In January 1931, Chief of Naval Operations William Pratt and Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur signed an agreement that gave the Army Air Corps the primary responsibility for operating land-based aircraft in defense of the United States and other overseas possessions, while the Navy focused on mobile operations with the fleet. As a result, during the 1930s the Army procured a number of bombers, among them the B-25 Mitchell.
Design work on the medium bomber, which in final form was named for air power advocate Major General William “Billy” Mitchell, began in 1938, with the first production order for 184 airplanes placed in September 1939, the same month that German forces invaded Poland, beginning World War II. The Mitchell served as the forefront of many campaigns in the wide-ranging global conflict, but its greatest fame came in a unique operation its designers certainly never envisioned.
Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese military conquered wide swaths of the Pacific region. America sought a way to strike back at Japan, but it was out of range of land-based aircraft. A carrier strike was thought too risky—the short range of single-engine Navy aircraft would require a ship to approach close to shore. Navy Captain Francis S. Low proposed the use of Army Air Forces bombers. Captain Donald Duncan and Army Air Forces Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who was chosen to lead the mission, figured out how to make it work.
The B-25B Mitchell medium-bomber fit the requirements with its range, bomb load and, most importantly, ability to take off in a relatively short distance. It would require the entire latter attribute to launch from the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet (CV 8), which was the unorthodox launch platform chosen. Doolittle assembled his aircraft and crews at Eglin Field, Florida, in February 1942, with the Navy dispatching Lieutenant Henry Miller, a flight instructor from Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, to train the Army Air Forces in carrier take-off. By April, the airmen who would forever be known as the Doolittle Raiders were at sea on board Hornet steaming towards Japan
On April 18, 1942, with Hornet having been observed by a Japanese vessel short of the intended launch point, Doolittle led his sixteen B-25Bs aloft 650 miles from Japan. The crews bombed industrial targets before setting course for China, with most bailing out or crash landing. One crew landed in the Soviet Union. Of the eighty Doolittle Raiders, three were killed in action during the mission and seven were captured by the Japanese, four of whom died in captivity. The material damage inflicted was minor, but the psychological impact on the Japanese was great. As a direct result of the raid, Japan decided to go forward with an operation against Midway Atoll, the resulting naval battle in June 1942, helping turn the tide of the Pacific War for the Allies.
Just two months after the Doolittle Raid, the Navy contracted for a percentage of North American’s B-25 production, and in February 1943 began receiving the first of over 700 Mitchells produced for naval aviation. Designated PBJs, the aircraft became a mainstay in Marine Corps medium bombing squadrons, seven of which flew combat missions in the Pacific. Marine Bombing Squadron (VMB) 413 flew the aircraft’s first sorties in the Solomon Islands on March 14, 1944, and subsequent flights included daylight bombing over Rabaul, as well as night heckling missions. While most PBJ squadrons operated in the South Pacific, VMB-612 supported the drive across the Central Pacific. Specializing in low-altitude night attacks against enemy shipping, “Cram’s Rams” operated from airfields on Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa during 1944-1945. All told, twenty-six Mitchells fell to enemy fire. Navy use of the PBJ was mainly experimental in nature, including catapult and arresting gear trials aboard the carrier Shangri-La (CV 38) in November 1944. The last Mitchells were stricken in 1948.
The museum’s B-25J Mitchell flew in both the Army Air Forces and the civilian market. It is painted in the markings of the airplane flown by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle on the raid from the aircraft carrier Hornet.
Manufacturer: North American Aviation, Inc.
Dimensions: Length: 52 ft., 11 in., Height: 16 ft., 4 in.; Wingspan: 67 ft., 7 in.
Weights: Empty: 19,490 lb.; Gross: 35,000 lb.
Power Plant: Two 1,700 horsepower Wright R-2600-92 engines
Performance: Maximum Speed: 272 M.P.H. at 13,000 ft.; Service Ceiling: 24,200 ft.; Range: 1,350 miles
Armament: 20 forward-firing and flexible-mounted .50-in. guns, provisions for up to 3,000 lb., of ordnance