The Doolittle raid remembered

A B-25 takes off from Hornet in the famous Doolittle raid.

Doolittle Raid

Just before eight o’clock on the morning of December 7th, 1941, Japanese carrier based aircraft launched an unprovoked attacked on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu / Hawaii in the Pacific.

Two hours later many US aircraft, ships had been sunk and over two thousand Americans were killed. Another thousand were wounded. The following day, President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan.

The attack on Pearl Harbor shocked and outraged the American nation, and President Roosevelt asked senior military advisers to suggest an immediate response.


B-25Bs on the USS Hornet en route to Japan
B-25Bs on the USS Hornet en route to Japan

It was not an easy task; there were no US air bases near enough to the Japanese mainland to enable a bomber strike to be made. The Navy did not have aircraft with the necessary range to make a carrier-borne assault safely – the risk to the few carriers in the Pacific Ocean would have been unacceptable.

After thorough discussions between army and navy experts a proposed solution emerged. In essence, the plan was to launch sixteen twin-engine B-25 aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, which would be positioned 500 miles off the Japanese coast.

The aircraft would not be able to land back on the Hornet after the raid, but could head for airfields in China. The targets selected were key military sites on Honshu island, and the attack would take place on April 18, 1942.

Despite not having launched from an aircraft carrier before, all sixteen pilots took off without incident, and the bombing raid took place as planned. After dropping their bombs, fifteen of the B-25s turned and headed for China.

Doolittle's B-25 at launching, 18 April 1942.
Doolittle’s B-25 at launching, 18 April 1942.

One aircraft was low on fuel and made for Russia, which was nearer. The night was falling, the weather had turned nasty, and the crews realised that they would not make their intended landfall. They decided to crash-land on the Chinese coast, and all fifteen aircraft were destroyed.

Three men were killed in the process, and another eight were captured by the Japanese. Most of them made it to safety, aided by Chinese villagers.

The Doolittle raid caused little damage to the Japanese targets, but as a morale booster for the American people its value was considerable.

One of the captured Doolittle raiders: Robert L. Hite, blindfolded by his captors, 1942
One of the captured Doolittle raiders: Robert L. Hite, blindfolded by his captors, 1942

The Art Association of Palm-Aire Golf and Country Club in Sarasota, Florida is currently hosting an exhibition in honour of veterans. The exhibits include many artefacts from the Doolittle raid, including parts of the aircraft recovered by search teams in 1990-1994.

Among the items on display are original letters from Commander Jimmy Doolittle, who died aged 96 in September 1993.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE