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After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American military was on the defensive. They had been hit hard, and it would be months before they could regroup and strike back.
However, one American officer had an idea. He hatched a plan where the Americans could strike back immediately to let the Japanese know that they were vulnerable.
It was a risky one-way mission unlike any in the history of warfare.
Learn more about the Doolittle Raid on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
It is hard to express just how much of a gut punch the attack on Pearl Harbor was to the United States.
The country had tried hard over the previous year to stay out of the war. Most Americans figured even if the United States did go to war, it wouldn’t be anytime soon, and if it happened, it would probably be Germany that dragged them into the conflict.
Everyone was shocked to find out on December 7, 1941, that they were attacked by the Empire of Japan. Not only were 2,335 soldiers killed, but four battleships were sunk, and 188 aircraft were destroyed. Most of them never even got off the ground.
In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, there was a desire to do…..something.
The problem was that the United States was in no position to immediately do anything. They had to regroup the navy, recruit soldiers, build ships, and start revving up the machine, which was to be the American wartime economy.
While serious confrontation with Japan was still months away, one officer in the US Army had an idea. It was an audacious idea that would satiate the American desire to strike back and show the Japanese that even their home island wasn’t safe.
Enter into the story Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle.
He was a student at the University of California Berkley when he took a leave of absence to join the Army as a pilot in the Signal Corps Reserve in 1917.
At this time, the Army Signal Corp was the home of all the aircraft in the American military, as there was no air force or even an air corps at this time.
Doolittle went through flight training, was certified as a pilot, and became an officer in the Signal Corp Reserve. He then spent all of the first world war in the United States as a flight instructor.
At the end of the war, he remained in the Army with a regular commission and was an inaugural member of the new Army Air Service.
He studied aviation mechanics and engineering and completed his degree back at Berkley.
In the 1920s, he became famous as an aviator, making the first cross-country flight in 1922.
He attended MIT and received a master’s and a doctorate in aeronautical engineering. He was awarded the first doctorate in aeronautical engineering in the United States.
He set more aviation records, went on goodwill tours in South America, and became a tireless advocate for aviation.
He was one of the first people to recognize the importance of instrument flying. By using aviation instruments aboard an airplane, Doolittle realized it was possible to fly through fog and darkness, which would otherwise ground an aircraft.
In 1930 he was moved to reserve status and took the position of head of aviation at Shell Oil. He convinced them to invest in refining capacity to produce 100 octane fuel, which seemed totally unnecessary at the time, but later proved to be vital in the war effort.
He returned to active duty status with the Army Air Corps in July of 1940 and worked with automakers to prepare them for their switch to aircraft production.
Long story short, Jimmy Doolittle really understood aircraft.
Just two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt told his top generals that he wanted to attack Japan as soon as possible to improve morale.
While the desire to bomb Japan was there, the big question was how to do it.
Japan had taken Guam and the Philippines, which were the US advanced positions in the Pacific.
The person who was assigned to organize the mission was Jimmy Doolittle.
The seed of the idea, which became the core of the Doolittle Raid, came from Captain Francis S. Low, who was the assistant Chief of Staff for antisubmarine warfare.
He had seen twin-engine bombers take off from a runway with the outline of an aircraft carrier. He figured smaller bombers could take off from an actual aircraft carrier.
For those of you who don’t know much about aircraft carriers, bombers and aircraft carriers don’t usually mix.
Doolittle figured that launching a bomber from an aircraft carrier was possible, but it needed to be the right bomber.
He looked at several different bombers, including the Martin B-26 Marauder, Douglas B-18 Bolo, and Douglas B-23 Dragon.
He selected the North American B-25 because the other planes didn’t fit as well on an aircraft carrier.
However, there was a slight problem.
While the B-25 could take off from an aircraft carrier…..it couldn’t land on one.
Doolittle’s solution was just to make it a one-way flight. The bombers would take off from an aircraft carrier and then just keep flying to land somewhere else.
The first idea, and it was actually a good one, was to fly onto Vladivostok in the Soviet Union and then just give the Soviets the planes as part of the Lend-Lease program.
The Soviets nixed it because they had a treaty of non-aggression with Japan. Japan had a large army located in northern China, and if the Soviets were to pick a fight with Japan, the Japanese could easily flood into Siberia.
The Soviets were in no position to open a second front in the war, so they politely declined.
The next idea was to fly the planes to China. The Chinese were fighting the Japanese, and there were Chinese-controlled areas where they could land. China’s leader Chiang Kai-shek approved the plan, knowing that there could be reprisals against Chinese civilians.
On February 3, 1942, they ran tests launching B-25s from the USS Hornet off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. Everything worked fine.
The original plan was to use 20 B-25s, and 24 of them were assigned to the mission.
Each of the bombers had to be customized to reduce weight to make them more fuel efficient to increase their flying distance. Gun turrets were removed, as were other unnecessary components for the mission, and extra fuel tanks were added.
Each bomber carried four 500-pound or 225-kilogram bombs. Three were high explosives, and one was an incendiary device.
In the end, 16 bombers were selected for the missions, each with a skeleton crew of five, for a total of 80 men who would take part in the raid. Doolittle himself volunteered to pilot one of the bombers.
