Today the United States wields far-reaching global military muscle as the sole remaining superpower. So it is difficult for younger people to realize how desperate and battered Americans felt in the early months of World War II.
That is why a daring mission 63 years ago today — with strength and numbers that might have caused it to be discountenanced as a stunt — had such a powerful effect not only on Americans but also the Japanese leaders and people.
On April 18, 1942, 16 Army Air Force B-25s took off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet on what became known as the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.
Starting with the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, one U.S. and Allied defeat had been stacked on another, one disaster after another. Amidst the national anger after the Japanese sneak attack that brought the United States into the war, President Roosevelt pressed the military for any sort of attack against Tokyo.
There was no Allied base close enough to Japan, however, for the launch of such a retaliatory mission. Months passed with no answer. Then a Navy staff officer on a visit to Norfolk saw painted on the ground at a nearby airfield the outline of a carrier deck, inspiring the idea of flying land-based bombers — with their greater range — off a carrier.
Under a heavy cloak of secrecy, Capt. Marc Mitscher, Hornet’s commander, found B-25s could be airborne from as little as 500 feet of deck. The raid was no longer only a hope but became a plan for action.
On April 8, the same day the American and Filipinos surrendered on the Bataan Peninsula, the carrier USS Enterprise and escorts steamed out of Pearl Harbor for a rendezvous with a sister carrier and destiny. Six days earlier, Hornet and escorts had left San Francisco with 16 B25s in two parallel rows on deck. The two carriers joined forces April 13 under command of Vice Adm. William F. Halsey.
The eventual operation was more daring than most of the 16,000 men in the task force could imagine. After refueling on April 17, Hornet, Enterprise and four cruisers left the destroyers and support ships behind and dashed westward as fast as possible toward the Japanese home islands.
Things were going according to plan until 3 a.m. April 18, when radar picked up surface contacts. Halsey maneuvered his force around the contacts and continued west. But at 6 o’clock a patrolling plane 42 miles ahead spotted a Japanese picket ship.
Amid stormy seas, Adm. Halsey pushed on. Ninety minutes later, the Hornet’s lookouts spotted the masts of more Japanese picket ships. About 200 miles short of the planned launching line, Adm. Halsey decided he could gamble no more, and ordered the B-25s into the air.
And so Col. James Doolittle led his flight of bombers off the carrier. Many of the planes nearly stalled after leaving the flight deck, a much shorter run-out than on land, but the high winds helped them lift up and fly away.
Launched so far from the target, the B25s didn’t spend fuel forming up but headed directly west in a long ragged line behind Doolittle, while the carriers immediately headed home.
Radiomen on the task force tuned into Radio Tokyo, which was airing a propaganda program in English. Suddenly, a little after noon Tokyo time, the broadcaster’s careful diction gave way to frantic Japanese and then dead air.
As air raid sirens blared and anti-aircraft guns began barking, the first B-25s raced in at an altitude of 2,000 feet and emptied their bomb bays. Military targets across Tokyo were hit by Col. Doolittle and 12 other bombers: an oil tank farm, a steel mill and several power plants. To the south, targets in Yokohama and Yokosuka were hit. Still, some civilian targets were hit: six schools and an army hospital.
It was never part of the plan for the bombers to return to the fleet. While they could take off from a carrier’s deck, it was much too short for landing. An airfield in China had been selected for the planes’ landings, but with the early takeoff it was much too far.