Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Ralph Zuljan

The seemingly unstoppable Japanese advances during the months following Pearl Harbor were cause for serious concern to the United States government. Morale had been seriously shaken. What Americans needed was a victory -- no matter how slight. Nothing but continued losses were anticipated for the immediate future and thus emerged the daring, if tactically irrelevant, plan to bomb Tokyo. By all accounts, the psychological impact of this raid far exceeded anything physically achieved by it.

None other than the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered an air strike on Tokyo as early as December 1941. His military advisors, however, were at a loss as to how to carry out that order. There were no Allied airfields close enough to the Japanese home islands to enable the Army Air Force heavy bombers to launch such an attack. Using naval aircraft, launched from aircraft carriers, implied the ships would have to approach to less than 300 miles of the Japanese coast and this was viewed as suicidal under the strategic circumstances of the time. Nonetheless, Roosevelt pressed the armed forces to produce a plan.

A possible solution was proposed in mid-January 1942. Credit for the idea goes to one Captain Francis Lowe. His idea was developed into a formal proposal by Captain Donald Duncan. The Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell medium bomber was suggested as a land-based aircraft capable of being launched within the confines of an aircraft carrier, yet having sufficient range to reduce the risk to the carriers to an acceptable level. Field testing began in February, on board the USS Hornet (CV-8), and this validated the concept. By the beginning of April 1942, as the Japanese were completing their conquest of the Philippines, US forces were ready to launch a raid on Tokyo.

A total of sixteen B-25 bombers were to be placed on the flight deck of the USS Hornet which would then approach to within 500 miles of Tokyo. A path-finding bomber would be launched several hours before the rest of the aircraft (in the late afternoon) and it would drop incendiaries on the intended targets in Tokyo (near dusk), to illuminate the objectives for the other bombers which were intended to arrive after dark. Once the objectives had been attacked, the bombers would have to fly on to air bases in China for recovery because, while a Mitchell B-25 could take-off from an aircraft carrier, it could not land on an aircraft carrier. There was very little margin for error.

The USS Hornet departed from San Francisco on April 2nd, with its oversized cargo of 16 B-25 bombers parked on the aft (rear) flight deck. Hornet would rendezvous with USS Enterprise (CV-6) north of Midway, along the international date line, on April 12th. Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey was in command of Task Force 16. The two carriers and their escorts would then proceed westward. On April 17th, the carriers and their four escorting cruisers would leave their accompanying destroyer screen and tankers behind to make a final high speed "dash" towards the Japanese home islands. The bombers would be launched on the April 18th.

The first Japanese patrol ship was encountered around 0300 on April 18th. The American force managed to maneuver around this vessel undetected but it soon encountered others. Within hours other Japanese pickets were met and intercepted radio transmission from these ships showed that the force's presence had be discovered. Consequently, the decision was made to launch the strike force in the morning, rather than wait. They were about 650 miles from Tokyo, or 150 miles short of the launch point.

Colonel James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle led the sixteen Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell medium bombers used in the raid. Planes struck Tokyo, Nagoya and Kobe, dropping a few tons of bombs in total and causing no appreciable damage. After dropping their payloads, the bombers headed eastward for sanctuary. They did not have enough fuel to reach their original landing objectives. One of the bombers landed in Vladivostok in the Soviet Union where it was promptly seized, while the other fifteen were lost over China. Of the eighty crew members launched on this mission, the five who arrived in the USSR were interned while sixty-two of the others were saved by the Chinese; five died while evacuating their aircraft; and eight were captured by the outraged Japanese (of whom three were executed as war criminals). Colonel Doolittle's command suffered a 100% loss of aircraft and 22.5% loss of crew members.

Technically, the raid was a disaster for the Americans. This did not matter. The United States had struck a blow at the heart of Japan; the imperial perimeter was proven to be insufficient to protect the home islands. Japanese strategic debates over what to do next came to an abrupt halt and a fateful direction was chosen with the express intention of preventing such a raid from happening again.

Although it was not known to Americans at the time, the period in which Doolittle's raid took place was one of intense Japanese uncertainty about what to do next. All of Japan's initial objectives for the war had essentially been achieved. Further expansion eastward to Celyon (now Sri Lanka) was rejected; a southern advance towards Australia was considered favorably because the Japanese perceived it to be the location from which any Allied counteroffensive would most likely come; a westward drive towards Midway (and possibly Hawaii) was less attractive because it meant fighting closer to the United States (with all the inherent defensive advantages given to the Americans). The chief proponent of the westward option was Admiral Yamamoto who believed that by attacking Midway, the US Pacific Fleet could finally be brought to battle and decisively defeated. Such a Japanese victory, so it was hoped, would convince the Americans to negotiate a peace. Doolittle's raid reinforced support for Yamamoto's preferred option because it promised to substantially extend Japan's defensive perimeter westward.

Originally published in "World War II" at on March 1, 2001.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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