The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo
Preparations for Departure
The United States had organized a daring plan to attack Japan in retribution for their attack at Pearl Harbor. The first 3 months of 1942 were spent planning and training for this raid. Eighty of the most experienced B-25 crews were enlisted for this volunteer mission. Every man knew there was a good chance they would not return from the mission. The time had come to set out on what would become one of the most important single missions in the war. The preparations had been made and the men were well capable of completing the mission. The men however, still were unaware what their mission would be or how important they would be come to the war effort.
On March 30, 1942, Admiral Halsey and Captain Duncan met Lt. Col. Doolittle in nearby San Francisco. They would spend the afternoon and evening discussing the details of the raid. The carrier Hornet; cruisers Nashville and Vincennes; and destroyers Gwin, Meredith, Grayson, and Monssen would form Taskforce 16.2. They would depart from the Alameda Naval Air Station on April 1st under the command of Captain Mark Mitscher. The carrier Enterprise; cruisers North Hampton and Salt Lake City; the oiler Sabine; and destroyers Balch, Benham, Ellet, and Fanning would form Taskforce 16.1. They would depart from Pearl Harbor on April 7th under the command of Admiral Halsey. The two taskforces would meet at sea on April 12th and form Taskforce 16. Approximately 800 miles from Japan, the warships would refuel. The oilers and destroyers would remain behind while the carriers and cruisers would continue to within 400 miles of Japan. At that point, 15 B-25s would launch from the Hornet and bomb targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe before continuing to China.
That was the plan. Both Halsey and Doolittle knew there had to be contingency plans. Since the B-25s were too large to fit in the hangar deck, if attacked, they would come to an agreement on what action would be taken. If in range, the B-25s would immediately be launched to attack Japan. They would try to make China, but could ditch in the ocean with the hope of being picked up by submarines in the area. Assuming they were not close enough to Japan, they could possibly fly to Hawaii or Midway. Worst case, the B-25s would be pushed over the side to allow for the launch of fighters. Both men knew there were risks and they both accepted those possibilities.
The planes started to arrive at the Alameda Naval Air Station on the afternoon of April 1, 1942. Each crew was instructed to spend at least 1 hour in the sky to determine the flight worthiness of their aircraft. At least two of the crews could not resist the temptation of flying under such an icon as the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Both Captain Edward York and Second Lieutenant Dean Davenport guided their B-25s under the bridge. As they landed at Alameda, Doolittle asked each pilot how their aircraft was performing. Any issues, and the B-25 was directed to an area to be parked. Those without complaints were directed to taxi to a ramp by the wharf. Sixteen B-25s would be loaded on the Hornet. By 3:15, she would push back from the dock and head to Berth 9 in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The raiders would have one more night on the town.
After landing, Captain Edward York introduced Lieutenant Emmens to Lt. Col. Doolittle. Doolittle shook his hand and promptly enquired: "How much time do you have in a B-25?" Emmens replied: "Sir, I have about 1,000 hours." "Do you want to go on this thing? It is strictly volunteer" continued Doolittle. Emmens immediately replied: "Yes, sir, I do". Doolittle turned to York and responded: "All right, you are the new crew." Lieutenant Emmens, without any training, had joined the raid.
There were now sixteen B-25s loaded on the deck of the Hornet out in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Fifteen planned for the raid, and one that would be launch 100 miles from the coast to assure the Army pilots it could be done. Some worried the secrecy of the mission would be in jeopardy with this much visibility. The Navy men of the Hornet were told they were going to ferry the B-25s to Hawaii. A story that was not uncommon at the time. The raiders did not make the greatest first impression. Their uniforms seemed worn out and generally unkempt. The raiders had spent a hard month training and keeping their shoes polished just seemed to fall off the priority list. What they lacked in appearance, they more than made up with skill. The men spent their last night on the town in San Francisco returning to the Hornet early the next morning. Even the men whose planes were scrubbed were loaded aboard the Hornet. This would not only ensure secrecy, but would also provide alternate crews if needed.
Just before 8 a.m. on April 2, 1942, the Nashville got underway under heavy fog. One by one, the ships left the harbor headed out to sea. Just after 11 a.m., sailors lined the flight deck as the Hornet passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Many from the crew wondered if they would ever see the great bridge again. The Hornet would never again return to the United States. Just outside the bay, Navy blimp L-8 caught up with the group that afternoon. The blimp delivered the final supplies for the B-25s, including 2 cases of replacement navigator windows. This would be the final parts delivery.
Lieutenant Col. Doolittle took his men below deck in the wardroom of the Hornet. "For the benefit of those of you who don't already know, or who have been guessing, we are going straight to Japan," Doolittle informed them. He went on to brief the crews on the details of the mission. Doolittle and his crew would be the first off the ship 400 miles outside of Japan. They would arrive about dusk and drop incendiary bombs on munition manufacturing plants. The resulting fires would help guide the remaining waves of bombers. Five flights of 3 aircraft would launch from the Hornet about 3 hours after the first plane. Each group would pick their targets from a list and continue to Chungking, China. Preparations were being made to refuel their bombers. During the trip, they would be briefed on Japanese and Chinese customs as well as first aide.
