News of Doolittle raid leaks slowly as Roosevelt keeps silence

Coy with the press over Japanese reports

In the days following Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle’s daring raid on Tokyo and five other Japanese cities, no one was talking — not even President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Speaking to reporters on April 21, 1942, three days after the mission, an almost playful Roosevelt still wouldn’t confirm news stories originating from Japan that the bombing run had taken place.

“Would you care to go so far as to confirm the truth of the Japanese reports that Tokyo was bombed?” a reporter asked the president, according to news conference transcripts.

“No, I couldn’t even do that,” Roosevelt replied. “I am depending on Japanese reports very largely.”

Japanese media first reported the Doolittle mission just hours after it had taken place. American outlets, including the New York Times, announced shortly thereafter that Tokyo and other Japanese cities had been bombed by American planes, painting it as the first retaliation against the Japanese homeland following the brazen attack on Pearl Harbor less than four months earlier. Their reports, while not verified by Roosevelt or military officials, weren’t denied, either.

But many questions remained, chief among them being where the 16 B-25 bombers had launched. The Doolittle Raid, the first joint operation between the U.S. Army Air Force and the Navy, was also the first time B-25s had taken off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The planes previously had been used exclusively for land-based missions, and most reporters and others weren’t considering the possibility they had taken off at sea.

Playing coy, Roosevelt said the bombers had taken off from “Shangri-La,” a fictional location in the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon.” Two years later, as an homage to the president’s wisecrack, the Navy commissioned an aircraft carrier named the USS Shangri-La. It remained in service until the early 1970s.

While Roosevelt was intent on staying mum, members of Congress did not follow suit. Some speculated that the mission must have launched from China.

“That is about the only place from which an air attack could have been carried out successfully,” said Colorado Sen. Edwin C. Johnson, according to an April 18 New York Times article.

In reality, most of the 80 Doolittle Raiders bailed out over China or crashed near the coast after taking off from the USS Hornet more than 600 miles from Japan.

Other officials were quoted in the same Times story praising the raid, which confirmed the rumors that it had, in fact, taken place.

“This will prove TNT in boosting morale, not only at home, but especially in China and Russia,” said Pennsylvania Rep. John Buell Snyder, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on war expenditures.

Sen. D. Worth Clark of Idaho also lauded the mission, saying, “This is the only way we are going to win the war — start right in bombing them at home.”

Some secrecy lingered, but in 1944, Doolittle and his Raiders were cemented in American history after being portrayed in the film “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”

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