The bombers flew to the Alameda Naval Air Station in California, where they were loaded onto the USS Hornet on April 1.
The next day, the Hornet, another aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, and a group of escort ships set out into the Pacific.
For fuel purposes, the goal was to get as close to the Japanese mainland as possible.
On April 18, they encountered a small Japanese patrol boat about 1,200 kilometers or 750 miles off the coast of Japan. They managed to sink the boat, but not before it sent off a radio warning.
Knowing that the Japanese navy could be on its way to meet them, Doolittle decided to launch the bombers 310 kilometers or 200 miles shorter than the planned launch point.
All 16 bombers managed to take off without incident. They spent the next six hours flying just above the water to avoid detection. They split up into groups of 2 to 4 bombers to all attack separate targets.
Around noon local time, the planes climbed to 1500 feet and attacked their targets. There were ten targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama, and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka.
The bombers encountered very little in the way of anti-aircraft fire or air defense. No one in Japan seriously thought that they could be attacked from the air.
There were some fighters sent up to intercept the bombers, but they were unsuccessful. The bombers shot down three fighters, and only one of the B-25s took damage.
As the planes left Japan, one of the bombers was very low on fuel and decided to risk landing in the Soviet Union.
They managed to land safely but were detained by the Soviets because of their neutrality with Japan. In reality, it was mostly for show. The pilots said they were treated well, and after a few months, when everything calmed down, the Soviets took them to what is today Turkmenistan where they were allowed to cross the border into Iran.
The other 15 plans all headed to China.
Because they had to take off sooner than expected, none of the planes had enough fuel to make it to a designated landing strip. In fact, it if wasn’t for an unexpected tailwind, none of them would have made it. They all had to bail out and let their planes crash.
The crews were scattered all over the place, and no one knew where the other crews were.
Eventually, most of the crews managed to receive help from Chinese soldiers or civilians. One of the pilots died when bailing out over China.
Two of the five-man crews were missing. They later found out that two of the ten men died in their plane when it crashed into the sea. The other eight men were captured by the Japanese.
All eight were put on trial and sentenced to death. Three were actually executed, and one died in captivity. The remaining four survived until the end of the war.
When Doolittle was finally reunited with his men in China, he thought the mission to be a complete failure. All 16 of the bombers had been lost, and the amount of actual damage they did over Japan was minimal.
He felt for sure that he would be court-martialed upon his return.
Jimmy Doolittle couldn’t have been more wrong.
Unbeknownst to him, the American fortress at Bataan in the Philippines had fallen just days before their raid, which only added to the bad American war news.
The Doolittle Raid was the first good news that the Americans had in the war. It was a huge morale booster and propaganda success.
While he was still in China, Doolittle was promoted two full ranks to that of major general. When he returned to the United States, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. All 80 of the men were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and on the insistence of Doolittle, all of the men were promoted.
The biggest repercussion of the raid were the reprisals carried out by the Japanese against the Chinese. The Japanese wanted to make sure that the Chinese mainland would never be used again to attack Japan.
10,000 people were killed in the search for the missing airmen.
Even more devastating were what was known as the Zhejiang-Jiangxi reprisals. The city of Nancheng was burned to the ground after days of rape and murder.
The Japanese also used biological weapons to spread disease in the region, spreading cholera, plague, typhoid, and anthrax. They would contaminate food and water supplies as they left the region.
In total, an estimated 250,000 people were killed.
Of the men who survived, most went on to fly in other theaters of the war. Twelve of the survivors died in combat within fifteen months of being rescued in China.
After the war, Doolittle’s Raiders became famous for holding an annual reunion. The high point of each reunion was a toast made by the surviving raiders. Silver goblets were made for each of the 80 men with their names engraved on them.
A roll call would be held each year and a toast drunk from a bottle of cognac. When one of the raiders passed away, their goblet would be turned upside down in the case which held them.
The annual reunion was held for over 60 years, with the last occurring in 2013.
The last surviving Doolittle Raider was Lt Col. Richard Cole, who passed away at the age of 103 in 2019.
As for Jimmy Doolittle himself, he eventually became a two-star general during the war and was then promoted to a four-star general in 1985.
He was active in the development of American space policy in the 1950s, Air and Space Magazine placed him number one on their list of greatest pilots of all time in 2003.
He was given almost every military and civilian award you can think of, including being inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in the air racing category. He was even given an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II and made a commander of the Order of the Bath.
He died at the age of 96 in 1993.
The Doolittle Raid has been the subject of books and movies, most famously the 1940s book and film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
There is a large museum display about the Doolittle Raid at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. The original silver goblets used during their annual reunion are included in the exhibit.
To be perfectly honest, the Doolittle Raid did next to nothing from a military standpoint. They dropped very few bombs, and they did very little damage to any important targets.
However, they were responsible for an enormous boost in morale when the Americans were at their lowest. It also forced the Japanese to redirect resources and manpower to defend their mainland as they now knew it was vulnerable to attack.
Mostly, it was an audacious and daring mission, the likes of which has never been attempted before or since.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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