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Exploring History

The Doolittle Raid: How Sixteen Planes Changed The War

An audacious US attack in 1942 had a more profound effect on Japanese leadership than historians have considered

One of the raiders leaves the carrier USS Hornet on the way to Japan April 18, 1942 (wikipedia)


After the stunning and embarrassing attack at Pearl Harbor, Wake Island and Guam and the retreat in the Philippines, FDR was seeking a way to exact revenge on the Japanese. The answer was the raid led by Lt. Colonel James Doolittle, one of America’s most experienced and daredevil aviators.

Evidence suggests the effects of the raid far outweighed the physical damage of the bombing. It was the effect on the psyche and confidence of key Japanese leaders that would have far reaching consequences. They would replace carefully detailed and rehearsed plans with fanciful ideas and a rush to execute them, leading to their defeat.


The historical literature clearly documents the origins of the Doolittle raid design. It began on a runway at the Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. Navy Captain Francis Low was observing flight operations on a mock aircraft carrier deck painted on the ground. When the shadow of a twin engine Army bomber flying overhead appeared on the runway, he realized that perhaps a bomber might be able take off and land on a fleet carrier.

It was a completely unique idea. The requirements for attacks using carrier-based aircraft meant the carriers had to get within 200 miles of their objective. The increased range of an Army bomber meant that at least theoretically, it would be possible to launch a strike from a distance of 400 miles or more, outside the range of enemy land-based aircraft.

A B-25 Mitchell medium bomber as it would have appeared in 1942 (Britannica)

After some consideration, the Army and Lt. Colonel Doolittle selected the B-25 medium bomber for the mission. While the B-25 was yet untried in combat, it had all the attributes (range, bomb load, crew size) that would make it an ideal aircraft for the raid. Two planes were loaded onto the USS Hornet in February for flight trials that were deemed successful. Although it was found the planes could be launched, landing was found to be too unpredictable which led to alternate plans for returning aircraft.

Doolittle hand picked the volunteer crews from the most seasoned aviators with B-25 experience. The B-25’s were modified with additional gas tanks to double the amount of fuel they could carry. The lower turret was removed and dummy machine guns installed in the tail to save weight. Due the risky nature of the raid, the Norden bomb sight was removed and a homemade bomb sight added (at a parts cost of 25 cents). Once the crews were outfitted with the modified planes, they began training in earnest at Eglin air force base in Florida in March under the direction of Navy Lt. Henry L. Miller.

After training, the 24 bomber crews flew to the naval air station in Alameda, California. Sixteen Army B-25s (all that would fit) were loaded onto the Hornet. On April 2nd the Hornet left port with 71 Army officers and 130 enlisted men. With its cramped quarters, the sailors aboard the Hornet were agitated by the additional Army crew. There were many squabbles between the two groups.

Midway across the Pacific it was revealed to the sailors that the flyers were on a one-way mission to bomb Japan. The sailors had a new found respect for their compatriots. The mood and cooperation improved dramatically and the sailors thought of the Army crews as heroes.

B-25’s on the deck of the Hornet. Note the wingspan almost equals the deck width (US Army)

A few days after leaving port, the Hornet joined up with Admiral Halsey’s Enterprise, four cruisers, three destroyers and two oilers to form TF-16 (Task Force 16) in the Pacific, north of Hawaii. TF-16 proceeded across the north Pacific under strict radio silence (as the Japanese had done on the way to Pearl Harbor) and made the crossing to within 650 miles of Japan undetected.


Six hundred and fifty miles off the coast of Japan, the Japanese had set up a ring of vessels to act as an early warning system. These ships (converted trawlers, fishing boats), were all equipped with radio (none had radar) and they were to notify naval command when they encountered a US ship.

The Nitto Maru after this attack by the USS Nashville (US Navy)

It was generally known within the Japanese military that US carriers had launched previous operations within 200 miles of the land targets. With the early warning system in place, the Japanese planned to have about 24 hours notice, plenty of time for interception and destruction of any American vessels. The Japanese had dedicated an entire bomber wing of 80 planes armed with torpedoes and armor piercing bombs for such a situation.

The Hornet had radar and on the morning of the 18th had detected a Japanese picket ship. They changed course when they encountered another at 7:38 am about 700 miles from Japan. The US radio operators confirmed that a sighting report had been issued by the ship, the Nitto Maru. The cruiser USS Nashville was dispatched and sunk the Japanese ship.

Capt. Marc A. Mitscher with Lt. Colonel Doolittle and Army crews aboard the Hornet (US Navy)

After conferring with Captain Mitscher and receiving instructions from Halsey to launch, Doolittle prepared his crew and planes to launch immediately, even though they were not within the optimal range of 400 miles from Japan. At 650 miles they would be at the extreme range even with the extra fuel to make it to China, their post raid landing site. The B-25’s took off from the Hornet from at 8:20 am and flew the six hours to Japan at an altitude of 150 feet to avoid detection.

The Raid

In order to conserve fuel, the planes left the Hornet individually and headed directly on their course to Japan rather than circling overhead to form into group formation. Flying low, without fighter escort, and in groups of one or two planes aided their not being detected on the approach to the Japanese mainland. Each plane had an assigned target and they dispersed to their targets as they crossed the coastline of Japan.

The first US planes arrived over Tokyo at around noon just after the Japanese had conducted a practice air raid. To further compromise the the Japanese response, the Japanese air patrols were briefed by the air force on air trials being conducted with a new twin engine bomber. Orders were issued not to intercept. A Japanese Zero pilot recalls seeing two brown-colored twin-engine bombers but dismissed them as the new planes. Only after the explosions did they realize they were under attack.

