Read an Excerpt
April 18, 1942
The 16-ship Navy task force centered around the aircraft carriers Hornet and Enterprise had been steaming westward toward Japan all night. I had given my final briefing to the B-25 bomber crews on the Hornet the day before. Our job was to do what we could to put a crimp in the Japanese war effort with the 16 tons of bombs from our 16 B-25s. The bombs could do only a fraction of the damage the Japanese had inflicted on us at Pearl Harbor, but the primary purpose of the raid we were about to launch against the main island of Japan was psychological.
The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable. Their leaders had told them Japan could never be invaded. Proof of this was the fact that Japan had been saved from invasion during the fifteenth century when a massive Chinese fleet set sail to attack Japan and was destroyed by a monsoon. From then on, the Japanese people had firmly believed they were forever protected by a “divine wind” — the kamikaze. 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.
There was a second, and equally important, psychological reason for this attack. America and its allies had suffered one defeat after another in the Pacific and southern Asia. Besides the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had taken Wake Island and Guam and had driven American and Filipino forces to surrender on Bataan. Only a small force of Americans was left holding out on the island of Corregidor. America had never seen darker days. Americans badly needed a morale boost. 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 touché the Japanese military would understand. An air strike would certainly be a blow to their national morale and, furthermore, should cause the Japanese to divert aircraft and equipment from offensive operations to the defense of the home islands.
The basic plan for the raid against Japan was simple. If the Navy task force could get us within 400 to 500 miles of the Japanese coast, the B-25 medium Army bombers aboard the Hornet would launch, with carefully trained crews, against the enemy’s largest cities. Although the carrier’s deck seemed too short to allow the takeoff of a loaded B-25 land-based Army bomber, I was confident it could be done. Two lightly loaded B-25s had made trial takeoffs the previous February from the Hornet off the Virginia coast before the carrier had joined the Pacific fleet. All of the pilots had practiced a number of short-field takeoffs at an auxiliary field near Eglin Field, Florida.
I would take off first so as to arrive over Tokyo at sunset. The other crews would leave the carrier at local sunset and head for their respective targets. I would drop four 50-pound incendiary bombs on a factory area in the center of Tokyo. The resulting fires in the highly inflammable structures in the area would light up the way for the succeeding planes and steer them toward their respective targets in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, Nagoya, and the Kobe-Osaka complex. The rest of the B-25s would be loaded with four 500-pound bombs each — two incendiaries and two demolition bombs. After launching the B-25s, the Navy task force was to retreat immediately and return to Hawaii.
We would not return to the Hornet. After bombing our targets, we were to escape to China. The planes would be turned over to the new Air Force units being formed in the China-Burma-India theater.
There were five crew members in each airplane — pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, and gunner. One crew had a physician aboard — Dr. (Lieutenant) Thomas R. White — who had volunteered and qualified as a gunner so he could go. This was a fortuitous choice, as it turned out, for four members of another crew.
The State Department had tried to get permission from the Soviets for us to land in Soviet territory for refueling. This flight would have been an easy 600 miles or so after bombing the Japanese targets. But permission was denied because the Soviets were neutral vis-à-vis Japan and did not want to have another Axis power at their back door invading their country from that direction.
Therefore, after dropping its bombs, each plane was to head generally southward along the Japanese coast, then westward to Chuchow, located about 70 miles inland and about 200 miles south of Shanghai. After refueling there, we were to proceed to Chungking, 800 miles farther inland. The greatest in-flight distance we would have to fly was 2,000 miles. With the fuel tank modifications we had made and extra gas in five-gallon cans, there was enough fuel on board to fly 2,400 miles, provided the crews used the long-range cruising techniques we had practiced.
Our planes had been positioned on the deck for takeoff the evening before. The mechanics had run up their engines and made last-minute adjustments. I wanted the crews to get a good night’s sleep, but few heeded the advice of an oldster who, at 45, was twice the age of most of them. Some of the officers played poker with the Navy pilots who had been unable to fly since leaving California because our planes took up all the space on the deck. The Navy pilots and our crews wanted to recoup their individual losses before we left.
The Enterprise launched scout planes at daybreak for 200-mile searches, and fighters were sent up as cover for the task force. The weather, which had been moderately rough during the night, worsened. There was a low overcast and visibility was limited. Frequent rain squalls swept over the ships, and the sea began to heave into 30-foot crests. Gusty winds tore off the tops of the waves and blew heavy spray across the ships, drenching the deck crews. At 6:00 A.M., a scout plane returned to the Enterprise and the pilot dropped a bean bag container on the deck with a message saying he had sighted a small enemy fishing vessel and believed he had been seen by the enemy.
Admiral William F. Halsey immediately ordered all ships to swing left to avoid detection. Had the enemy vessel seen the aircraft? No one knew. The question was answered about 7:30 A.M. when another patrol vessel was sighted from the Hornet only 20,000 yards away. A Japanese radio message was intercepted by the Hornet’s radio operator from close by. One of the scout planes then sighted another small vessel 12,000 yards away. A light could be seen bobbing in the rough sea. Halsey ordered the cruiser Nashville to sink it.
Unknown to us, the Japanese had stationed a line of radio-equipped picket boats about 650 nautical miles out from the coast to warn of the approach of American ships. I went to the bridge where Captain Marc A. Mitscher briefed me on what had happened. “It looks like you’re going to have to be on your way soon,” he said. “They know we’re here.” I shook hands with Mitscher and rushed to my cabin to pack, spreading the word as I went.
Some of the B-25 crews had finished breakfast and were lounging in their cabins; others were shaving and getting ready to eat; several may have still been dozing. A few had packed their bags, but I think many were completely surprised because they thought they would not be taking off until late afternoon.
At 8:00 A.M., Admiral Halsey flashed a message to the Hornet: LAUNCH PLANES X TO COL DOOLITTLE AND GALLANT COMMAND GOOD LUCK AND GOD BLESS YOU.
The ear-shattering klaxon horn sounded and a booming voice ordered: “Now hear this! Now hear this! Army pilots, man your planes!”
The weather had steadily continued to worsen. The Hornet plunged into mountainous waves that sent water cascading down the deck. Rain pelted us as we ran toward our aircraft. It was not an ideal day for a mission like this one.
The well-disciplined Navy crews and our enlisted men, some of whom had slept on deck near their planes, knew what to do. Slipping and sliding on the wet deck, they ripped off engine and gun turret covers and stuffed them inside the rear hatches. Fuel tanks were topped. The mechanics pulled the props through. Cans of gasoline were filled and handed up to the gunners through the rear hatches. Ropes were unfastened and wheel chocks pu11ed away so the Navy deck handlers could maneuver the B-25s into takeoff position.