In the early weeks of 1942, America was outraged, humiliated, and demoralized. The battleships of its Pacific Fleet lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, victims of the Japanese surprise attack launched on December 7, 1941.
In the coming months, the U.S. and its allies could only stand by and watch as the Japanese juggernaut raced across the Pacific, crushing every British, Dutch, French, and American position in its path.
Following the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt furiously pressed the chiefs of the armed services to find a way to retaliate against the Japanese homeland, but no one knew how to overcome the logistical challenges.
Warplanes based on aircraft carriers were too small to inflict significant damage, and they didn’t hold enough fuel to make the mission feasible. Bombers could rain down destruction but were thought to be too large to take off and land from a carrier.
Then one cold January day someone got the idea that the B-25 “Mitchell,” a relatively new, twin-engine, medium bomber, might be able to take off from a flattop deck. Landing one of the planes on a carrier was out of the question, but after bombing Japan it would have just enough fuel to make it to friendly fields in China.
Army Air Corps commander Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold sent for Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, one of the era’s most famous aviators and a man Arnold knew to be “absolutely fearless.”
The only pilots qualified to fly B-25s in combat were members of the Army Air Corps’ 17th Bombardment Group stationed at Fort Pendleton, Oregon. Doolittle assembled more than 100 of the group’s officers and men and informed them that volunteers were needed for “a very hazardous mission.” Every man signed up.
The Army pilots underwent arduous training at a secret site on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Accustomed to taking off from mile-long runways, the fliers learned terrifying tactics for launching their planes from a short carrier deck. Meanwhile, two dozen B-25s were equipped with extra fuel tanks and stripped of all unnecessary weight.
"Bound for Tokyo"
On April 2, 1942, the carrier U.S.S. Hornet slipped out of San Francisco Bay with 16 bombers lashed to its flight deck. Cruisers and destroyers joined the carrier at sea, and the task force commander sent a message to all ships: “This force is bound for Tokyo.” A chorus of cheers rose from five thousand throats into the darkening Pacific skies.
The task force rendezvoused with the carrier Enterprise in mid-ocean, then continued steaming westward toward Japan. Onboard the ship, Doolittle’s Raiders, as the fliers came to be called, were told to memorize and practice an important Chinese phrase: lusha hoo metwa fugi, “I am an American.”
Because Japanese troops were occupying large portions of the Chinese mainland, the airmen also learned how to distinguish a Chinese friend from a Japanese foe. They studied maps, gambled, watched movies, ate ice cream, and contemplated their fate. Doolittle estimated that their odds of returning alive were less than fifty-fifty.
After two weeks at sea, as the task force approached enemy territory, the weather began to deteriorate. Seas grew tall as a three story building. Then, at 3 a.m. on April 18, radar detected a Japanese picket boat. A Navy cruiser attacked and sank the vessel, but not before its crew had broadcast an alert.
Plans called for Doolittle’s squadron to take off about 300 miles from Japan, but when spotted the American ships were still 700 miles offshore. After a brief discussion with naval commanders, Doolittle got the okay to proceed anyway. The klaxon sounded immediately, and the captain of the U.S.S. Hornet gave the order: “Army pilots, man your planes!"
The ship was rolling and pitching wildly as Doolittle became the first to attempt takeoff. The carrier’s flight officer was timing the rise and fall of the vessel’s bow to give the plane the benefit of the rising deck. “It was like riding a see-saw,” Doolittle said.
On signal, he revved his engines until his crew feared he’d burn them up, then lumbered down the deck. “We wondered what the wind would do to him,” said pilot Ted Lawson, who was four planes back in Ruptured Duck. “Everyone knew if he couldn’t, we couldn’t.”
Just as the carrier lifted up on a swell, Doolittle became airborne with only yards to spare. “He hung his ship almost straight up on its props,” Lawson said, so everyone could see the entire top of the plane, “then he leveled out.”
All 16 planes made it into the sky, but not before a navy crewman slipped on the soaking deck and thrust his arm into the whirring propeller of the last plane to take off.
"We got an aircraft carrier!"
Five hours later, flying low, the squadron reached the coast of Japan. Fishermen and farmers looked up and waved, assuming the warplanes were Japanese. The weather had cleared.
