Today’s post comes from Jim Worsham, editor of Prologue, the quarterly magazine of the National Archives.
Four months after Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the aircraft carrier USS Hornet sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and out of San Francisco Bay into the Pacific on a secret mission.
On the Hornet’s deck sat 16 specially equipped B-25 bombers—accompanied on this mission by a 200-strong contingent of crews and maintenance personnel. The Hornet’s own fighter planes were parked below deck to make room for these special passengers.
A few days after leaving the West Coast, the Hornet was met by a group of other U.S. carriers, destroyers, and cruisers that would escort it to the location in the Pacific where its mission would begin.
That mission, 75 years ago: Take off from the deck of the Hornet, which bombers had never done, and deliver four specially built bombs each to the targets on the Japanese homeland—Tokyo, Yokohama, and several other Japanese cities. Then, fly on to China, where they would be met by friendly Chinese after landing at prearranged locations.
The idea for striking the Japanese homeland came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. Roosevelt felt that the nation needed a morale booster after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, which took 2,403 lives and destroyed or heavily damaged much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
This particular air strike on the Japanese homeland was devised by Lt. Col. James H. (“Jimmy”) Doolittle of the Army Air Forces and has become known in military lore as the “Doolittle Raid.”
Doolittle would pilot the first plane, and the other 15 would take off from the deck of the Hornet as soon as the one ahead of it was in the air.
However, not everything went according to plan.
Early in the morning of April 18, when the Hornet and its extensive escort was about 750 miles from Japan, it was sighted by a Japanese patrol craft, which sent a warning back to Japan by radio. American gunfire sunk the boat, but Doolittle and the Hornet’s commander realized they would have to strike earlier than planned—by 10 hours—and from a location about 200 miles farther from Japan.
High winds threw the Pacific onto the flight deck, and the pilots had only 400 feet of deck to get their bombers airborne. All 16 planes, with a total of 80 crew members (five men for each plane), took off from the deck of the Hornet and delivered their bombs to the designated targets.
But because they had taken off about 200 miles farther from Japan than planned, they would not have enough fuel to make it to where they were supposed to land in China.
In the end, 15 of the planes crash landed in China or in the ocean.
“We just barely did make the coast of China,” Travis Hoover, who piloted the second plane, remembered in an interview with the Kansas City Times in 1990. After crash landing, Hoover and his crew burned the B-25 and made it to the airfield on foot. Hoover died in 2004.
Not all the crews were as lucky. One crew landed in Russia and was interned before escaping to Persia. Two other crews crash-landed in China and were captured by the Japanese, who put eight crew members on trial (two drowned in crashes) and executed three of them.
The raid, however, proved to be the morale-booster that Roosevelt was looking for. Although the damage in Tokyo and elsewhere was not significant, it demonstrated to the Japanese people that the Americans could reach their homeland—and might return again.
All the raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Most crew members went on to other assignments in the Pacific, Europe, or North Africa. Only one of the 80 crew members is still living: Col. Richard Cole, who was Doolittle’s co-pilot and is now 101 years old.
Doolittle, who believed he would be court-martialed because all 16 B-25s were lost, was instead promoted two grades to brigadier general, and in 1985 was promoted to four-star general in the Air Force Reserve. He died in 1993.