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30 Seconds Over Tokyo

The planning for the raid to bring the battle to the Rising Sun's doorstep was the fruition of a Dec. 21, 1941 meeting, just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, between then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Joint Chiefs of Staff. "The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable." wrote Doolittle in his autobiography "I Could Never Be So Lucky Again." "An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders."

In January 1942 while in Norfolk, Virginia, Navy Captain Francis Low looked at the painted outline of the deck of an aircraft carrier - used for training pilots to make the 300-foot takeoff and landing - and was struck with a brilliant, yet crazy idea. A medium bomber (named for size of bombloads it carried and distance) could make that.

When President Roosevelt and his staff were planning this strike on the Japanese homeland and searching for the most qualified pilot to plan and map out the raid. The men in Washington turned to Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle. Doolittle was already an accomplished pilot and aeronautical engineer long before the war broke out. There was no question he was the man for the job, but the Army Air Corps tried to convince Doolittle he was needed in Washington during the raid. Doolittle would have none of it.

The aircraft would need to have a range of 2,400 nautical miles (more than 2,700 miles) and be capable of carrying a 2,000-pound bomb load. Armed with a list of possible aircraft, bomber after bomber was tested and retested again and again. The B-26 Marauder's wingspan was too long and would have collided with the carrier's super structure and the wingspan of the B-23 Dragon was 50% greater than that of the B-25. It came down to two aircraft, the B-25B Mitchell and the B-18 Bolo for Doolittle to choose from. Due to B-18 longer wingspan, the B-25B was chosen to carry out the raid.

Two B-25s were loaded onto USS Hornet in Norfolk and on February 3, 1942 they successfully took off from the flight deck without difficulty. Next Doolittle needed the most experienced men, pilots and enlisted alike. He scoured the medium Bomb Groups (BG) for men fitting this description. The 17th Bomb Group was stationed in Pendleton, Oregon and had already been on submarine patrols along the coast. The 17th had four active squadrons before 1942, and commanders hand-picked 20 five-man crews from a group of volunteers.

The B-25 was initially only capable of traveling a maximum of 1,350 nautical miles, it needed to go nearly twice the distance. Engineers, mechanics and pilots worked together and heavily modified 24 aircraft for the flight.

The removal of the lower gun turret as well as the heavy liaison radio set helped lighten the aircraft. Mechanics installed de-icers and anti-icers to combat the cold at high altitude, a 160-gallon collapsible neoprene auxiliary fuel tank in the bomb bay and additional fuel cells in crawlways and the lower gun turret. This increased the planes' fuel capacity from 646 to 1,141 gallons. Mock gun barrels were installed in the tail cone to make the B-25 appear more intimidating and deadly as they made their bomb runs.

Another modification was a new bomb sight. These bombers would be dropping their payloads at a much lower altitude than was normal. The more expensive and precise Norden bomb sight, used for higher altitude bombing runs, would be replaced with what the press would later call "the 20-cent bombsight." Developed by pilot Capt. Charles Ross Greening specifically for the raid, the bombsight was proven more accurate at low altitude than the Norden. Two bombers would also be outfitted with motion cameras to record the bombing.

On March 1, 1942, crews picked up the 24 modified bombers in Minneapolis and from there flew them to Eglin Field, Florida. The crews trained in simulated carrier flight deck takeoffs, both low-level and night flying, low-altitude bombing and navigating over water for three weeks. USS Hornet (CV 8) steamed out of San Francisco Bay, April 2, 1942, with 16 modified B-25 Mitchell bombers and about 200 men led by Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle.

Best known as the "Raiders," their mission was so secret that neither the Hornet nor the base (Alameda Naval Station) was ever mentioned until years later. President Franklin D. Roosevelt only referred to it as "Shangri-la." Because the B-25s were too large to store in Hornet's hanger bay, they were tied to the flight deck in the order in which they would launch. Hornet's own fighters would be trapped in the hanger bay until the Raiders took off. This left Enterprise's fighters and scout planes as the only protection for the entire task force in the event of a Japanese air attack. At 7:38 a.m., April 18, the Japanese patrol craft Nitt Maru spotted the American ships. It radioed the attack warning before being sunk by USS Nashville. The Hornet was still about 650 nautical miles away from Japan. Doolittle and the Hornet's commanding officer, Capt. Marc Mitscher, decided to launch immediately - 10 hours early and nearly 170 nautical miles from their intended launch point.