Mixed emotions swirled through the room. The men were ready to bring the fight to the Japanese mainland, but at the same time, the reality of the mission set in. Many had guessed they would launch from a carrier. Some had even guessed an attack on the Japanese mainland. Until that moment, no one was allowed to discuss their thoughts and emotions. That briefing was both a sigh of relieve and a moment of trepidation for the men. Doolittle ended his briefing with an offer for anyone to back out of the mission. None did. Crewmen from the bombers left back at Alameda offered to swap places with anyone now on the mission, but again, none did.
On deck, Captain Mitscher announced to his crew: "This ship will carry the Army bombers to the coast of Japan for the bombing of Tokyo," cheers from every corner of the ship erupted. Signalmen would then relay the message to the other ships in the taskforce using semaphore. Captain Mitscher would later write in his action report that morale reached a new high. Although the crew was just as excited for the opportunity to attack the Japanese mainland, they too had to deal with the reality of their situation. For the first time, the crew of the Hornet would realize that they were going to war. Although the new carrier had been on sea trials, she had stayed in relatively safe water until now. Now she would be steaming out in the open ocean. The taskforce could be attacked at any moment. Reality was setting in for them as well.
Aboard the ship, there was a feeling of unease as well as anticipation. The taskforce was not far from the coast when the announcement was made. Some believed that San Francisco was still too close to make such a critical announcement. These feelings would be apparent the next several days as more crewmen showed up for sick call than normal. One thing did dramatically change. When the Army crews boarded the ship, they were treated as if they were more of a hindrance. After the announcement, the raiders became honored guests of the Hornet.
The morning came to launch the first B-25 in a confidence building display for the crews. Lt. Dick Joyce was slated to fly that B-25 with Lt. Henry Miller along for the ride. Lieutenant Miller had no official orders to board the Hornet but was granted permission with the thought that he would fly back to port with the sixteenth B-25. Doolittle inquired from Captain Mitscher as to the feasibility of continuing on the mission with 16 bombers. Captain Mitscher agreed and knowing Lt. Miller's lack of orders, assured him he would face no discipline for continuing on the mission. The sixteenth B-25 would now attack Japan.
Life on the carrier would soon settle into a routine. The Army crews had daily briefings on their mission. Regular poker games became the usual activity. The Army guys seemed to come out on top more often than not and used their winnings to drain the ship's supply of cigarettes and candy bars. The bombers would be under continuous maintenance. Any problems found during regular inspections would be immediately resolved. Several photographs from the ship show B-25s tied to the deck with engines running. Although their supply of spare parts was limited, any B-25 with a mechanical issue they could not fix would be pushed over the side. This would be tested at least once during the trip.
During a routine inspection of the right engine, Sgt. Ed Saylor drained the oil sump and removed the magnetic plug to inspect for metal shavings. What he found was two horseshoe-shaped clips that held the turbo charger's planetary reduction gears in place. The loss of those two small parts signaled the beginning of a catastrophic failure of the engine. When he reported the problem he was reminded that any plane with a mechanical issue that could not be fixed would be pushed over the side. Sergeant Saylor had never performed this type of repair, let alone on the deck of an aircraft carrier. He also knew the importance of having every single plane on this mission. With the help of Navy sailors, Sgt. Saylor went to work.
Since the B-25 could not be taken below to perform the work, the crew built a tripod over the plane and installed a chain hoist system to support the engine. As Sergeant Saylor removed the bolts from the engine, he placed them inside the bomber so they would not be lost overboard. The men took the engine below deck and started the process of disassembly. Since there were no replacement planetary gear clips, they would have to find a solution with the parts they had. It was speculated that bending the old keys would make them tight enough to work. When this modification was test fitted to the engine, it seemed to work. The only way to be certain would be to replace the engine and start it up. After careful installation back on the B-25, the engine seemed to run fine. Normal procedure at this point would be to test fly the new engine. This would not be possible until they were one their way to Japan.
"This force is bound for Tokyo"
Admiral Halsey had left port with taskforce 16.1 on April 8, 1942. This delay would also delay their rendezvous with Captain Mitscher and taskforce 16.2. Captain Mitscher made the needed adjustments to their course for this delay. Unlike Captain Mitscher who told their crew of their destination shortly after departure, Admiral Halsey did not disclose their destination. Many sailors were frustrated by the lack of information. By April 13, 1942, the two groups met at sea and Admiral Halsey officially took command of taskforce 16. One pilot from the Enterprise towed a target for gunnery practice that morning. He was the first from taskforce 16.1 to identify the B-25s setting on the deck of the Hornet. Rumor and speculation traveled fast, but they would not have to wait long for their expectation. Admiral Halsey took to the Enterprise's loudspeaker and declared; "This force is bound for Tokyo".
