The Doolittle Raiders

Doolittle Raid Hits Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya and Kobe

By Florian Sohnke


The sudden rupturing of America’s peacetime tranquility on December 7, 1941, owing to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor stirred the soul and sensibilities of the entire nation.

Provoked by roused Americans endeavoring to fulfill the oldest motive of all, revenge, the White House and those atop the defense pyramid at the War Department hatched a plan to return the discourtesy to Tokyo on April 18, 1942.

The outlook for an American military victory in early 1942 was bleak:  In addition to smashing U.S. naval capabilities in Hawai’i and laying siege to the Philippines, the Japanese Empire had struck European colonial possessions along the entire Pacific Rim, driving French, Dutch and British occupiers from territorial possessions in Malaysia, Singapore, French Indochina and the Empire of the Sun was poised to terrorize India and Australia.

Similarly, the Japanese had overwhelmed combined U.S.-Filipino forces in the Philippines, seizing Manila, forcing Allied troops to the Bataan peninsula to defend the archipelago from the advancing Japanese army and the Imperial Japanese Navy had thwarted a small American/Allied flotilla at the battle of Java Sea.  General Douglas MacArthur was ordered to leave his beloved island for Australia in March and shortly after both Bataan and the island bastion of Corregidor fell to Japan.

Pressured by President Roosevelt to find a way to batter Japan amid the torrent of discouraging news, from the War Department emerged a most unlikely source to offer an action point with the intent to bomb Japan.

Captain Francis Low

American naval officer, Captain Francis Low, theorized American medium-range bombers could be placed on an aircraft carrier to strike at mainland Japan and exact revenge for December 7.

Jimmy Doolittle

Tasked with the assignment, one in which he was initially deeply skeptical, was a man of perfect qualifications, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle.  A veteran Army Air Force pilot and aeronautical engineer, Doolittle recruited volunteers and proceeded with plans to attack Tokyo.

Training at Eglin Air Force base completed, Doolittle and his 80-man band were assigned to the USS Hornet for the raid.  Initially planning on 24 B-25 bombers participating, the final force would consist of a paltry 16 bombers, each carrying a payload of four five-hundred bombs each, hardly enough to inflict heavy damage, but enough to strike fear into Japan and convince both their government and people they were not invulnerable.


Largely stripped of armament and armor plating and with extra fuel tanks added, the aircrew were flying planes with little defense against Japanese aircraft. Departing California on 2 April, the USS Hornet shuttling the B-25 crews greeted Task Force 16 charged with escorting the armada of 16 ships to the vicinity of Japan.

In the early morning hours of April 18, despite remaining 650 nautical miles from the coast of Japan, a full 400 miles from their intended launch point, calamity struck:  An alert navy watchman aboard the USS Nashville spied a small Japanese gunboat, which threatened to uncover the force’s existence.  Despite being sunk from gunfire from the Nashville, the small craft did establish communication with the Japanese fleet and, after conferring with Hornet’s captain, Marc Mitscher, Doolittle chose to commence the attack forthwith.

Turning into the wind, the bomb group departed the carrier over a 55-minute period and set course for their four targets inside Japan:  Tokyo, Kobe, Yokohama, Nagoya and Yokosuka.

Tokyo, the prime target would be hit by ten aircraft; the remaining planes would hit secondary targets with two cities, Kobe and Yokosuka, fixed by one aircraft each.

Crew No. 8 (Plane #40-2242, target Tokyo): 95th Bombardment Squadron, Capt. Edward J. York, pilot; Lt. Robert G. Emmens, copilot; Lt. Nolan A. Herndon, navigator/bombardier; SSgt. Theodore H. Laban, flight engineer; Sgt. David W. Pohl, gunner. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Crew No. 8 (Plane #40-2242, target Tokyo): 95th Bombardment Squadron, Capt. Edward J. York, pilot; Lt. Robert G. Emmens, copilot; Lt. Nolan A. Herndon, navigator/bombardier; SSgt. Theodore H. Laban, flight engineer; Sgt. David W. Pohl, gunner. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Just two hours into the raid, and not yet over Japan, Captain Edward York’s B-25 was eating gas at such a rate, the navigator determined it would not reach Japan.  The crew landed in the USSR and was interned for 22 months. Just slightly over six hours after takeoff, the aircraft appeared over its targets, conducted the bomb run and proceeded along the Japanese coast intending to crash land in China where they would meet Chinese Kuomintang forces to aid them.

All crews either ditched their aircraft in the sea or parachuted upon reaching China.  In sum, 69 of the raiders returned safely.  However, three were killed:  One aircrew member was killed after slipping off a cliff and two others drown in the East China Sea.

The fate of ten others remained hidden from the public until 1946:  Aircrew of two planes were captured; two men drown and eight others were imprisoned.  Of the remaining eight, one died in captivity and pilots of two aircraft, Lieutenants Dean Hallmark and William Farrow, along with gunner Harold Spatz, were executed on October 1942 for “war crimes.”

It did not turn out well for the Chinese who assisted Doolittle’s raiders:  The Japanese army killed over 250,000 Chinese in retaliation for their part in assisting the American airmen.


Although the raid produced little real damage to any of the targets, Doolittle and the 68 raiders returned home and were honored for a most glorious act of revenge.

Follow Florian on Twitter @FlorianSohnke.

And follow FAM on Twitter @firstandmonday.