staff Sergeant David J. Thatcher, Engineer-Gunner, Crew #7 (the Ruptured Duck)
Major Thomas C. Griffin, Navigator, Crew #9
Master Sergeant Edwin W. Horton, Engineer-Gunner, Crew #10
Colonel William M. Bower, Pilot, Crew #12
Lt. Colonel Robert L. Hite, Co-Pilot, Crew #16

Hite was one of those who endured forty months of savage captivity in Japanese hands. Jones and Griffin later were shot down by the Germans and were held as POWS for two and a half and almost two years respectively, until their liberation in April 1945. (For a time they were imprisoned in the camp featured in the movie, The Great Escape. Jones was a tunnel digger.) Photos and biographical information on the raiders can be found at (Click on raiders’ biographies in the left column.)

Today, not many Americans under age fifty can identify the Doolittle Raid, or the Battle of Midway, for that matter. What does that say about our education system and the people who run it?

- end of initial entry -

David H. writes:

I thoroughly enjoy this piece by Mr. Warren on these often-forgotten American heroes. Such entries as this are a very nice addition to the ongoing analysis at VFR and have a rightful place on a traditionalist website.

If not for the Japanese submarine I-168, which torpedoed the U.S.S. Yorktown after the battle, we’d not have lost a single carrier at Midway.

The American education system is indeed a shameful mess; what I have learned of World War II, the Civil War, practically all the history I know, I have learned from sources outside of the “educational establishment.” It’s nice to see VFR providing some of that education as well (I myself learned something very interesting—I knew some of the men had been interned in the USSR, but did not know that they escaped before 1945—via Iran).

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 18, 2007 02:10 AM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):