Most of the bombers homed in on Tokyo, which appeared immense and sprawling, like Los Angeles. Coming in at rooftop level gave the raiders a jump on the hundreds of anti-aircraft guns ringing the Japanese capital.
Doolittle spotted his target—a large munitions factory—and pulled up to 1,200 feet to reach bombing altitude. The bombardier dropped four incendiaries, setting the factory ablaze.
Another pilot headed across Tokyo for a large naval base in Yokohama. As the bomb bay doors opened, anti-aircraft fire, called flak, jolted the plane, but the bombardier managed to pull the lever. After a few seconds he shouted jubilantly, “We got an aircraft carrier!”
All the airmen half expected a cloud of Japanese fighters, called Zeros, to descend on them. But the raiders stormed in and out of their target cities so quickly that they largely eluded the enemy fighters.
At one point during the action the Japanese prime minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo, was approaching an airbase in a small official plane. As he descended to the runway, Doolittle’s B-25 flashed by without firing a shot. The general’s aide reported that the plane was “queer looking.”
Enterprise and Hornet , now speeding home, began picking up signals from Radio Tokyo telling of the raid. Great cheering broke out among the thousands of sailors aboard. They had done it! America had struck back!
Flying on Empty
Doolittle’s squadron reassembled over the Sea of Japan and flew westward into the setting sun. Not one of the B-25s had been shot down. Now all they had to do was make it to the landing fields in friendly Chinese territory.
But the Americans would now be landing in China at night, greatly complicating matters. To make things even worse, the weather once more began to deteriorate.
The China coast was lined with tall mountains that ranged deep into the interior. Visibility was zero, and the bombers were running out of fuel. There was no sign of the homing signals that were supposed to mark the runways. Doolittle decided that the only option was to keep flying until they ran out of gas, then bail out into the dark, rainy night.
As each plane’s engines began to choke and sputter, the pilots and crew dropped one by one through the open bomb bay into who knew what. Miraculously, only three men were killed in landing. Japanese soldiers captured eight others; three of these were executed, and the rest were horribly tortured and sentenced to life in prison.
Doolittle himself plunged into in a rice paddy fertilized with human waste. He tried calling out lusha hoo metwa fugi at several huts, but nobody understood him.
One pilot landed in a tree and, in what may be the only instance of a cigarette saving a person’s life, he lit up before cutting himself free and dropping to the ground. He finished smoking, tossed the still-glowing butt into the air, and watched in horror as it disappeared into the blackness far, far below. The tree that snagged his parachute stood on the edge of a thousand-foot cliff.
Another American, seeking both to hide and escape from the cold, started to climb into a long wooden box resting on sawhorses in a barn, only to discovered that it was a casket containing "a very elderly Chinese gentleman."
Most of Doolittle’s five-man crews were reunited the next day. Friendly Chinese sheltered and transported them—by rickshaw, sedan chair, donkey, oxcart, bicycle, and piggyback—to the safety of American lines, where they were greeted as heroes.
News of the daring attack was trumpeted from radios and newspapers around the world, putting fresh heart in demoralized Allied forces. More importantly, the hit-and-run raid helped military planners gain vital intelligence that would change the course of the war.
Before the Doolittle mission, the Japanese navy was observing near radio silence, frustrating the efforts of American cryptographers, who had deciphered only about 10 percent of the Imperial Navy's code book. The stunning airstrike at the heart of Japan unleashed a torrent of coded messages, so that within a few weeks American codebreakers had cracked nearly 90 percent of the Japanese naval code.
Little more than a month later, in June 1942, Japan dispatched four of its six large aircraft carriers to attack a U.S. military outpost on Midway Island. The forewarned Americans were waiting in ambush and sank all four of the Japanese carriers. The devastating loss crippled the Japanese fleet and helped turn the tide of the war in the Allies' favor.
When Jimmy Doolittle arrived back at Army Air Corps headquarters in Washington, he found Hap Arnold and Army Chief-of-Staff George Marshall waiting for him. He was going to the White House to see the president, they announced.
“What for?” Doolittle asked, worried that he'd be court-martialed for losing an entire squadron of planes.
“Because he’s going to give you the Medal of Honor,” General Marshall replied.
Winston Groom is the author of more than 20 books, including The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight.