Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Army pilots, man your planes!

Those words galvanized a group of 80 men who found themselves just 600 miles from the Japanese home islands. How they got there and what happened after is an amazing tale on heroism, inventiveness, and intrepidity. It was 70 years ago today, April 18th, the Doolittle Raid occurred. And the five surviving Raiders are at Wright Patterson and the Museum of the Air Force this week to mark this historic event.

It all started just after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor by a most curious route. Admiral King wanted to know if Army bombers and transports could take off from an aircraft carrier for the invasion of French North Africa. It was the Army Air Force under Gen. Hap Arnold and the energetic Jimmy Doolittle who made the concept King's staff had of using Army bombers from a US Navy aircraft carrier to strike at a target President Roosevelt wanted hit at the earliest moment – Japan feasible.

Once it was determined it was possible, the next step was to make it reality. Soon two B-25 bombers managed to take off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, a brand spanking new carrier still doing work ups before transfer to the Pacific. The date was Feb. 3, 1942 and those two B-25 crews had no idea what they had accomplished or what would come of it. Secrecy was paramount.

Meanwhile Doolittle was busy getting the Army side of things organized. B-25s needed modification for a host of upgrades including extra fuel tanks to extend range. Again secrecy was important so no one knew why this Lt. Col was re-arranging their war important missions, all they knew was Gen. Hap Arnold fully supported this mad man so they got to it. Crews had to be selected under the same stringent security. The men of the 17th Bombardment Group and 89th Reconnaissance Squadron were told it was a dangerous mission, practically everyone volunteered. Twenty four crews were selected for special training down at Eglin field in Florida. Here the crews were exposed to extremely short field take offs in their planes and taught Navy habits by Lt. Miller. Soon the men were launching their planes in as little as 350ft.

As soon as the men and planes were ready, they flew cross country to California to meet up with USS Hornet. Upon landing if they reported any defect in their plane, that plane was pulled to the side. Ted Lawson's plane The Ruptured Duck had problems with its top turret but did not report the problem. So his plane with 15 others were hoisted onto Hornet's flight deck. The other B-25s were left on shore while their crews boarded the aircraft carrier to maintain secrecy and provide replacements in case someone fell ill.

Secrecy was maintained until USS Hornet and its escorts met up with USS Enterprise's task force beyond Hawaii. Once the Navy men learned what the mission was, their treatment of the Army crews changed dramatically. Lawson found himself sleeping in a soft Navy bunk while its former occupant did battle with a folding cot. When the Army crews had an issue on one of their planes, the Navy machine shops and specialists were only too eager to help.

The final plan was to launch the B-25s about 400 statue miles from the Japanese home islands and hit after dark. Those plans changed when an Enterprise scout plane found a picket line of Japanese fishing bots over 600 miles out. As the heavy cruiser USS Northampton started to slam shells into one of these spy ships, a gutsy call was being made aboard Hornet. Doolittle, Mitscher, and Halsey conferred and decided to launch immediately though it meant there was almost no chance the B-25s would arrive in China intact and the attack would be in daylight.

As the crews were called to man their planes, Hornet turned into the wind. Five more tins of gasoline were crammed into each plane in the hope it would help them reach friendly controlled areas in China. Meanwhile the crews themselves loaded up items of vital importance into their planes, guns being one item. Into one plane went a phonograph player while the records were loaded on a different plane.

Jimmy Doolittle then launched in the first B-25. Everyone held their breaths as his plane seem to vanish off the bow of the ship. Then everyone sighed in relief as the plane clawed for air. After one orbit of the carrier to get bearings, Doolittle flew off to hit Tokyo. Soon all the bombers were safely off, every bomber going it alone because of fuel concerns. Then both carrier task groups turned around and raced out of harm's way, their part of the mission done.

Flying at almost wave-top level, each crew saw different things when they reached the Japanese coastline. They saw Japanese fisherman and farmers wave at them as they sped past. The Japanese thought the planes were theirs, anything else was beyond their imagination. It probably help in the confusion the bombers' markings included a red dot in the center of the white star. This is not to say the Japanese military were not expecting an attack, they just expected it to happen as the carriers got closer since carrier planes were short ranged. So the Raiders got the surprise they needed as they struck Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya. Next was the hardest part of the mission, the get away.

