The Doolittle Raid:
How America Responded to the Sneak Attack on Pearl Harbor
G. H. Spaulding, CAPT, USN (Ret)
"Some movie star with a big yellow Chrysler convertible took my bunch to March Field. We got in our airplanes and went to war."
Many have compared the events of September 11, 2001, with the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. While in fact the attacks were fundamentally different, America’s collective reaction to them—intense feelings of shock, patriotism, anger, frustration and hunger for retaliation—was hauntingly similar.
As the weeks passed and the country mobilized for war back then, a national sense of frustration persisted while President Roosevelt and his military leaders tried to figure out how to retaliate quickly against a distant and powerful enemy. The American response came a little more than four months after Pearl Harbor, on April 18, 1942, when Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders bombed Japan in one of the most heralded accomplishments in U.S. military history. April 18, 2002, will mark the 60th anniversary of the event.
The daring mission was the culmination of a joint operation involving over 10,000 naval personnel and 80 Army Air Force volunteers who launched in 16 B-25 medium bombers from the heaving deck of the carrier Hornet to strike their targets in Japan.
Fewer than a third of the 80 AAF crewmembers who took part in this "mission impossible" are still living today. Among them is retired Air Force colonel and active Daedalian William M. "Bill" Bower, who piloted plane number 12 that fateful day in 1942.
Conception of The Doolittle raid.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America’s attention was focused on the expanding war in Europe, which had been raging for more than two years. She was not prepared for war in the Pacific.
The Japanese took advantage of U.S. pre-occupation with Germany, within 24 hours attacking Pearl Harbor, Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island and Midway and invading Hong Kong and Malaya. It would require three years for the allies to undo what the Japanese accomplished in only one day. World War Two began officially on December 8th when the United States and Great Britain declared war on Japan. Three days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
Early on the U.S. committed to the defeat of Germany and Italy before turning its full attention to the Japanese. In the Pacific, the first priorities were to blunt Japanese expansion eastward and to prevent the isolation of Australia and New Zealand. In order to accomplish these goals, the U.S. Pacific Fleet had to take on the mighty Japanese navy, a challenge it was ill equipped to meet.
The main weapon for this task was the aircraft carrier. However, there were only three American carriers initially available to range the vast Pacific in opposition to the Japanese, who began the war with 10 carriers and the advantage of initiative.
Despite this overwhelming mismatch in the Pacific Theater, President Roosevelt pushed his military leaders to devise a plan for quickly striking Japan, even with only a token gesture, to retaliate for Pearl Harbor.
Navy staff officers in Washington proposed loading AAF B-25 Mitchell bombers onto the deck of an aircraft carrier, sending a task force to a point 450 miles east of Japan, and from there launching the bombers to strike the Japanese homeland. B-25s were needed because carrier-based aircraft lacked the range to reach Japan from such a distance. The idea was presented to the Army Air Force and ultimately to Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, who in civilian life had gained considerable fame as a racing and stunt pilot before returning to active duty in 1940. Not only did he corroborate the plan, he asked to lead the bombing mission.
The feasibility of the concept was demonstrated on February 2, 1942, when two B-25s were loaded onto the deck of the Navy’s newest carrier, USS Hornet, then launched from the ship without difficulty off the coast of Virginia. Hornet was ordered to the West Coast and Doolittle got on with the task of organizing and training his crews.
Enter First Lieutenant Bill Bower
"I got started flying because I was a fan of Jim Doolittle," Bower explains. "I went to the National Air Races in ’32. Had enough money to buy a train ticket to Cleveland, hitched out to the airport, sneaked under the fence and was right beside the Gee Bee (the stubby little plane in which Doolittle would ultimately win that race, the last of his famed racing career). That did it."
"But it took me a long while after that to grow up and get into the service. In fact, I didn’t graduate from college. I took the ‘Highway 66 degree’ to California and putzed around...like a modern hippie I guess."
"I graduated from flying school in October of ’40 and went to Denver to join the 37th Bomb Squadron at Lowry Field. We trained the first contingent of commissioned bombardiers on the Buckley bombing range."
"In May 1941, my squadron left for Alaska, but en route was redirected to March Field, California. From there we went to Louisiana, where we spent the summer on maneuvers learning to fly our new B-25s. Then we returned to California."
"We spent the night of December 6th at the Hollywood Plaza Hotel. And guess what. We were in no shape to leave that place the next morning when we got the news about Pearl Harbor. Some movie star with a big yellow Chrysler convertible took my bunch to March Field. We got in our airplanes and went to war."
"They sent us to Pendleton, Oregon, a miserable place at that time. The weather was bad. We were trying to sink submarines and weren’t doing well at all. Things were just tough. So I volunteered—a whole bunch of us did—for this special mission that came up. We took our planes to Minneapolis, where they were stripped and modified to carry additional fuel. Then we went on down to Eglin Field in Florida."
"We gathered in a building there on the base. Somebody said the fellow who’s head of this is comin’ in to see you and in walks Jim Doolittle. My Lord a’mighty! Imagine how I felt, having followed him through his racing days, and here he was! He told us we had a mission to do and set up the training."
Among the 140 volunteer pilots and crewmen present at Eglin was Ted Lawson. A year later he would write the book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, his account of the Doolittle Raid, on which the 1944 movie of the same title was based. In the movie Spencer Tracey played Doolittle and Van Johnson portrayed Lawson. Both the book and the film recounted the preparations for and conduct of the mission, which envisioned Doolittle’s B-25s landing in China after dropping four bombs each on military targets in five different Japanese cities—Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagoya and Osaka.
At the outset of the training and several times thereafter, Doolittle emphasized the extreme danger of the operation and made it clear that anyone who wanted to drop out could do so with no questions asked. No one did.
Each of the 24 B-25 medium bombers convened at Eglin carried a crew of five: a pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier and an engineer/gunner. While none of the men knew the details of the coming mission, the nature of the training enabled them to deduce the essence of it. Especially when LT Henry Miller, a Navy pilot, showed up to tutor them in "quick" takeoffs and shipboard etiquette.
When illness grounded one of the B-25 pilots, Doolittle took his place on that crew. Hoping to fly the mission as a pilot, he went through LT Miller’s takeoff training with everyone else. "If I hadn’t made it," he said later, "I intended to go along as a copilot and let one of the younger, more proficient pilots occupy the left seat." But, not surprisingly, he passed the course.
In addition to takeoff practice, each crew was to refine its skills in day and night navigation, gunnery, bombing and formation flying, although weather and maintenance problems precluded some of that training.
"We extended the range of the airplane from 1,000 to about 2,500 miles," says Bower. "We started that short-field takeoff routine and had a pretty fancy competition between crews. I think the best crew got it down to about 300 feet on a hot day."
After three weeks of training, Doolittle’s group was abruptly sent west. Hollywood’s version of their departure depicts Ted Lawson rushing to his quarters to pack and to bid adieu to his young wife Ellen. On his way out the door, Lawson (Van Johnson) asks Ellen (the June Allyson-like Phyllis Thaxter), "Tell me honey, how come you’re so cute?" A smiling Ellen responds, "I had to be if I was gonna get such a good lookin’ fella."
Bower’s account is more straightforward. "On the 24th of March, we flew to Sacramento and dressed up the planes a bit. Then we went over to Alameda and they hoisted us aboard this bloody big machine (the Hornet), an 850-footer. And there we were."
Of the 22 planes that ultimately arrived at Alameda Naval Air Station, only those whose pilots reported no mechanical problems were sent to the Navy pier. The others were shunted aside. Although the original plan was to load only 15 of them on the Hornet’s flight deck, at the last minute Doolittle asked for one more to be hoisted aboard. His intention was to launch the extra B-25 while the ship was underway—with Navy instructor Hank Miller in the copilot’s seat—in order to convince his pilots that it could actually be done. That plane would return to the beach.
Meanwhile, crews from the planes not taken went aboard the carrier to serve as replacements should any of the primary crewmembers fall ill or drop out.
Bower describes his last night in California, after the Hornet had been tugged to an anchorage in San Francisco Bay. "We had shore leave, went to the Top of the Mark and took the place over. But every darned one of us got back to the ship, some on the last liberty boat pretty early in the morning. We weighed anchor at dawn, sailed under the bridges and off we went to Japan."
That afternoon the Hornet’s captain decided to tell his men where they were going. When he signaled the accompanying vessels and announced, "This force is bound for Tokyo," cheers erupted throughout the ship.
The next day Doolittle changed his mind about sending the 16th plane back to the mainland, deciding instead to employ it as an additional bomber.