Map showing the launch, cities attacked and landing in China (US Army)

The Doolittle raiders targeted military facilities in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Kobe and Osaka. While the bomb loads of four 500 lb. bombs they were carrying were relatively small, they did some significant damage to the targets hit, including an aircraft carrier under construction. Three of the B-25’s buzzed the Imperial Palace but were under strict orders from Washington not to bomb the buildings.

After dropping their bombs, each crew turned southwest to China, a seven hour flight away. None of the 16 planes were shot down and none were seriously damaged. All managed to fly away from Japan unscathed.

Due to the extreme range, all the planes were running low on fuel. A few decided to land on the beach in China, while others managed to get further inland. Those that landed on the beach were quickly caught by the Japanese and imprisoned.

Lt. Colonel Doolittle and his crew managed to fly inland several hundred miles before bailing out in a thunderstorm. They were rescued by local Chinese partisans and avoided capture.

After the details of the raid were known, the Chinese would pay heavily for their assistance to Doolittle and his crews. The Japanese attacked the towns that had harbored the flyers and killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians in retribution for helping the Americans.

Of the 16 planes that participated in the raid, 15 made it to China and 1 landed in Russia. Eight crew members were captured by the Japanese and three were executed. Of the five remaining, one died as a POW and the other survived 40 months in a POW camp.

Japanese Reaction and Aftermath

The Japanese reaction to the raid while it was underway was chaotic and ineffective. Taken totally by surprise, some fighters got airborne, but were unable to locate the US planes. Anti-aircraft fire was ineffective and sporadic.

Once the raid was over and the complete picture of what had occurred became evident, senior Japanese leadership was stunned.

Many of the leaders of the Imperial Japanese Army were eye witnesses to the explosions, air raid sirens and subsequent damage. The experience was seared in their memories. It was humbling and embarrassing.

How had the Americans come across the Pacific and attacked the home islands undetected?

The chief of the Japanese Navy, Admiral Nangano wrote, “this can’t be happening, this must not be happening!”.

Admiral Yamamoto, the designer of the Pearl Harbor attack, went into his cabin physically ill for an entire day. It seems the raid had a profound effect on his psyche. He was extremely dedicated to the emperor and had direct responsibility for protecting the home islands and more importantly, the emperor’s life.

His chief of staff, Vice Admiral Ugaki had to direct the Japanese response. He ordered the carriers returning from the Indian Ocean to immediately proceed to locate and destroy the American intruders.

When Yamamoto emerged from his cabin aboard the Yamato, he ordered every warship that Japan could muster from the Marianas and Marshall Islands to hunt for the Americans.

The Halsey-Doolittle raid caused a profound change in Yamamoto’s thinking. Now embarrassed and obsessed with the safety of the royal family, Yamamoto sought to extend Japan’s defensive perimeter eastward. He concentrated on the destruction of the American carriers that were absent at Pearl Harbor. His sole focus became the protection of the monarch at the expense of strategic acquisitions. This strategy would override the reservations of his senior staff on the the force readiness and plans for his next gambit: the invasion of Midway.

The Japanese frustration grew as reports began to unfold that 16 American bombers had operated virtually unopposed over five Japanese cities. Not a single plane was shot down.

In America, when news of the raid was released, Americans were jubilant. America had been able to strike a blow at the Japanese in retaliation for Pearl Harbor.

Headline Announcing the raid April 1942 (wiki)

Effects of the Doolittle Raid on the Japanese Midway Planning

Two days prior to the raid, Admiral Yamamoto had presented the Japanese senior military leadership and emperor with a plan for the invasion of Midway Island (Operation AI). Midway was a strategic US base 1,000 miles from Hawaii. His plan called for the bombardment and amphibious landings to attack the Americans at Midway. Yamamoto planned to ambush the American fleet when it came of out of Pearl Harbor to rescue the island. In addition, he added another component sure to entice the Americans out of their Hawaiian anchorage: the invasion of the Aleutian islands in Alaska.

Overall initial reaction to the plan was lukewarm and the Army was strongly opposed. The Army’s strategy was consolidate and strengthen holdings in the South Pacific to solidify Japan’s defense perimeter. A move eastward to Midway to chase the Americans was thought to be frivolous and unnecessary.

The Doolittle raid, however had a profound effect on reversing Japanese opposition to the Midway plan. Yamamoto sought to speed up war planning and the timetable for the attack.

Japan would push its defensive perimeter out to Midway to ensure there would no longer be the potential of continued attacks on Japan and remove any threats to the emperor’s life.

After the raid, Yamamoto accelerated planning the operation without considering the readiness of the first airgroup. They had recently battled the US Navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea and were recovering. The first air group included six carriers together since before the Pearl Harbor attack. Known as the Kido Butai they were the largest concentration of naval air power in the world and Japan’s single most important offensive weapon.

In the Coral Sea battle in early May, two weeks after the Doolittle raid, Japan lost one small carrier and two of the first fleet carriers were damaged and suffered a large loss of aircrews in the battle. The Shokaku received bomb damage to her bow and deck that left her main elevator unusable and the Zuikaku lost a considerable number of her air crews which put them both out of action for the upcoming action at Midway slated for early June.

Although Yamamoto believed the false action reports stating pilots had sunk two US fleet carriers, in reality, they had sunk only the Lexington. Japan would now face three US carriers and land-based aircraft in the battle of Midway where Japan would no longer have numerical superiority.

Admiral Yamamoto’s rush to plan and execute the Midway action in June strained his fleet, his flyers and ultimately led to the loss of four of Japan’s carriers and two thirds of its naval air power and aircrews.

After the loss at Midway, the Japanese navy would no longer be the same offensive threat for the remainder of the war.

We can point to the brave and brazen attack by 16 US Army bombers in April of 1942 as the turning point in Japan’s downfall.



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Medical field, WWII History buff especially the Pacific Theater