On April 18, 1942, our retaliation to Pearl Harbor would finally take place. One hundred and forty brave young Army Air Corps men volunteered for a secret mission lead by famous daredevil Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, a world renowned pilot. Only eighty would be chosen. Many regarded this as a suicide mission, but instead, it would become a resounding American victory and one  of the major turning points of World War II. They were flown to Eglin Air Force base in Florida where they were divided into crews of 5 and given a B-25 Mitchell. They noticed that modifications had been made to the B-25s: The radios were missing. Their commander would explain that “you won’t need them where you’re going.” (They would later learn that they were to follow a beacon to a safe landing strip.) Instead of the nausea-inducing ball turrets, two broomsticks, painted black, stuck out from the tail to imitate .50 caliber guns. Co-pilot Robert Emmens, a twenty-seven-year-old from Oregon, looked at the broomsticks and thought: ‘I don’t know whom they scared most, the Japs or us.’” These modifications were done to get rid of “excess” weight and allow for a heavier load of bombs and more fuel by loading auxiliary fuel tanks. In total, it gave the craft a 1,141-gallon fuel capacity nearly double its usual 694.

A Navy officer, Lt. Henry Miller, had been brought to Eglin to train the crews to take off from a five-hundred-foot taxi at a mere fifty miles an hour. The army pilots thought he’d lost his mind. It was the era of very long takeoffs and these men in particular had been trained to stay on the runway until they’d hit 110 mph before lifting up and away. They asked Miller if he had ever accomplished this five-hundred-foot stunt in a Mitchell, which, fully loaded, would normally take at least a thousand feet to launch. Hank admitted that, in fact, he’d never even seen a B-25 before.

Four men loaded up into a B-25. Carefully following Hank’s instructions, the pilot, York, lifted off at fifty miles an hour. It was so impossible for the army men to believe that they were unanimously convinced that something had to be wrong with the airspeed indicator. Then, the next man had his turn, and he got her up at sixty mph. It was a revelation.

The next day, every crewman was taught what the first men had just begun to believe possible. Their Eglin runway had been narrowly outlined in white paint, and then flagged at 450-, 500-, 550-, 600-, 650-, 700-, 750-, and 800-foot points. A pilot had to get off by the 500 marker, always traveling within the very narrow lines, or his crew would be excused from the mission. It was a test not every man would pass.

Eighty men would be chosen to fly to mission in crews of 5. 16 B-25s and their crews flew to San Francisco and were loaded onto the aircraft carrier the USS Hornet, each carrying three 500 lb incendiary bombs. It wasn’t until they were out to sea that they were finally told what their secret mission was. The captain of their navy escort announced via loudspeaker: “The target of this task force is Tokyo. The army is going to bomb Japan, and we’re going to get them as close to the enemy as we can. This is a chance for all of us to give the Japs a dose of their own medicine.”  

Cheers and screams of excitement broke out across the decks of every ship in the escort. They were going to attack the Japanese mainland. This had never successfully been down which had lead to the Japanese indoctrination of superiority and invincibility.

“America had never seen darker days. Americans badly needed a morale boost,” Doolittle noted. “I hoped we could give them that by a retaliatory surprise attack against the enemy’s home islands launched from a carrier, precisely as the Japanese had done at Pearl Harbor. It would be the kind of touche՛ the Japanese military would understand.”

Originally, the task force intended to proceed to within 400 nautical miles of the Japanese coast. However, on the morning of 18 April, a Japanese patrol boat sighted the American task force. They sank the ship, but could not verify if a transmission had been sent to Japan, warning any ground and air crews. Amid concern that the Japanese had been made aware of their presence, Doolittle and his raiders were forced to launch prematurely from 668 nautical miles out instead of the planned 400. Because of this decision, none of the 16 planes made it to their designated landing strip in China.

As the USS Hornet came about and prepared to launch the bombers which had been readied for take-off the previous day, a gale of more than 46 miles per hour churned the sea with 30 ft crests; heavy swells, which caused the ship to pitch violently, sending sea and spray over the bow, soaking the flight deck and drenched the deck crews. The lead plane, commanded by Doolittle, had only 467 ft of flight deck, while the last B-25 hung its twin rudders far out over the fantail. They had to time each takeoff when the ship was pointing up out of the waves on a swell and then wait as it dove into troughs between mountains of water. Miraculously, all 16 B-25s took off safely and begin flying toward Japan. They arrived in broad daylight and bombed their targets with little to no opposition. The Japanese were extremely confused as they thought no one could manage an attack on their homeland.

A successful mission behind them, now the crews needed to land safely. Unfortunately, they had flown nearly 300 miles more than they had planned for and therefore, each plane was dangerously low on fuel. On the USS Hornet, the crews had been told that they would be given their landing instructions after they had taken off since they had not been confirmed yet. In general, though, they were to make their way toward republic controlled China as airmen did not want to land or crash in Japanese controlled areas. They would then be smuggled out of China through a series of safe homes to rejoin their units. They were given blood chits, or safe-passage flags, that had the Chinese flag and written below in Chinese was the phrase, “This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue and protect him.”

