The Doolittle Raid

By Nolan Nelson

One week after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt began pressing the U.S. military to immediately strike the Japanese homeland.  The desire to bolster morale became more urgent in light of rapid Japanese advances.  These included victories in Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, and the Dutch East Indies, as well the sinking of the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse.

Only improbable, audacious ideas warranted consideration, because submarines confirmed Japan placed picket boats at extreme carrier aircraft range.  One idea even involved launching four engine heavy bombers from China or Outer Mongolia to strike Japan and fly on to Alaska.  Captain Francis Low, a submariner, first broached to Admiral Ernest King the idea of flying Army Air Corps medium bombers from an aircraft carrier.  King thought Low’s “foolish idea” might have merit and ordered him to contact Captain Donald Duncan, King’s air operations officer.  Duncan reviewed the specifications of all Army Air Corps bombers and decided the B-25B could do the job.  King then sent Low and Duncan to General Hap Arnold who bought the idea and directed Colonel Jimmy Doolittle to make the raid happen.

By mid-January 1942 Doolittle began assembling the planes and crews.  As one of the first MIT aeronautical engineering graduates, he agreed with Duncan’s assessment in choosing the B-25B, and he knew exactly how to turn a possibly into a reality.  Few Army personnel underwent training or had experience for operations involving ocean navigation.  Therefore, crews were chosen from the 17th Bombardment Group flying anti-submarine patrols from the newly build airfield at Pendleton, Oregon.

Unaware of this pending mission, the 24 crews flew to Minneapolis where the bombers received extensive modifications.  Installing auxiliary fuel tanks increased capacity over 70%.  Range eventually increased from about 1,000 to 2,500 miles by also utilizing flying configurations and practices designed to conserve fuel.  Increased fuel weight then required removing a 230 pound liaison radio.  The lower twin 50cal. remote control turret was later removed at Eglin Field Valparaiso Florida saving 600 pounds. An armored 60 gal fuel tank was then inserted.  Cameras were installed to record bombing results.

While in Minneapolis Captain David M. Jones told the officers their destination was not Columbia, South Carolina for anti-submarine patrol.  They were asked to volunteer for a dangerous, important, and interesting mission for which no information could be given.    Nearly everyone volunteered even though most were new to their trade.  Of the 16 pilots Doolittle actually took on the raid, only five had won their wings before 1941 and all but one was less than a year out of flight school.

Jimmy Doolittle, now a Lieutenant Colonel, met all 140 of them in Eglin’s operation’s office.  He said, “If you men have any idea that this isn’t the most dangerous thing you’ve ever been on, don’t start this training period…..This whole thing must be kept secret.  I don’t want you to tell your wives…..Don’t even talk among yourselves about this thing.  Now does anyone want to drop out?”  Nobody dropped out.

The crews began training with Lieutenant Henry L. Miller, USN (who later became an “Honorary Tokyo Raider”) on Elgin Field 48 days before the raid.  The crews used a remote runway flagged to mark available carrier deck length.  In three weeks the crews learned to take off at near stalling speeds of 50-60 miles per hour, overloaded, and in just over a football field length.  At Pendleton pilots had used a mile long runway to build up speed to 80-90 miles per hour.

As the mission armament officer, Captain Charles Ross Greening improvised substitutes after removal of the top secret Norden bombsight and the lower gun turret.  At Elgin he and Tech Sergeant Edward Bain designed a substitute bomb sight with two pieces of aluminum.  The “Mark Twain” device could be rapidly fabricated in the base metal shop and provided superior accuracy for this low-altitude bombing assignment.  On board the Hornet Greening installed a pair of black-painted broom handles in each aircraft’s tail cone to intimidate attacking enemies.

Twenty two bomber crews hedgehopped across country to San Francisco.  The sixteen crews who reported no problems had their planes lifted aboard ship.  Those who reported problems, however minor, were devastated when Doolittle excluded them from the mission.

The Hornet left the U.S. and joined the Enterprise at sea April 13, 1942.  Admiral Chester Nimitz, in charge of the Pacific Fleet, had now risked two of his four aircraft carriers in this venture along with 14 escorts and 10,000 total crew members.  The task force steamed towards Japanese home islands just four and one half months after the Pearl Harbor disaster.   From radio traffic analysis, the Japanese knew the carriers that had eluded their six carrier strike force on December 7 were underway somewhere in the Western Pacific.  Unbeknownst to the Americans, along with other special measures, the Japanese patrolling picket boats were 650 miles, not 300 miles, offshore to provide the intelligence needed for an overwhelming counterattack.

