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H-004-4: The Doolittle Raid—“Shangri-La”


Doolittle Raid on Japan, April 1942
USS Hornet (CV-8) launches Doolittle’s force at the start of the first U.S. air raid on the Japanese home islands, 18 April 1942 (80-G-41197).

H-Gram 004, Attachment 4
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
April 2017

The Doolittle Raid was a U.S. Navy idea. The genesis came from a U.S. Navy submarine officer, Captain Francis “Frog” Low, who already had a reputation for creative thinking. Within weeks of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt relentlessly pressed the service chiefs to come up with a way to strike back at the Japanese homeland. In response to the pressure, Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, established a small working group that included Low and an aviator, Captain Donald B. Duncan, to study the problem and come up with solutions. In March, King also assumed duty as Chief of Naval Operations (the CNO at the time of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Harold “Betty” Stark, received more gentle treatment than Admiral Kimmel, being shifted from CNO to Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe. King, the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, had assumed the CINC U.S. Fleet (CINCUS) title when Admiral Kimmel was relieved in December 41. King was the first to combine the duties of CINCUS and CNO, and quickly changed the acronym from CINCUS (“sink us”) to COMINCH.

The problem for the Navy in responding to Roosevelt’s demands was that no one in their right mind wanted to take any of the Navy’s precious few carriers and bring them within the necessary 200 nautical miles to strike the Japanese homeland, which would also be well within the range of hundreds of Japanese bombers. Captain Low came up with the idea of launching USAAF bombers off a carrier; the aircraft would then have to recover in China or the Soviet Union. Captain Duncan confirmed that a bomber could possibly be launched from a carrier, although it certainly couldn’t be recovered on one. Low and Duncan took the idea to Admiral King, who broached the idea with Chief of the U.S. Army Air Force, General Hap Arnold, who liked it. Arnold assigned Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, who already had a reputation as a daredevil flyer, to lead the mission. Doolittle determined that the new twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber (which had yet to see combat), specially modified to save weight and increase range, was best suited for the mission. Two B-25’s were test-launched off the USS Hornet (CV-8) off of Norfolk to prove it could be done, before the brand-new Hornet transited to the Pacific. Navy aviator Lieutenant Henry F. Miller then trained the USAAF aviators, who volunteered for a hazardous but unspecified mission, in short-take-off procedures at Eglin Field, Florida (Miller was designated an “honorary Raider” by those who survived the mission due to his critical efforts.) Secret discussions with the Soviets proved fruitless, since they were officially neutral in the war with Japan, which meant the landing fields would have to be in areas of China still held by the Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. The Chinese were not notified in advance, even though Japanese retaliation was assumed by those planning the mission, including Doolittle.

Sixteen modified B-25B’s and their crews were loaded on Hornet at Alameda on 1 April 1942. The mission called for 15 aircraft; the 16th was supposed to be flown off shortly after departing San Francisco Bay to prove to the pilots that it could be done. Although trained to make short take-offs, none of Doolittle’s pilots had actually launched from a carrier; their first time would be the real thing on 18 April. Doolittle wasn’t supposed to fly the mission, but instead kept the 16th plane on board and flew it himself—and was the first to launch—thereby proving it could be done in a real case of “leading by example.” 

Hornet, under the command of Captain Marc “Pete” Mitscher, departed San Francisco Bay in daylight with the B-25’s in plain view on deck (they couldn’t fit on the hangar elevators anyway) and any observers assumed the Hornet was just ferrying the planes somewhere. Hornet’s own air wing was stowed below in the hangar, which essentially left her defenseless. At a point north of Hawaii, Hornet rendezvoused with TF-16, under the command of VADM William Halsey, embarked on USS Enterprise (CV-6) , which provided air cover for the operation. On 17 April, after the weather had turned very bad, the combined task force conducted a last refueling, the two oilers and eight destroyers were left behind, and the two carriers and four cruisers sprinted ahead toward the launch position.