The task force that left San Francisco on April 2, 1942, was comprised of USS Hornet (her own fighters stashed below on the hangar deck) and seven escorting ships. Eleven days later, it would join with a second carrier task force consisting of USS Enterprise and her complement of seven combatant and support vessels out of Hawaii. Under the command of Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey on board the Enterprise and manned by some 10,000 naval personnel, the combined 16-ship task force pressed on to deliver Doolittle’s Raiders to their launch point.
While underway, the Army Air Force crews were briefed extensively by the Hornet’s intelligence officer, who had formerly served in Japan as the assistant naval attaché, on what they would see as they approached their targets. Meanwhile, Japanese intelligence had gotten wind of the approaching task force.
The final plan was to launch the bombers from a point approximately 400 miles east of Japan. But when the task force was sighted by Japanese picket ships stationed some 650 miles out, Halsey flashed a message to the Hornet. "Launch planes. To Colonel Doolittle and gallant command, good luck and God bless you."
"We were discovered on the morning of April 18th at 0440," Bower recalls. "They sounded general quarters, but I didn’t hear it. I was up in the chain locker in the front of that machine and just couldn’t hear it. Finally, Jack Hilger (Doolittle’s second in command) came and got me. He said, ‘Come on, Bill, we’re leavin’ this place.’ So I grabbed my bag and got up to the flight deck."
"Doolittle’s airplane was already warming up. It was a miserable day, heavy seas... But we all got off without too much difficulty."
(While Bower had no way of knowing this at the time, there were three potentially devastating incidents during launch: Ted Lawson failed to lower his flaps for takeoff and nearly went into the drink; one plane cracked its plexiglass nose when it rammed the tail of another; and a Navy seaman lost his left arm when the prop wash from plane number 15 blew him into number 16’s spinning left prop.)
Bower continues: "Doolittle was first and I was number 12 to take off. Then we all went individually to Japan. The weather kinda cleared up, we got there and it looked just like Jurika (the former naval attaché) said it would."
"It was a beautiful country. We went on in and flew over an airfield where they were practicing approaches—in twin-engine bombers, thank goodness. We bombed our targets. I didn’t see any opposition. My navigator said we had a little, but, hell, we didn’t know what war was, so who was to say what happened? After leaving Japan, we got down on the deck and headed for China." (It should be pointed out that "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" refers only to the time required for each plane to release its bombs; in fact, each was over Japan dodging anti-aircraft fire and evading enemy fighters for about an hour.)
The idea was for the bombers to land at selected bases in occupied China, refuel, then proceed to Chungking. For a number of reasons—the necessity of launching further from Japan than originally planned, bad weather on arrival and the breakdown of American-Chinese coordination—this phase of the mission met with abject tragedy.
Bower describes his arrival in China. "We picked up a tailwind. Otherwise, we would have crashed 200 miles short of the coast. The weather turned bad and it was dark, so we climbed up and flew on till we ran out of fuel. Then we bailed out. We came down at night in the most mountainous, volcanic type country you’ve ever seen in your life. I landed on the side of a hill not 30 feet from a straight drop of 400 feet. I wrapped myself up in my parachute and went to sleep."
In all, 11 of the 16 crews, including Doolittle’s, bailed out. Four others crash-landed or ditched in the water. One crew, critically short of fuel, diverted to Russia, where they were interned for 14 months before escaping to Iran. All 16 planes were lost. One crewman was killed bailing out. Two drowned swimming ashore. Eight, including the entire crew of the 16th plane to launch, were captured by the Japanese. Of those captured, three were executed, one died of malnutrition and four survived 40 months of imprisonment under the most inhumane conditions until they were rescued just before the end of the war.
Ted Lawson (future author of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) was one of the pilots who crash-landed his plane, in his case along a beach he’d spotted through a break in the clouds. He and three other members of his crew were seriously injured. Among Lawson’s injuries—far worse than depicted in the movie—his left leg was so badly damaged it had be amputated as he and his crew were attempting to reach Chungking, all the while eluding angry Japanese occupation troops.
While searching for the downed Raiders, Japanese soldiers would murder more than a quarter-million Chinese whom they accused of helping the Americans.
After the Raid.
Thanks to the help of friendly Chinese, good fortune and their own tenacity, 64 of the 80 Raiders who launched from the Hornet ultimately reached safety. Some remained in the Pacific Theater to fight the Japanese. The rest returned to the United States for hospitalization or reassignment. Over the next several months, some would die in accidents or combat and several would become prisoners of the Germans.
