Americans were stunned when they arose to news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Almost immediately there was talk amongst the military and the Roosevelt Administration of a revenge mission that would penetrate Japanese home defenses and bomb industrial and military sites in Tokyo and other Japanese cities. The argument was that the U.S. public needed some act of revenge. But also the Japanese, after the daring raid on Pearl Harbor, needed to understand that its cities were vulnerable to carrier-based, long-range bombers. Thus the Doolittle Raid of 18 April 1942, which James Scott argues was intended to accomplish both.
Our newly christened aircraft carrier, ‘Hornet,’, would be moved to the Pacific and sixteen B-25s modified so that they could take off from its deck. Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle was asked to train eighty airmen to man the bombers. The bombing mission should remain a highly guarded secret to avoid Japan’s getting wind of the raid and fortifying the cities’ defenses. The American military were concerned that the plans would get leaked by the Nationalist Chinese Government to the Japanese so they weren’t informed.
The B-25s had a small crew of five: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, and engineer/gunner. All volunteers, they were not told about the nature of their target. Doolittle was given permission to join one of the crews.
It was anticipated that the Japanese would seek revenge for our revenge. Since the bombers would be landing on friendly Chinese airfields, the Japanese would take their revenge out on civilians in China’s coastal provinces. The Japanese occupation was known for its brutality, so their savage response to the raid was no surprise.
The big trick for the bomber crews was to get the heavily laden B-25s off the carrier’s deck. Still 600 miles from their target, the ‘Hornet’ and its convoy was spotted by a Japanese fishing craft, and it warned the Japanese Admiralty. Doolittle ordered that the raid proceed immediately. That meant, however, that the planes would be short of fuel.
Even though there was little in the way of Japanese air defenses until the bombers were over their urban targets, the crews had to find their designated targets and that took time and cost them precious fuel needed for the flight to the mainland. The Japanese failed to shoot down a single bomber, although several crash-landed in China. Scott has included the heroic stories of the crews who failed to reach a secure landing field. Those captured were tortured and given life sentences by a Japanese court; three were executed.
There were surprisingly few casualties amongst either raiders or civilians. Some stray bombs may have hit a Japanese school.
One plane made it to a Russian base at Vladivostok. The Russians and Japanese were not at war, so there were protocols governing their response. By international law the airmen were to be held as prisoners until the end of the war. The airmen were well cared for and American officials allowed to check on them periodically. They ended up at a Russian base just across a river from Iran, and all five made a successful escape over a loosely guarded bridge. Scott agrees with the idea that this ‘escape’ may have been the solution for what to do with the increasingly unhappy American airmen.
Meanwhile Jimmy Doolittle got back to the U.S. in May 1942. He wrote letters to the families of the raiders but did not disclose information about casualties and prisoners of war. Eventually it would be revealed that despite the impression given out by Doolittle and by the American military, there had been casualties and lost aircraft.
The Doolittle raid would be the first of a massive bombardment of Japanese cities from the air, now by B-29s taking off from islands with airstrips within reach of the Japanese cities. While the Doolittle raid caused relatively little damage, the almost continuous bombing in the last months of the war and then the two atom bombs resulted in many thousands of civilian casualties.
Scott’s ‘Epilogue’ is a moving reminder of the many Americans who died or were taken captive in the Pacific War. Just after the war, a unit was sent to Southeast Asia to search for American prisoners believed to be languishing in Japanese POW camps. In that operation the four surviving members of the Doolittle raid were discovered and brought home to a hero’s welcome.
The first post-war reunion of the crews was held in December 1945, and then almost every year after that. The last one was in 2013, and only four remained to offer the traditional toast to dead and fallen comrades. Taps were sounded as the old warriors saluted the flag for the last time as a group.