By Karen Holt, The Historic Examiner
December 7, 1941 was referred to by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as ‘a day which will live in infamy.’ After being caught off guard by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, the American forces immediately set about planning a retaliatory attack.
Following the attack, typical service rivalries were set aside while retaliation plans were created. The evaluation process began with Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King. He turned to General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, the commander of the Army Air Forces. General Arnold ‘passed-the-buck’ to Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who was assigned the task of coordinating the details with the Navy.
As heads knocked during the planning stage for the payback, the most plausible solution was an air strike from a carrier, an idea President Roosevelt offered four months earlier. Doolittle looked upon the raid as bold and aggressive. Normally the idea of a bomber taking off from an aircraft carrier was considered an insane move; however, it as the best way to give the American planes a fighting chance. (B-52 Mitchell Bomber Photo credit: deroeck.co.uk)
One of the first decisions to be made was which aircraft would be used for the mission. The B-25 Mitchell bomber was chosen. A medium weight aircraft, the bomber was manufactured by North American Aviation. These planes saw service in every theatre during WWII. With room for a crew of six, they could carry 6,000 pounds of bombs. At the time, eighteen of these planes were housed in Oregon. They were flown to Indiana where modifications began to prepare them for the task they would undertake.
Plans were for the bombers to fly from a carrier 500 miles off the coast of Japan, do their deed and continue on another 1,100 miles to the selected landing location in China. On a good day, the Mitchell bomber could be counted on to travel 1,300 miles without needing to refuel; not enough to accomplish this trip. Thus, internal tanks were required to allow for the additional fuel needed to finish the trip.
The mission would be flown under strict radio silence, so the aircraft’s radio was removed, which eliminated the need for a radio operator in the plane. This allowed space for a supplementary 50 gallons of fuel, carried in 10 five-gallon gas cans, which were stowed in the radio operator’s nest. These modifications provided the aircraft with 1,100 gallons of useable fuel. Such a quantity now offered the pilot a range of 2,400 miles. Following the various changes in the plane, it almost necessitated the use of a shoehorn to include four 500-pound bombs in the bomb bay.
While modifications were being made to the planes, attack plans were developed. The decision was to launch the planes near dusk. Thirteen of the planes would head towards the Japanese capitol, reaching Tokyo under cover of night for the raid in an effort to achieve the greatest degree of surprise. The other three planes were sent to Nagoya and Osaka. To accomplish the task, the carrier would have to get as close as possible to the mainland prior to take-off. As soon as the planes left, the fleet would immediately high-tail it back towards Hawaii in an effort to be out of the range of Japan’s land-based aircraft so as to protect the minuscule American fleet still afloat after the Pearl Harbor attack.
April 13, 1942, the Naval Task Force 16, which included the air craft carrier USS Enterprise - flagship for Vice Admiral William F. ‘Bull’ Halsey - came together near Hawaii. The sixteen ships left Hawaii and proceeded in the direction of the Japanese mainland.
Lt. Col Doolittle’s original plan was to lead 16 airplanes with five-man crews ahead of the others involved in the task force. The bomb bays of these aircraft would carry incendiary bombs which, when dropped, would set a path of fires for the planes which came afterwards to follow. However, the best-laid plans of mice and men was thwarted when a cat, in the form of Japanese picket boats, spotted Task Force 16 in the early morning hours on the 18th. With their plans now revealed, the only recourse was to launch the mission earlier than originally planned.
The deck of the USS Hornet pitched in the heavy seas as the ship steered into the wind. The engines on Doolittle’s plane came to life as he taxied his plane forward in an effort to place the wheels on three cork pads laid out on the deck. The pads were used in an effort to provide enough friction to hold the plane in place long enough for the engines to reach full throttle. (Prior to the mission, practice runs took place on dry land in Florida to prepare the bomber pilots for the short carrier take-offs.)