The Army crews shared quarters with the navy squadrons.  Edgar McElroy, pilot of #13 aircraft remembers bunking with two members of Torpedo Bomber Squadron Eight.  He later learned that they along with all but one member of the squadron died at the Battle of Midway.

On April 18 the U.S. task force encountered this new picket line 170 miles before their planned launch.  The pilots rushed to their planes as the ship plowed into the wind and 30 foot swells.  Each aircraft received at this last minute 11 extra 5gal gas cans.  A Navy officer twirled a flag, listened for the right tone from the revving engines, and felt for the precise moment to release them on the pitching deck.  The pilots, who had never flown from a carrier, saw the ship’s bow reaching into a grey sky, and then plunging into a dark angry ocean sending salt spray across the deck.  When released, they quivered down a bucking flight deck keeping the left wheel on a white line to just miss the superstructure by six feet.  Every plane and 80 crewmen lifted safely from a rising deck into the stormy sky; even Ted Lawson who discovered he had launched with flaps up and initially fell towards the ocean.

The bombers proceeded independently to Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya and Kobe.  They carried three 500 pound demolition bombs and one 500 pound incendiary cluster.  While underway towards Japan, the industrial targets had been briefed by Lt Stephen Jurika who was naval attaché in Tokyo 1939-1941.  He imparted information from not only his own travels, but from a Soviet counterpart who had spent several years researching possible bombing targets.  The Soviet Union was long aware of Japan’s plans to attack the U.S.S.R. (strike north against the traditional enemy), or to attack colonial possessions of the U.S, Netherlands and Britain (strike south for desperately needed natural resources such as oil).

Colonel Doolittle considered the raid a failure.  Doolittle saw the raid as secondary to the bombers safely arriving and providing Chennault’s air force an offensive capability.  Every plane had been lost.  One plane and crew was interred in the Soviet Union, but was allowed to escape in 1943.  Fifteen crashed in China resulting in three crewmen deaths.  The Chinese who spirited the others to friendly hands paid a terrible price.  The Japanese murdered a quarter of a million in villages anywhere near a crash site.

Eight crew members were captured all of whom were condemned to death.  Premier Hideki Tojo asked Emperor Hirohito to commute all the sentences, but the Emperor allowed three to be executed.  One later starved to death in Japanese prison camps.

The raid proved a crucial psychological boost demonstrating Americans could do the impossible even if their battle fleet was blasted to wreckage, and they were losing an army in the Philippines.  The Japanese Imperial Navy suffered a devastating loss of face, because Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had guaranteed the Emperor that the Americans would never attack their home islands.  The raid confirmed Yamamoto in his determination to attack Midway, and there begins another story.

Sources and Interesting Links:

I Could Never Be So Lucky Again by James H. Doolittle with Carroll V. Glines

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted Lawson

Hirohito: Behind the Myth by Edward Behr

Charles Ross Greening,  Colonel United States Air Force

Greening, Colonel Charles Ross (1914-1957), Essay 10320  

Captain David M. Jones

The Navy Targets Tokyo

Letters from the Precipice of War (Steven Jurika)

Sorge: A Chronology (Excerpts 1942)

The Official Website of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders

Doolittle Raiders 70th Anniversary:


North American B-25 Mitchell

Pendleton Field

A final toast for the Doolittle Raiders

80 Brave Men the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Roster

Jonna Doolittle Hoppes “Jimmy Doolittle Raid” presentation at Historic Flight Foundation

Doolittle Raiders: The Last Reunion (VIDEO)

Doolittle Raider forum, etc.

2 comments on “The Doolittle Raid
  1. I am pleased that you thought to mention the over a quarter of a million innocent and largely defenseless non combatant Chinese peasants that the Imperial Japanese Army slaughtered en masse in the areas where the Doolittle planes came down. Chiang Kai Chek demanded the US cancel the raid, but he was overruled by Roosevelt who felt the propaganda value of the raid was worth the massacre of those poor and innocent Chinese.

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