Because of the early takeoff, none of the raiders made it to friendly Chinese airfields. One plane, which suffered a carburetor malfunction, landed at Vladivostok where the crew were interned by the Russians. Although a favorable tail wind allowed the other fifteen aircraft to reach the China coast, miserable weather and night conditions prevented any of them from landing at the Chinese airfields. The aircraft crash-landed or their crews bailed out after their aircraft ran out of fuel. Three raiders were killed bailing out or in crash landings. Another eight raiders fell into Japanese hands. The remainder were spirited out to Chungking and, eventually, back to the United States.

The Japanese were outraged by the attack, which caused the military great loss of face. General Sugiyama, Chief of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff, felt particularly humiliated, and persuaded Tojo, Japanese Prime Minister, to pass retroactive regulations subjecting captured bomber crews to the death penalty. The eight raiders captured by the Japanese were accused of strafing civilians and were treated as war criminals. Three were executed by firing squad while the others were held in captivity for the remainder of the war and became some of the first prisoners of war (POWs) of the Japanese, which was not a great place to be. The Japanese POW camp network would resonate across history as a supreme example of cruelty. These men would suffer for years and many would carry emotional and physical scars for the rest of their lives. One raider died of maltreatment as a prisoner.

In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination. In the midst of it were the prisoners of war. Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four. Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died. Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism. And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases. Of the 2,500 POWs at Borneo Sandakan camp, only 6, all escapees, made it to September 1945 alive. Left out of the numbing statistics are the untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered with the world never learning their fate (Hillenbrand, 2010).

Though the damage done during this raid paled in comparison to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle raid was a tremendous morale booster for the Allied public at a time when good news was very scarce. If the measure of success of a military action is its political results, then the Doolittle raid must be regarded as a resounding military success, notwithstanding its negligible material impact.

We proved what we were capable of and that we wouldn’t take an attack on our homeland lightly. We had the provisions and the passion to become an enormous presence in the war and, in fact, turn the tide altogether.


“I’d become convinced that their astounding story was one of the greatest moments in American history–a story that, until earlier that year, I’d never heard. It turned out that almost anyone who had been alive during World War II was as vividly aware of the story as Americans of my generation recall precisely where they were when John Kennedy was assassinated. Yet, with the exception of diehard World War II scholars and buffs, it seems to have completely escaped the attention of most other Americans today. Some areas of national amnesia deserve immediate attention, and I believe this is one of them.

I saw the story as one of ordinary people who became heroes, but in interviews, it became clear soon enough that more than a few of those involved believed otherwise. “None of us thought of ourselves as heroes,” insisted co-pilot Dick Cole, while navigator Nolan Herndon had even stronger feelings: “To tell you the truth, I wish all of that would go away. We were just doing our job.” Their job was an assignment many predicted would be a suicide mission, carried out by men with only rudimentary training. It would require, for the first time, the cooperation of thousands of recruits from both the army and the navy, as well as a new, frightening, and exhilarating method of flying bombers that no one had ever attempted before and no one would ever try again. Almost every man on the mission would be forced to abandon his plane as he ran out of gas in the middle of the night in a violent thunderstorm on the far side of the world. The men escaped from enemy-controlled territory by resourcefully managing to communicate with people who couldn’t speak, read, or write their language.

Several of these boys, landing in a war zone, were captured, confined to years in solitary, tortured, forced to sign false confessions, tried as war criminals, and executed by firing squad. One flier was starved to death, while the survivors, rescued at war’s end, had been reduced to living skeletons. One of them, tortured to the limits of human endurance, found God and subsequently returned to Japan on a campaign of forgiveness. Another was lost in a stateside limbo of army bureaucracy and mental illness. Still others were interned as enemy aliens by the Soviet Union, and had to be smuggled out into what is now Iran. One airman who began his military career on horseback would survive the mission, be captured by the Nazis, become part of the “Great Escape,” and end his service years working with NASA and astronauts. Their raid, meanwhile, would lead directly to what every historian now believes was the turning point in the war against Japan.

As a child, I was taught that history is made by kings and generals, popes and presidents, leading their secular and spiritual nations ever forward. As an adult, I learned that often enough, the polar opposite is true–that the big moments just as often depend on the actions of ordinary people in extraordinary times. In the last years of his life, Dwight D. Eisenhower told Stephen Ambrose that “Higgins was the man who won the war for us,” Andrew Jackson Higgins being the New Orleans boatbuilder who invented and mass-produced thousands of plywood, flat-bottomed, ramp-fronted barges that floated American soldiers onto the beaches of Italy, Normandy, and the South Pacific. There were plenty of other unheralded men and women Ike could have mentioned, such as Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, the British physicist who developed enemy-aircraft-detecting radar; William M. Friedman of the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service and Alan M. Turing of the British Government Code and Cipher School, the American and English decrypters of Japanese and Nazi ciphers; the thousands of stateside Rose and Ronnie the Riveters who built more tanks, planes, ships, guns, and bombs than any other country could ever hope to produce; and the men of this story, who convinced the American public in the war’s first dark days that the Allies might ultimately triumph over what then seemed an invincible enemy. Today, the United States is global superpower, but at the dawn of World War II, the entire American coastline was under assault, and the nation was too weak to do much about it. It was an era when the United States and Britain had lost every single battle they’d entered, and had been beaten from all sides. It was a time when most Americans thought the war was over, that the Axis powers had already won.”

-Craig Nelson


Nelson, Craig. “The First Heroes.” Penguin Books, 2002.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s