Doolittle would launch first and lead the attack run; his bombs would be markers for the rest of the crews to follow. At 8:20 a.m., Doolittle, his copilot Lt. Richard Cole, navigator Lt. Henry Potter, bombardier Staff Sgt. Fred Braemer and engineer gunner Staff Sgt. Paul Leonard taxied into position as the flight deck of the Hornet pitched and rolled in the Pacific swells. The twin cyclone engines powered up and tail rudders and flaps moved through their pre-flight checks. There would be no looking back, no second chances: It was now or never. Doolittle revved the engines and began his take off down the flight deck: He had just 467 feet to get the bird airborne. On a hope and a prayer, he pulled the yoke back, edging the nose of his B-25 up and into the blue skies above.

Although none of the pilots, including Doolittle, had launched from a carrier before that morning, all 16 planes were safely airborne by 9:20 a.m. their noses pointed toward the heart of the Japanese Empire.

The crews had 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. Each aircraft was loaded with four specially constructed 500-pound bombs. Three were high-explosive munitions and one was a bundle of incendiaries. The incendiaries were wrapped together so they could be carried in the bomb bay, but when released, they would separate and scatter over a wider area. Prior to the war, the Empire of Japan had awarded US service members with "friendship" medals. Five of these were wired to bombs for return to Japan. The aircraft began arriving over Japan about noon Tokyo time, six hours after launching from the Hornet. They climbed to 1,500 feet and began their bomb runs. Some of the planes encountered light antiaircraft fire and a few enemy fighters. Raiders only had two .50-caliber machine guns in an upper turret and a .30-caliber machine gun in the nose for defense and were able to shoot down three Japanese planes. When the weapons in the upper turret of one B-25 malfunctioned, the crew dropped their payload early as they came under attack. As the bombers finished their runs, all 16 aircraft were still airborne.

After the early launch and longer flight, the planes were running low on fuel. The pilots realized that making it to China might not be possible. Upon departing Japanese air space, 15 aircraft turned southwest and made their way across the South China Sea. The 16th, piloted by Capt. Edward York, was extremely low on fuel. He did not want to risk his crew by force ditching into the South China Sea. Instead, he made the risky decision to head for the Soviet Union - which at the time had a neutrality pact with Japan. As Doolittle and 14 other bomber crews made their way to China, they ran in many challenges: Not only were they running low on fuel, the weather was taking a turn for the worse and night was fast approaching.

Captain Edward York, who had flown to the Soviet Union, landed at Vozdvizhenka Air Base near the western coast. His plane was confiscated, York and his crew interned as per the neutrality pact with Japan. York and his crew were well-treated, but diplomatic attempts to return them to the United States fell through as the Soviet Union did not want war with Japan. When the Americans were relocated to Ashgabat, near the Iranian border, York managed to bribe a smuggler, who helped them cross the border and reach a nearby British consulate, May 11, 1943. The smuggling of York and his crew had actually been staged by the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs - the predecessor of the KGB.

With York and his men held in a Soviet prison and men from the 13 crews that had crash-landed in China accounted for, two crews had bailed out over the South China Sea and were missing. (Corporal Lelan Faktor, assigned to Lt. Robert Gray's crew, was killed during bailout over China.)

On August 15, 1942, the Swiss Consulate General in Shanghai sent message that eight crew members were prisoners of the Japanese at the city's police headquarters. On August 28, 1942, Hallmark, Farrow and Spatz faced a war crimes trial in a Japanese court, alleging they strafed and murdered Japanese civilians. At 4:30 p.m., October 15, 1942, they were taken by truck to Public Cemetery Number 1 and executed by firing squad. The Japanese announced the sentencing four days later. The surviving crewmembers would serve life sentences. Meder, Nielsen, Hite, Barr and DeShazer were kept in military confinement and put on a starvation diet. Their health deteriorated rapidly. Meder died in Nanking, China, Dec. 1, 1943.

When Doolittle returned to the States, he was still under the assumption he would face disciplinary action. But the raid was considered a success, for it had provided a much-needed morale boost. Doolittle received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House, May 19, 1942, "For conspicuous leadership above and beyond the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life," his citation read. "With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland."

The mission was the first against the Japanese homeland and the longest ever flown in combat by the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, averaging approximately 2,250 nautical miles. And like the B-25s they once flew, these 80 brave men flew onto the pages of history. After the raid, the Japanese Imperial Army began the Operation Sei-go. Its goal was purely aimed at preventing the eastern coastal provinces of China from being used again for an attack on Japan. Airfields within an area of 20,000 square miles where the Raiders had landed were rendered unusable. Japanese occupiers used germ warfare and committed other atrocities, and anyone found with American items was shot on sight. About 250,000 Chinese were killed during the Sei-go campaign.



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Page last modified: 16-08-2018 15:22:10 ZULU