Japanese Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, was deeply concerned about the possibility of a U.S. carrier raid on the Japanese homeland. He had already developed a plan to try to trap the U.S. carriers, and the rest of the U.S. fleet, at Midway Island, but the plan had not yet been approved by the Naval General Staff in Tokyo. Under the assumption that U.S. carriers would have to approach within 200 miles of Japan to launch an attack with carrier aircraft, Yamamoto directed the establishment of a fairly dense line of picket vessels (mostly commandeered fishing boats) at 600–700 miles from Japan, which would provide sufficient early warning for the Japanese to react and counter the U.S. raid.

The Ballad of the No. 23 Nitta Maru: After avoiding several surface radar contacts in the pre-dawn hours of 18 April, TF-16 encountered Japanese picket boats at dawn. The dawn patrol by an SBD Dauntless dive bomber reported that it had probably been seen by a Japanese surface craft. Then the task force came upon the No. 23 Nitta Maru. Although presumed to be a fishing boat, Halsey wanted to take no chances, and the light cruiser USS Nashville (CL-43) was ordered to sink the little vessel immediately. Nashville opened fired with her 15 x 6” guns. The Nitta Maru, bobbing in the very heavy seas, returned fire with her small caliber deck guns. At 928 6” rounds later, and emptying the magazines of several F4F Wildcat fighters on strafing runs, the Nitta Maru finally went down, but not before hitting an SBD Dauntless with machine-gun fire, which forced the U.S. plane to ditch.  U.S. radio intelligence, organic to the task force, confirmed that the Nitta Maru had sent a contact report, so there was no guesswork on the part of Halsey and Doolittle, there was no doubt that they had been spotted and their position reported. The Nitta Maru actually reported three carriers, and an accurate position, but failed to note that one of the carriers had bombers embarked, although she probably never got close enough to tell after coming under intense fire.  Five of the Nitta Maru's 11 crewman survived and were rescued by the U.S. The chief petty officer in charge of the boat committed suicide rather than risk capture, but he certainly had done his duty. Aircraft from Enterprise engaged about 16 more picket boats, sinking about five, during the course of the day.

With their cover blown, Halsey and Doolittle decided to launch immediately, about 150 miles short of their intended launch point, which would mean the planes would not have the fuel to reach the planned airfields in China, but would have to ditch or bail-out. With the heavy seas, the launch was very harrowing, requiring great skill by Hornet’s flight deck crew to time the launches so the bombers would not plow into the sea (green water was coming over the deck.) One Hornet crewman was blown into a prop-arc and lost his arm. But, all 16 aircraft got airborne safely and proceeded to their targets, aided by extensive additional target and defense information provided by Hornet’s intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander Steve Jurika, who had been a former naval attache in Tokyo.

The Japanese reaction was even more surprised and befuddled than the U.S. reaction at Pearl Harbor; no one imagined that twin-engine bombers would be launched from a carrier. Several Japanese scout planes and ships accurately reported the inbound aircraft. Although they didn’t know what type, they were accurately reported as inbound “enemy” bombers. The reports were dismissed. Airborne Japanese fighters saw the planes but did not engage, assuming they were friendly.  Japanese air raid alerts didn’t go off until 15 minutes after the bombs fell (Pearl Harbor had done much better). One plane was lightly damaged by anti-aircraft fire, but none were lost over Japan. Thirteen planes hit targets in the Tokyo area, including Yokosuka, where a bomb damaged the Japanese submarine tender Taigei that was being converted to the light carrier Ryuho, delaying her completion until well after the battle of Midway. Several aircraft buzzed the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, but were under strict orders not to bomb it. Three aircraft went after targets in Nagara, Osaka, and Kobe (one ditched its bombs to avoid Japanese fighters.) The aircraft actually did extensive damage relative to the limited number of planes in the raid. Although the targets were military and industrial, there was collateral damage, including accidental strafing of a school yard and a hospital. Approximately 87 Japanese were killed, including some women and children, and 151 seriously injured. Japanese propaganda used the civilian casualties to inflame public and military opinion, and was a significant factor in the resulting increase in war crimes and atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese military (they had already been massively brutalizing civilians in China, but to that point in the war had exercised some degree of restraint against the U.S., such as not targeting civilians at Pearl Harbor and not bombing the naval hospital at Sangley Point in the Philippines, for example). From the Japanese perspective, it was now the U.S. who were “baby-killers” and they reacted accordingly.