Once airborne, additional problems plagued the mission. A number of what might be considered insignificant errors to some served to place the pilots many miles off course. A number of the B-25 crews were totally lost at the time they reached the Japanese mainland around noon. Doolittle’s own plane was also off-course, well north of his intended route. Thankfully, his navigator’s quick work produced a rapid course correction. At half past noon on a bright, sunny day, Doolittle earned the recognition of being the first American pilot to bomb the Japanese homeland, thereby fulfilling the orders given by FDR.
While the daylight raid made it easier for the pilots to locate their targets, the strong headwinds encountered resulted in eight of the planes landing in Japan. The crews of these planes were taken prisoner by the Japanese, with three of the men being executed and the rest transported to POW camps where they remained until war’s end.
Doolittle’s Raiders had no way of knowing the homing radio beacons needed to guide the pilots to the landing fields in China were no longer available due to the fact the plane carrying them had crashed. However, given the fact the mission’s plans were changed due to the presence of the Japanese picket boats, hitting the planned targets was even easier in the daylight. The attack’s goal was not to inflict a huge amount of damage. Instead, the desire was to create a spectacle, in an effort to make the Japanese people aware of the fact a foreign enemy had bombed Tokyo. An example of this was the fact Tokyo’s radio towers were off-limits to the bombers. The anticipated and desired reaction by the American forces was that the Japanese would immediately begin disseminating news of the attack.
During the attack, the vast majority of primary targets were bombed. The combination of clear weather over Tokyo, low-altitude attacks, careful target studies and Japan’s highly inflammable construction practices resulted in the inflicted damage being off the charts compared to what the Americans anticipated.
As the sixteen planes sped away from the Japanese mainland and began their chartered course towards China, the crews began to calculate their fuel levels and the distance left to travel. Lt. Eugene F. McGurl, one of the navigators, jokingly said, ‘Hey, I don’t think we’re gonna have to swim more than one hundred miles.’ Thankfully a strong tailwind between Japan and China served to improve the planes’ gas mileage.
As Doolittle’s Raiders approached the appointed landing location in China, the welcoming committee suddenly decided to go home out of fear the Japanese would retaliate. The landing lights the Raiders counted on were quickly extinguished when the B-25 engines were heard. Coupled with bad weather along the Chinese coast, safe landings were virtually impossible. This resulted in the crews either landing in the water near the coast, or parachuting out. Four of the parachuting crew members died in the process and eight were captured by the Japanese. Of these eight, four survived and were later freed by US troops in 1945.
The Tokyo raid was the first combat mission to be flown by the men comprising Doolittle’s Raiders. The raid’s success served to increase American morale and earned for Doolittle the Medal of Honor and promotion to the rank of Brigadier General.
"Our commitment to peace requires that we retell the story of those brave men so that we never forget how free men rise to defend liberty when challenged."
Bernard D. Rostker, Assistant Secretary of the Navy
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A little known footnote to the raid took place after the war. As a member of Doolittle’s Raiders, Staff Sgt. Jacob Daniel DeShazer was one of the pilots forced to parachute into China and then taken prisoner. Imprisoned first in Nanjing in 1942, DeShazer was later transferred to Beijing where he became a Christian and his heart was softened toward his Japanese captors. After the war, DeShazer wrote an essay entitled, "I Was a Prisoner of Japan," which detailed his experiences of capture, conversion and forgiveness.
DeShazer later returned to Japan in 1948 as a missionary. At that time, he learned about Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese pilot who led the attack on Pearl Harbor, reading his testimony, buying a Bible and converting to Christianity from Buddhism. Fuchida's voice was the one heard by the Japanese aircraft carrier to say, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!) announcing the mission’s success.
In 1950, DeShazer and Fucida met. The timing of Fucida’s visit followed on the heels of a 40-day fast DeShazer had recently completed, filled with prayers for revival to be experienced in Japan. Fuchida became an evangelist and began to spread God’s word throughout his native country while DeShazer planted churches.
Prior to his death on May 30, 1976, Fuchida wrote, "That morning [December 7] … I lifted the curtain of warfare by dispatching that cursed order, and I put my whole effort into the war that followed. … [But] after buying and reading the Bible, my mind was strongly impressed and captivated. I think I can say today without hesitation that God's grace has been set upon me."