In long overdue recognition, Doolittle Tokyo Raiders of WWII have been honored with a Congressional Gold Medal. Bestowed for their tremendous valor and sacrifice at a pivotal point in our military history, it is one of our nation’s highest awards.
Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, provoked a responsive Declaration of War, as Americans enlisted and Doolittle Tokyo Raiders prepared a retaliatory strike.
On April 18, 1942, fueled by the need for action in the devastating aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. launched a daring and dangerous air raid over Tokyo and a risky endeavor for safe passage of these men. Eighty airmen, in volunteering for an unspecified and highly classified operation, willingly accepted the inherent danger.
Recruited from the Army Air Force, 17th Bombardment Group, they were among the first to receive B-25 medium bombers, integral for the mission, and some of the finest pilots from 35 states. Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, aviation legend and attack group leader, would oversee the operation and a maneuver never previously attempted – launching B-25 bombers from a carrier deck. Following a mere three weeks of simulated practice, the mission moved forward. Highly cloaked in secrecy, the destination remained unknown to the airmen until briefed at sea.
Passing beneath the Golden Gate on the carrier USS Hornet, as the waves of thousands cheered their departure, the hearts and hopes of a nation sailed for those sacrificed at Pearl Harbor. 10,000 Navy personnel and a task force of ships would deliver 16 B-25 bombers and 80 crewmen within striking distance of Japan. In a high-risk launching of bombers in the western Pacific, they were all prime targets for Japanese forces.
Ultimately detected, hours prior to the planned raid and further out to sea than safely dictated, immediate action was demanded of the airmen. Swiftly launching one by one in near gale force winds from a wildly heaving carrier deck, the bombers flew low over water toward Japan. Their targets were industrial and military installations with planned escape to Chinese airfields unoccupied by the Japanese.
With fuel consumption a major concern, as well as threat of anti-aircraft fire and enemy interception, it was likely a one-way flight for these unescorted planes. In the end, low on fuel with approaching night and deteriorating weather, none of the 16 bombers would reach their prearranged landings.
The attack, as predicted, was not without sacrifice. Although most would survive, one would lose his life in bailing over China and two by ditching off the China coast. Three of eight airmen, captured by Japanese, were ultimately executed. A fourth perished in a Japanese prison. All having suffered harsh interrogation, the remaining captives endured severe and prolonged confinement over three years. Four others, seriously injured in the raid and rescued by Chinese, were treated dangerously close to Japanese searching units. One would linger hospitalized until 1943, while another crew of five, forced to land in Russia, was imprisoned for 14 months.
Essentially all 16 bombers inevitably were lost. Of the 15 reaching China, 11 were destroyed during bail-outs and 1 crash-landing, while 3 were ditched at sea. The remaining bomber, seriously low on fuel, was confiscated upon reaching Russia.
Despite the minimal effect of the bombing, the mission proved a definitive success in its reciprocal lesson of vulnerability which took a toll on Imperial Japan and its military strategy. The undertaking by these Raiders, which greatly boosted American and Allied morale, would generate strategic benefits for the U.S. in the Battle of Midway and disaster for the Japanese.
With the loss of all 16 aircraft, Doolittle believed the raid had been a failure and court-martial faced him upon return to the states. To the contrary, promoted to General, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt in a White House presentation. A number of pilots would receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.
While the raid created a tremendous boost to American morale which had plunged following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the psychological effect on Japan was even greater than anticipated. The intrusion into Japanese airspace created serious doubts in the minds of their war planners. Their repositioning of seasoned fighter-plane units, in defense of their homeland, would weaken Japan’s air capabilities in the upcoming Battle of Midway and other South Pacific campaigns.
In Eternal Remembrance
December 7, 1941