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Vengeance From the Air: The Doolittle Raid


Four months after the devastating Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor, the United States struck back from the skies over the heart of Japan. On Saturday, April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and flew 800 difficult miles to reach the Japanese mainland. In the first long-range strike operation in the history of military aviation, Doolittle and his Raiders hit the major enemy cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Kobe, and Nagoya. After striking their targets, all of the American bombers were nearly out of fuel as they reassembled over the Sea of Japan and headed towards friendly Chinese territory.

Of the 16 planes involved in the raid, fifteen either crash landed or the crews bailed out on the eastern coast of China. One crew landed in Soviet Russia and was interred by the Russians, but most of Doolittle’s men hit the ground in China. With the help of Chinese comrades, many of Doolittle’s airmen were reunited on April 19. Some of the Raiders, however, were not so lucky. Three men were killed in crashes and another eight were captured by the Japanese. Of the airmen who fell into enemy hands, historian Winston Groom records that three “were executed, and the rest were horribly tortured and sentenced to life in prison.”

Doolittle and the crew of the lead plane before taking off to strike the Japanese mainland. From left, Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, pilot; Staff Sgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; Lt. Richard E. Cole, co-pilot; and Staff Sgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Although the physical damage caused by Doolittle’s daring raid was minimal compared to later enemy bombings in the war, the April 18th attack against the heart of Japan inflicted a massive psychological blow to the seemingly invincible Japanese and offered a much-needed morale boost to America and her Allies. The Doolittle Raid also helped military planners gain vital enemy intelligence, which ultimately helped change the course of the war in the Pacific at the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

For their gallantry over the skies of Japan, all 80 of Doolittle’s Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. For his incredible leadership in planning and executing the raid, Jimmy Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire.


Encyclopædia Britannica: Doolittle Raid. James H. Doolittle.

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