The Doolittle Raid

Monday, August 13, 2012

Within 24 hours of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway were also attacked.  The United States was not ready for war in the Pacific and immediate prospects were bleak.  Franklin D. Roosevelt mentioned the idea of a raid on Japan in a meeting of his Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 21st.  The main purpose of the raid was to lift American morale and to shake the confidence of the Japanese people whose leaders had told them their islands were invulnerable to attack.  The bombing mission was carried out by sixteen B-25 Mitchell medium bombers led by former stunt pilot and aeronautical engineer Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. 

B-25 Mitchell Bomber
(Photos thanks to Wikipedia)

Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle moved the 17th Bombing Group to Columbia, South Carolina and asked for volunteers for an “extremely hazardous” unspecified mission from which it was doubtful if they would return alive.  Because the raid was top secret, the men who volunteered were not told where they were going until after the aircraft carrier had left Alameda, California.  B-25 bombers had never been tested in combat before, but they were chosen as best for a carrier take-off.  The planes were given several modifications.  Three additional fuel tanks were installed; steel blast plates were mounted on the fuselage around the upper turret to protect the gunners.  The lower gun turret and the liaison radio set were removed to make the plane lighter.  Mock gun barrels were installed on the tail cone to scare off attacks from behind, and the Norden bombsights were replaced with Captain Ross Greening’s $0.20 makeshift bombsights because it was very likely some planes would fall into enemy hands.  The men received 3 weeks of intensive training at Eglin Field, Florida where they practiced short takeoffs.

USS Hornet

  On April 1, 1942, the 16 bombers with their 5 man crews and the Army maintenance men (a total of 71 officers and 130 enlisted men) were loaded onto the USS Hornet.  The Hornet and Task Force 18 left the port on April 2nd.  Soon after, they rendezvoused with the USS Enterprise and Task Force 16 which would protect the Hornet in case of enemy attack.  The Hornet’s fighter planes were below deck to make room for the B-25s which were tied onto the deck, and so the Hornet could not defend herself.  The two aircraft carriers and their combined task forces of three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers, and two fleet oilers proceeded in radio silence until April 17th when the oilers refueled the fleet and withdrew.  The rest of the fleet continued toward Japan at top speed until they were spotted by the Japanese patrol boat No. 23 Nitto Maru, 1200 km from Japan.  The Nitto Maru radioed a warning to Japan before it was destroyed by the task force, but since the patrol boat did not send a confirmation message, Japanese authorities disregarded the warning.  Jimmy Doolittle and the Hornet’s skipper, Captain Mitscher, decided not to take any chances on the carriers’ safety.  The B-25s were launched 310 kilometers farther away from Japan than had been planned.  Doolittle piloted the first plane, and between 8:20 and 9:19 A.M. all 16 of the planes took off for Japan.  In spite of the fact that none of the pilots had ever taken off from a carrier before, there were no major mishaps during takeoff. 

Six hours later, the planes flew over Japan.  Each plane had a fuel payload of 1141 gallons and four 225 kg bombs, three of which were explosives and the other was a bundle of incendiaries.  The planes bombed 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, 2 in Yokohama, and 1 each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka; but the material damage was negligible.  Fifty Japanese died and four hundred were injured—including civilians.  Although some of the planes faced fighter resistance and others faced anti-aircraft, only one plane was slightly damaged by the anti-aircraft and none of the Americans were shot.  

Landing the aircraft proved to be much more difficult.  The United States had negotiated with the United Socialist Soviet Republics to land in Vladivostok, but since the USSR had signed a neutrality treaty with Japan, they refused to let the Americans land there.  Instead, the intended landing fields were further away, in mainland China.  Unfortunately, no message had reached the fields to turn on their lights, so the fields were impossible to find.   In fact, none of the planes would have reached China at all except for a tail wind that increased their ground speed by 25 knots for 7 hours.  Fifteen of the bombers either crashed landed in China or their crews bailed out, completing the longest B-25 combat mission ever flown--on average, 4,170 km.

Ski York's B-25 in the Soviet Union
(thanks to

 The bomber piloted by “Ski” York had engine trouble, and so the engine used up too much fuel.  York decided it was impossible to make it to China, and so he landed at a field in the Soviet Union near Vladivostok.  The Soviets confiscated the bomber and interned the crew for 13 months.  In May 1943, York and his crew escaped with a smuggler into Persia. 