One of the 16 aircraft diverted to an airfield in the Soviet Union near Vladivostok and the five aircrewmen were interned for a year, before they were repatriated to the U.S. via a surreptitious NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) operation, so the Japanese would not discover the neutrality violation. (The Soviets kept the plane.) The other 15 aircraft, aided by an unexpected tail wind, actually reached the coast of China where the crews either bailed out, crash landed, or ditched off the coast. One aircrewman was killed while bailing out, and two drowned when their plane ditched in the water. Eight were subsequently captured by the Japanese. All were tried in a Japanese military court in occupied Shanghai, under a hastily concocted new Japanese law, which was made retroactive to the raid. Found guilty of bombing, strafing, and killing civilians, all eight were sentenced to death. Five had their sentenced commuted to “life in prison” while the two pilots and another were executed by firing squad. When word of the executions reached the U.S., along with news of the Bataan Death March (which commenced a week before the Doolittle Raid,) U.S. public opinion, already inflamed by Pearl Harbor, hardened even more. So although the Doolittle raid boosted U.S. morale, it also contributed to the attitude on both sides that the war would be a vicious fight to the death, with “no quarter” being the rule, and in the U.S. that Japanese civilian deaths on a massive scale were acceptable.

In Japan, the result of the raid was a profound loss of “face” by senior army and navy commanders, especially Yamamoto, who became physically ill and incapacitated upon hearing the news; his Chief of Staff, Admiral Matome Ugaki, had to direct the initial Japanese response, sending dozens of bombers and three carriers in a futile chase of the Hornet and Enterprise, who had made good their escape. The Japanese eventually figured out that the planes had come from a carrier, after analyzing all manner of outlandish alternative possibilities.  Admiral Yamamoto did use the raid to steamroller any remaining opposition to his Midway Plan (which had been opposed both by the Army and the Navy General Staff), setting in motion what became a disaster for the Japanese. The Japanese Army, already used to killing large numbers of Chinese civilians as a matter of routine, embarked on a three-month campaign of retaliation against areas of China that had aided the escape of 69 surviving U.S. aircrewmen. The Japanese devastated entire towns and villages, reportedly killing every man, woman, child, and farm animal, then poisoning wells, food stores, fields, and even deliberately spreading bacteriological agents such as anthrax, plague, and cholera, using their biological warfare unit, “Unit 731.” The devastation was so widespread that even some Japanese soldiers died from the plague. In a letter to President Roosevelt, Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek, noting that he had not been informed in advance of the raid, stated that 250,000 Chinese men, women, and children had been slaughtered, repeating the statement in case Roosevelt didn’t get the message. U.S. Army Air Force General Claire Chennault (of the “Flying Tigers”) also cited the number 250,000. The real number will never be known, but it certainly was in the many tens of thousands, and the Chinese paid an extremely high price to boost American morale. (Which doesn’t take away from the bravery of the aircrewmen who flew the extremely dangerous mission: Doolittle received the Medal of Honor and a direct promotion to brigadier general—skipping colonel—and all the Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.)

After the raid, the press asked where the bombers had come from and Roosevelt responded “from our secret base in Shangri-La,” a reference to a mythological Tibetan utopia in a very popular 1930’s novel and movie Lost Horizon. The name Shangri-La was subsequently given to a new Essex-class carrier (CV-38), which took part in several campaigns in World War II, was at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay and served through Vietnam.

(There are many accounts of the Doolittle Raid, but the one by Ian Toll in Pacific Crucible is a really good short read.)

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Published: Tue May 07 15:16:10 EDT 2019