Over the next several days, the men were battered by seas. Foul weather had greeted the mission with a salty spray. Traveling west across the International Date Line, April 14th would be sacrificed. Life at sea was wearing on the Army men who were not used to the rigorous practice and drills common to life on a carrier. None aboard the ships knew just how far they could get to Japan without being spotted by the enemy. A nervous tension mounted on board the ships as they headed closer to their target. They could be attacked at any time, and every man was aware. Some Captains ordered their crews to discard all paper overboard in an effort to make their ships less flammable. Doolittle had set an outside launch limit of 650 miles for success of the mission. Any distance beyond that, he doubted his crews would have enough fuel to reach China.
On the morning of April 17, 1942, the oilers refueled the carriers and cruisers. That afternoon the Hornet and Enterprise, accompanied by the four cruisers, pulled ahead of the group in a final push toward Tokyo. On the Hornet, the bombs were brought up from below as ammunition was loaded into the B-25s. As they may be forced to launch at any moment, the bombers were repositioned on the deck. Even with the sixteenth bomber hanging off the back of the deck, the first B-25 would only have 467 feet to launch. The men had been trained to get their B-25s airborne in shorter distances, but this time the stakes were higher.
That evening, the airmen gathered on deck accompanied by a Navy photographer. The United States battle fleet had visited Yokohama in 1908. Commemoration medals were presented by Japan in honor of the event. Two men who received those medals returned them to Navy Secretary Frank Knox after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both men requested the medals be returned to Japan in proper fashion. An officer on board the Hornet also contributed his own medal as well. After a brief speech, the medals were attached to bombs headed to Japan. The men then signed the bombs, writing various messages to their foes. Photographs were taken of each of the crews. That night, Doolittle would hold a final meeting with his men. He reminded them that the launch could happen at any moment. They were under no circumstance to attack any civilian target. He also reiterated that they were not to fly to Russia. As always, he again gave his men a final chance to bow out of the raid. Again, none did. Up on deck, the B-25's were moved into their launch position.
"Army pilots man your planes"
In the predawn hours of April 18, 1942, the group was still more than 650 miles from their target when radar indicated two surface craft about 12 miles out. General quarters immediately sounded. The Admiral knew the overcast, moonless sky left his ships in darkness. To engage the enemy now would risk the entire mission. He ordered the taskforce to come right ninety degrees and resume westerly course 30 minutes later. Dawn only brought sight of more bad weather. The Enterprise launched aircraft to patrol the skies. Just before 6 a.m., another small fishing boat was spotted. He notified Admiral Halsey who again chose to change course rather than engage the ship.
Ninety minutes later, just after 7;30 a.m., lookouts on the Hornet spotted another patrol boat less than 8 miles out. Radio operators on the ninety-ton "Nitto Maru No. 23", fired off a message to Tokyo that was intercepted by the taskforce. The Nashville sounded general quarters and requested permission to fire. Knowing the taskforce had been spotted and information of their location were transmitted to Japan, Admiral Halsey gave permission to fire. For the next 30 minutes, the Nashville pounded the Japanese picket boat with 6 inch shells. Navy aviators from the Enterprise joined the attack after spotting another ship "Nanshin Maru No. 21". The smaller boat was sunk by over 1,200 rounds of .50 caliber machine gun fire. The Nashville would expend over 900 rounds before the Nitto Maru would sink. The skipper of the Nashville would later write; "Expenditure of 915 rounds to sink a sampan appears ridiculous, and obviously was excessive, but in this instance was not wholly inexcusable."
Admiral Halsey could wait no longer. A message was flashed to the Hornet; "Launch planes, to Col. Doolittle and gallant command, good luck and God bless you." Over the loudspeaker on the Hornet the command went out; "Army pilots man your planes for immediate take off." The men would now scramble to their awaiting planes to complete final preparations. The tanks on the bombers were topped off. Five gallon gasoline cans were handed through the rear hatches to the gunners. The final bombs were loaded and the planes prepared for launch.
Doolittle was first up as pilot of the first B-25 to launch. Not knowing the amount of preparation that led to this moment, sailors on other vessels were betting on the success of the launches. Suffice it to say that many sailors lost money that day. The carriers speed and the winds of the storm combined to create as much as a 50 mile per hour wind across the carrier. The front of the Hornet was wildly moving up and down as much as 30 feet. The signal officer would release the plane as the Hornet began to dive down the face of a wave. This would catapult the B-25 into the air on the Hornet's upswing. As the B-25 began to move forward, tension filled the air. At the end of the carrier, the B-25 appeared to vanish as the Hornet rode the next wave. Just then, the plane appeared above the bow as cheers erupted. Doolittle brought the plane around and flew parallel to the Hornet to allow for any correction to the magnetic compass. The raid on Tokyo had begun.