Japanese radio reported that nine of the bombers had been shot down, the rest "driven away in retreat." The country‘s military leadership knew better. And while the raid inflicted only minimal strategic damage, its shock value likely sparked the decision by the Japanese High Command to launch an offensive into the central Pacific that resulted in the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war against Japan.
After participating in the Battle of Midway in June, USS Hornet was sunk four months later at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands while supporting American forces on Guadalcanal. A new USS Hornet joined the war the following year, her pilots downing 1,410 Japanese aircraft and destroying or damaging over a million tons of enemy shipping during the next 15 months of fighting.
In 1998, the veteran warship was designated a National Historic Landmark and currently is open to the public as an aircraft carrier museum at Alameda, California, the birthplace of Jimmy Doolittle and the place where his Raiders’ B-25s were hoisted aboard the original carrier Hornet.
"Bull" Halsey’s USS Enterprise also took part in the Battle of Midway and all but two of the more than 20 major engagements of the Pacific war. For a time holding the line as the only operational carrier still afloat in the Pacific, she was finally forced to withdraw from combat when a Kamikaze plane crashed through her flight deck just three months prior to the Japanese surrender. The most decorated ship of World War II, she was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1958.
Hank Miller, the naval aviator who instructed Doolittle’s pilots in short takeoffs, was an air group commander at the end of World War II. Paradoxically, he was recalled from an air strike on Tokyo when hostilities ceased. During operations against Vietnam in 1965, he commanded the first nuclear-powered task force to engage in combat. As fate would have it, his flagship for those operations was the new USS Enterprise. Miller retired from the Navy in 1971 as a rear admiral and passed away in 1993.
Ted Lawson became the first amputee patient to be treated at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. "They ordered him a wooden leg from a catalogue," recalls his widow Ellen. "The leg looked like it belonged to a chorus girl, but he wore it anyway."
Lawson left the Army Air Force shortly before the end of the war to pursue a career as an aeronautical engineer. He died suddenly in 1992 of a pulmonary aneurysm, the result of complications stemming from the injuries he sustained crash landing on the Chinese coast 50 years earlier. In addition to Ellen, he is survived by three children and ten grandchildren. Lawson’s widow now owns the copyright to Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which has been republished to satisfy renewed demand. She’s now writing a book of her own about her late husband’s arduous experience in China.
Immediately after the raid, Jimmy Doolittle was promoted two ranks to brigadier general. With several Raiders including Bill Bower under his command, he was off to the European Theater to direct strategic bombing campaigns against the Axis forces in North Africa and Italy. Doolittle was often at odds with his boss, General Dwight Eisenhower, who directed him to curtail his flying in order to devote more time tending to a general’s business. Defying Ike’s instructions, Doolittle led numerous bombing missions, preferring to be out in front of his men leading by example rather than managing them from behind.
Bower recalls: "He’d just show up with his parachute—unannounced—crawl into an airplane and say, ‘I’m Doolittle. I’m flying with you today.’ Word would always get around afterward and it was a tremendous morale boost for all of us."
Despite his difficulties with Eisenhower, Doolittle was promoted twice more and sent to London to direct the American air campaign during the D-Day invasion and subsequent drive on Germany. Later, when victory in Europe was at hand, he was ordered to the Pacific, where he was to set up a B-29 bomber command on Okinawa. On the way west he joined General George S. Patton at Buckley Field, Colorado, and the two kindred spirits embarked from there on a speaking tour of the United States to remind Americans that the fighting in the Pacific was not yet over.
Before Doolittle could crank up his Pacific bombing operation, atomic detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought World War II to a precipitous close (at the same time ushering in the 46-year Cold War). Yet the feisty little general was not to be denied one final irony. Some 41 months after leading the surprise raid on Tokyo, he returned to the Japanese capital to witness formal surrender ceremonies on board the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Colonel Bill Bower was a bomber group commander in Italy when the war in Europe ended. His group too was ordered to the Pacific, but was disbanded en route after Japan’s sudden surrender. Bower remained in the Air Force after the war, and following a number of subsequent assignments, retired in 1968 to settle in the Denver area.