Doolittle and his crew

Doolittle parachuted into a rice paddy in a Japanese controlled area of China.  He soon found his crew, and they were helped to safety by Chinese guerillas and American missionary John Birch.* 

One man from the 3rd bomber’s crew (captained by Lieutenant Gray) died when his parachute malfunctioned.

Ted Lawson

Ted Lawson, pilot of the 7th plane, and his crew crash-landed and all except for one man were injured.  They were aided by Chinese locals (the Japanese killed 250,000 Chinese because the locals helped the raiders) and American missionaries.  Ted Lawson’s leg had to be amputated, and he barely escaped death.  One of his crew, McClure, remained hospitalized until 1943.  Ted Lawson’s story is documented in the movie Thirty Seconds over Tokyo

Most of the other crews also bailed out or crash landed and made it back to safety with only minor injuries.  One airman grabbed an arm load of canned foods as he left his plane—he didn’t want to go hungry—unfortunately, he had to let go of his bounty because it was impossible to pull the parachute’s rip cord with his arms full!  Some of these men were later killed on other battle fronts, and many of them became prisoners of war in Germany.  At least one of the men later helped dig tunnels out of the prison camp in Germany for “The Great Escape” from Stalag Luft 3.

The members of the 6th crew, piloted by Hallmark, were less fortunate.  The bombardier and engineer gunner both drowned when their plane crash-landed in the ocean off the coast of China.  The pilot (Hallmark), co-pilot (Meder), and navigator (Neilson) were all captured by the Japanese.  The entire crew of the 16th bomber was also captured by the Japanese.  Three of the men captured by the Japanese (pilots Hallmark and Farrow and gunner Spatz) were given a war crimes trial and executed by a firing squad.  Meder died on December 1, 1943 in a Japanese prison.  The other four men were tortured brutally, water boarded, and kept on a starvation diet for 40 months.  Jacob DeShazer, the bombadier for the 16th plane, reported that 36 of those months were spent in solitary confinement.  DeShazer became extremely bitter and was filled with hate for the Japanese.  Finally, after 2 years, a guard agreed to give him a Bible.  Jacob DeShazer was not a Christian, but then he read the Bible, realized it was God’s word, and knew God was real.  He said the Holy Spirit came to him in a wonderful way, and God started talking to him.  “When I was a prisoner,” he said, “I was afraid I was going to die and I told God, I don’t want to go up there with empty hands; I want to do something for Jesus.”  The hatred and bitterness left him, and he promised God that if he survived, he’d come back to Japan as a missionary. 
Jacob DeShazer

 One day, he read how Jesus said to love our enemies.  His Japanese guard was exceptionally cruel, and DeShazer thought, “God can’t mean for me to love people this bad!”  But since Jesus said to love enemies, DeSshazer decided to give it a try.  The next time he saw the guard, he greeted him with a hearty “Good morning!”  After 6 days of treating the guard with love, the guard became a totally different person and even brought Deshazer extra food!  DeShazer and the 3 other surviving prisoners were liberated by the Americans in 1945, and DeShazer returned to Japan as a missionary in 1948.  Japan was a great mission field at the time because the Emperor had just admitted to the people that he was not God—he was only another human—and the Japanese people were confused, wondering who God was.  Thousands were saved through DeShazer’s ministry, including Captain Fuchida, the commander of the planes that bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Captain Fuchida and DeShazer became close friends, and Fuchida also worked as a missionary.  DeShazer served in Japan for 30 years, and then returned to the United States.  He died in Portland, Oregon in 2008.

Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle expected to be court-marshaled for losing all 16 of his planes.  Instead, he was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to brigadier general.  All of the raiders were also decorated.  The mission had been accomplished successfully.  American morale was boosted, and the Japanese withdrew their aircraft carrier force from the Indian Ocean to defend the Japanese Home Islands.

*John Birch has an incredibly fascinating story—he was a hard working farm boy who became a stellar university student; he moved to China to serve as a missionary.  World War 2 broke out and he worked as an intelligence officer for General Chennault’s “Flying Tigers”, until he was brutally murdered by Chinese Communist “allies.”  Subsequently, the United States government covered-up the story, told lies to the Birch family about their son’s death, and marked John Birch’s file top secret.  Birch’s mother worked for years to uncover the truth about her son, and finally his life and death story was published in the excellent book The Secret File on John Birch