On the bombers flew, once again at wave-top level into bad weather, shrinking fuel reserves, and uncertain Chinese airfields. None of the China bound planes would land safely. Some came down in the water while others crashed after exhausting all their fuel. Only the plane that diverted to neutral Vladivostok landed safely, the crew was promptly interned least Japan attack the still neutral USSR. Doolittle thought the raid was a failure as he sat next to the wreckage of his plane. Fate of many of his men was unknown, it would be weeks before all of their fates would be known. Two crews were captured by the Japanese and promptly convicted of trumped up war crime charges, three of these men were then executed by firing squad and another would die of disease before Japan surrendered and the four survivors rescued. Ted Lawson's plane crashed off a small island and four of the crew badly injured. Lawson himself was catapulted out of the cockpit and his left leg ripped up. Only turret gunner David Thatcher was uninjured. Only because of his valiant efforts, of which he was awarded a Silver Star, were the others saved. Then they, like many other crews, were assisted by Chinese civilians to escape and avoid the cruel fate the Japanese would inflict. For helping so many Raiders escape, the Japanese over the next few months launched a brutal reprisal that would murder over 250,000 Chinese civilians.

The raid was far from a failure. It delivered a needed boost to flagging Allied morale. Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor for this daring mission and would continue to lead men into combat, this time in the North African and Italian theaters of operation. It shocked the Japanese. The god-emperor could have been injured. One has to wonder if in private Admiral Yamamoto said to himself, I tried to warn the government attacking the US was foolish. Instead the attack so panicked the Japanese military, they green-lighted a plan they had been opposed to. So Yamamoto was told to hurry it up and wipe out those pesky American aircraft carriers before they really did harm the Emperor. So in two months the Battle of Midway would happen. Once the last plane landed, the offensive might of Japan had been effectively blunted with the loss of four carriers and their valuable pilots. In that battle would be Enterprise and Hornet. Hornet would be lost at the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942, to the end she was a tough lady as it took American and Japanese destroyer torpedoes to send her to the bottom. Admiral Yamamoto would meet his own end on April 18th, 1943 when USAAF P-38 Lightnings intercepted his G4M Betty bomber and shot it down killing him. Enterprise would fight through the whole war and then suffer the ignoble fate of being cut up for scrap in 1955.

 Books to read
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, 1943, Random House, Captain Ted Lawson
The Doolittle Raid, 1991, Schiffer Publishing, Carroll V. Glines
Miracle at Midway, 1982, Penguin Books, Gordon W. Prange.
The Big 'E' 1984, Ballantine Books, Cmdr. Edward P. Stafford


Keads said...

Cross posted and thanks! A wonderful post!

drjim said...

Yes, *MUCH* nicer post than mine.

Anna said...

Thank you both.

I just edited the post a bit to eliminate some redundant words.

No matter how much I write, I can not match the real bravery of these men. Men who are mostly gone now.

Anna said...

This is the ending of a lesser known movie called The Purple Heart. It stars Dana Andrews. Its a very fictionalized account of the cruel fate that befell the eight captured American fliers. The speech Andrews gives though makes the movie worth it.


Odysseus said...

I actually grew up in a town named Doolittle in honor of Jimmy Doolittle.

TheDarkEricDraven said...

It's amazing how you can put such simple, stupid, and idiotic stuff into such a long article.

Anna said...

Odysseus, a town named Doolittle? Where was this? Sounds like a nice town to visit.

Anna said...

Dear Derpy Erik Drivel. When you can string together a coherent and lucid refutation of the valor, sacrifice, and honor documented in this article, then I will use your proper alias. Until then FOAD.

Tom's Place said...

I read "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" in grade school, and even then I marvelled at the courage of these men who knew that this flight was most likely a one-way trip. Absolutely incredible!