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Even the most optimistic military men conceded that the attack, if successful, would do little tangible damage to the Japanese war machine. Often depicted as the tit-for-tat answer to Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid actually was more of a pinprick, Mr. Symonds and other historians say.

Each plane carried four 500-pound bombs. Encountering only light antiaircraft fire from Japanese ground forces, the planes dropped bombs on 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, the raid’s primary objective, and on two sites in Yokohama. Locations in Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and Yokosuka also were hit. The effects of the mission paled in comparison to the damage the Japanese had inflicted at Pearl Harbor, where more than 2,000 Americans had been killed and nearly 200 aircraft destroyed.

But what the Doolittle raid lacked in terms of physical damage, it made up for by dealing a stunning psychological blow to Japanese leaders and citizens, all of whom had believed they would be shielded from antagonists by godlike forces.

“The mission was designed for a couple of reasons,” said raider Richard E. Cole, now 96 years old and the co-pilot of plane No. 1, the first off the deck of the Hornet and the one piloted by Doolittle. “It was designed to let the Japanese people know that their government was lying to them about the island being impregnable. The divine wind, they thought … would keep aerial attacks away.”

The bombing had an equally significant impact on the American public, which had been waiting nearly four months for a response to Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the raid’s loudest cheerleaders, knew the U.S. psyche badly needed a boost. During the first few months of 1942, morale across the U.S., each of the surviving Raiders said, was at an all-time low as Americans wondered when, or if, the nation would strike back.

Pressure on FDR and others mounted quickly. With the Japanese continuing to push forces farther throughout the Pacific theater, something needed to be done quickly, both to bolster the U.S. military’s hopes of waging a winning war in the Pacific and to counter the increasingly sour mood at home.

“It was the idea of saying to America, ‘We will make this right.’ And the idea of saying to the Japanese, ‘You’re not untouchable,’” said Clarence R. “Dick” Anderegg, head of the Pentagon’s U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program. “This would be a message to the American public that we could get in this war, that we could strike back.”

Flight adjustments

To ensure they would make it to their targets, the 16 B-25s were stripped to the bone to make them lighter. Most of the guns were removed and replaced by black broomsticks and piping, meant to intimidate enemy pilots who strayed too close. Much of the planes’ navigation equipment was taken out, leaving Mr. Griffin and the other 15 navigators with nothing but simple compasses as their only guides while flying over the vast Pacific Ocean.

Despite the detailed planning, the mission still ran into problems even before the first plane left the Hornet’s deck. The plan called for the ships to get about 400 miles off the coast of Japan before they took off — considered the closest they could come without being spotted. But Japanese scout ships, deployed to the far reaches of the Pacific to warn of approaching enemies, spotted the two vessels while they were more than 600 miles away.

The raid was scheduled to commence at dusk, but with the element of surprise in doubt, Doolittle decided to launch it 10 hours earlier and about 200 miles farther out to sea than planned.

Storms during the morning of April 18, which brought heavy rains and fierce winds, made matters even worse for the Raiders.

“When I got in the airplane, the wind was blowing across the deck so hard I couldn’t hardly stand up,” said David Thatcher, 91, an engineer-gunner on Crew No. 7.

Once in the air, the planes flew toward Japan with no discernible formation. Each took its own separate path, enabling the crews to move as quickly as possible, thereby conserving fuel. The mood inside each plane was tense. None of the raiders, including Doolittle, knew exactly what would happen to them after the bombs had been dropped.

To help stay calm, Mr. Saylor reached for a small bottle of whiskey he had brought along for the trip.

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