While Bower’s professional association with Doolittle concluded in North Africa, the two remained good friends. For years after the war, Bower organized hunting and fishing trips in Colorado for members of the Raiders and several other wartime colleagues. Doolittle participated even into his 90s.
Like Henry Miller, Doolittle passed on in 1993. Bill Bower was one of 22 Raiders present at Arlington National Cemetery for the funeral of their beloved general. Years before, Bower had sent an old bugle to Doolittle’s granddaughter Jodi as a wedding gift, encouraging her to continue the Raider custom of blowing it to "rouse the sleepy troops." Jodi brought it to the funeral and asked Bill to sound taps with it.
"I got through about three bars before I choked up," says Bower. "Jim’s great-grandson Paul was standing next to me, so I handed him the bugle and he finished it."
Still the Doolittle spirit lives on, embodied in a special glass-enclosed cabinet kept on display in Arnold Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The cabinet contains 80 silver goblets and a bottle of Hennessy cognac. Each goblet is engraved with the name of a Raider and is turned upside down when that member of the group passes away.
As dawn broke over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 2001—60 years after the attack that launched WWII and 131 days before the 60th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid—only 23 Raiders were still living. Of the dwindling number of goblets that staunchly remain upright in their display case, only four (Bill Bower’s among them) represent surviving pilots while four more represent surviving copilots.
A special detail of Air Force cadets carries the goblets in a portable display case to annual Raider reunions, where attending members toast those who have preceded them in death and retire their goblets. Tradition holds that the last two survivors will open the brandy and drink a final toast to their departed brothers. Only then will the saga of the Doolittle Raiders come to a close. The legend is likely to endure forever.
The Doolittle Goblets and the Mystery of the Missing Brandy
The silver goblets were a gift to the Raiders from the city of Tucson, Arizona, presented to Doolittle during the Raider reunion in that city in 1959. Later that year, during halftime of an Air Force Academy football game, Doolittle turned them over to the superintendent of the Academy for safekeeping.
The portable display case currently used to transport them to annual Raider reunions was built in 1973 by Richard E. "Dick" Cole, Doolittle’s copilot during the 1942 raid.
According to Bill Bower, the president of the Hennessy Company had given Doolittle a bottle of Very Special cognac, vintage 1896, the year of Doolittle’s birth. Doolittle donated the cognac to the goblet collection with the stipulation that the last two surviving Raiders would open it to drink a final toast to their departed comrades. The goblets, in their original gift case, and brandy were put on display at the original AFA Visitor Center. One night circa 1970, the vintage bottle of cognac disappeared. The Hennessy Company later donated a replacement bottle of cognac, also vintage 1896, which remains in the possession of the surviving crew members. The bottle on display with the goblets in Arnold Hall until 2006 before the entire display was relocated to the AF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB was a standard off-the-shelf bottle of Hennessy.
Meanwhile, a credible source states that two cadet culprits did eventually fess up to the theft of the brandy. They were ordered to repeat their confessions to Gen Doolittle by phone. Reportedly, Doolittle told them to forget about it and get on with their studies.
It will be interesting to learn what bottle appears for the final toast on 9 Nov 2013 at the AF Museum. Will it be that replacement 1896 vintage brandy? Time will tell. How the display actually got to Wright-Patt is an amazing story in itself.
The link immediately below will take you to a web page containing a number of goblet/brandy photos. The 1965 picture at the bottom of the page includes a bottle that is not, as one might easily conclude, the original bottle of Hennessy. Nor, according to a knowledgeable company representative in France, is it anything ever produced by Hennessy. Photos above that include a bottle of E&J brandy used for toasts at the 2002 reunion. Because the original bottle was stolen from the display and it contents emptied many years ago, obviously the last two surviving Raiders will not be able to open that bottle to drink a toast to their departed comrades as Doolittle intended. The bottle that was on display with the goblets at the Air Force Academy for years was just another bottle of Hennessy cognac one might find in any liquor store today. It was not the original or its replacement.
Bill Bower and the author are members of the Denver chapter of The Order of Daedalians, a national fraternity of active duty and former military pilots. Jimmy Doolittle was a Daedalian from 1936 until his death in 1993. The Order of Daedalians is headquartered at Randolph Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. Check out their web site at: http://www.daedalians.org
This article appeared in the January 2000 issue of the Centennial Aviation and Business Journal and in the winter 2001 edition of the Daedalus Flyer magazine.
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