Raiders and Redemption -by Jeff Olson
As most of us know, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was a devastating blow to not only America’s military strength in the Pacific, but the extensive loss of lives and morale left our country in a state of dismay and shock. With Japanese military forces surging across the western Pacific, the U.S. was also concerned about the vulnerability of our west coast to invasion. In the wake of all this, President Roosevelt pressed his military planners for a strike against Tokyo, not only as an act of retaliation and defiance for Pearl Harbor but also to boost America’s morale and confidence.
Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle and 79 other airman (known since as the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders) volunteered for this daring mission. They trained extensively to launch sixteen B-25 bombers from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet within about 500 miles of Japan.
Seventy-seven years ago this week, in the early morning hours of April 18, 1942, a Japanese patrol boat spotted the task force. Doolittle realized that the planes needed to be launched immediately, one day early and some 150 miles farther away than planned. Otherwise, the element of surprise would likely be lost. Due to obvious risks involved, the training for this attack did not include using an aircraft carrier so the take-off at sea would be the first for all of the airmen.
In heavy seas, with some of the waves breaking over the carrier deck, Doolittle took off from the pitching deck and the others successfully followed. They had to fly just above the waves (20-30 feet) to avoid radar detection, and the attack did indeed catch the Japanese by surprise. Thirteen bombers targeted Tokyo and the others struck Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. After dropping the bomb-loads on their assigned targets, the raiders flew on until they ran out of fuel (due to the earlier-than-planned take-off). Most of the crews landed in Japanese-occupied China and made it to friendly territory with the aid of Chinese peasants. Thousands of the Chinese were killed by the Japanese in their search for the raiders. One crew landed in the Soviet Union and was immediately interned. Eight airmen were captured by the Japanese, three of whom were later executed and one starved to death. One man was killed on bail-out after mission and two men drowned as a result of crash landing in the water off China coast. Four raiders became POW’s of the Germans and thirteen died later in the war.