Valor: First Over Tokyo

April 1, 1989

Jimmy Doolittle, first President of AFA, instrument-flying pioneer, winner of many major aviation awards, World War II commander of the Eighth and Twelfth Air Forces, is perhaps best remembered as architect and leader of the Tokyo Raid of April 18, 1942. Adm. William Halsey, commander of the task force that launched Doolittle’s 16 B-25 bombers from the aircraft carrier Hornet, called that historic mission “one of the most courageous deeds in military history.”

For his brilliant planning and inspiring leadership of the raid, General Doolittle, then a Reserve lieutenant colonel (he had resigned his Regular commission in 1930), was awarded the nation’s highest decoration for valor, the Medal of Honor.

Why this extraordinary mission that challenged military orthodoxy and the logic of aircraft design? After a series of military disasters in the Pacific following Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt believed a badly shaken America needed some symbol of ultimate victory, one that also would explode the Japanese myth of their islands’ invulnerabality. He directed his military leaders to bomb Japan at the earliest time. But there were no bases in China available for a heavy bomber attack, and Navy carrier aircraft lacked both range and bomb load. Then Navy Capt. Francis Low came up with the fantastic idea of flying AAF bombers from a carrier.

Lt. Gen. Hap Arnold greeted the idea enthusiastically. He called on Doolittle, who had voluntarily left an executive position with Shell Oil, to organize and train a force for the task. Arnold had no thought of allowing his indispensable 45-year-old trouble-shooter to actually lead the mission. Doolittle thought otherwise and, as usual, won.

Doolittle had 10 weeks to work out the myriad details of an operation that had never before been considered and would not be repeated. Crews were volunteers from the 17th Bombardment Group and the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron–two early B-25 outfits. Many experts thought that flying medium bombers at above gross takeoff weight from 500 feet of carrier deck was sheer madness. But if anyone could do it, it was Doolittle, supreme pilot and doctor of aeronautical engineering, whose biographer, C. V. Glines, called him “master of the calculated risk.”

The plan was to launch from the carrier 400 miles off Japan’s coast at dusk on April 19. Crews would bomb independently at night and recover early the next morning at Chuchow, China. Doolittle calculated they could make it to China if launched on plan, possibly from 500 miles off Japan, but definitely not from 650 miles.

Early on the morning of April 18, patrol planes from the accompanying carrier Enterprise sighted Japanese picket ships ahead. Halsey ordered the B-25s to launch immediately, 30 hours ahead of schedule and 620 miles from the coast. First off the rolling, pitching deck into a 30-knot wind, rain, and low clouds was Doolittle, proving to his crews that it could be done. All knew that Japanese defenses, including an estimated 500 fighters, had been alerted. They also knew that they probably would have to ditch at night, short of the China coast, with no hope of rescue.

Despite warning from a picket ship, the Japanese were taken by surprise, expecting a strike by carrier planes the following day. There was little opposition from fighters and flak. With Doolittle first over Tokyo, all but one B-25 bombed its target, then all headed for China, except Capt. Ed York’s crew, which, low on fuel, landed near Vladivostok and was interned by the Soviets.

The 15 China-bound bombers picked up an unexpected tailwind that helped them reach the coast in darkness, rain, and low clouds. They were unable to contact Chuchow, which had not been informed of their early launch. Lost and running out of fuel, all 15 bailed out, ditched near the shore, or crash-landed. Eleven crewmen were injured, three lost their lives, and eight, who landed in Japanese-occupied territory, were captured, three of them subsequently executed.

As reports of the crews’ fates filtered in, the usually ebullient Doolittle was overwhelmed by the thought that, although they had hit their targets, he had failed the men who trusted his leadership. He didn’t know that when word of the raid reached home, it was greeted wildly as the first American victory in the Pacific. The raid had achieved President Roosevelt’s objective, a fact that Doolittle had still not fully accepted when, on May 20, the President presented newly promoted Brigadier General Doolittle with the Medal of Honor, the first awarded to an airman in World War II.

Published April 1989. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.