April 1942 Doolittle's Bombers Attack Tokyo

Planes Heading for Japan
Planes Taking Off the Hornet
America achieved a major psychological victory when on April 18, 1942 American bombers led by General Doolittle achieved what was thought to be impossible and launched a bombing raid against Japan.  The bombers were specially modified B-25 bombers that were able to take off from the Aircraft Carrier Hornet.  The Hornet was forced to launch the aircraft earlier then planned and as a result the planes did not have enough fuel to make it to Chinese airfields.  The crews of the planes parachuted out before they ran out of fuel and all of the crewmembers except for three captured and executed by the Japanese in China survived. While the bombers did not inflict serious damage on the Japanese, the raids gave the American people an important psychological boost, while having the opposite effect on the Japanese- who suddenly felt vulnerable.


Two weeks after Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt expressed a desire to strike back at the Japanese. The goal was two fold, to improve American morale and show the Japanese that they were not invulnerable. Navy Captain Francis Low who reported to Admiral King came up with the idea of flying a medium bombers off aircraft carriers to make an attack on Japan. After examining different alternatives it was determined that the B-25 a new medium bomber would be able to take off from carrier decks and would have the range to attack Japan.

Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle who had been a test pilot was put in charge of the project. After 2 B-25 successfully were launched from a carrier planning began in earnest. 25 planes were initially modified for the mission, 16 planes ended up being loaded on the USS Hornet on April 1, 1942. The Hornet was joined by the Enterprise and three cruisers sailed towards Japan.

At 7:38 in the morning with the Task Force still 650 nautical miles from Japan, it was spotted by a Japanese patrol craft. The boat was sunk. Doolittle and Captain of the Hornet Marc Mitscher decided not to take a chance and launch the planes 200 miles further than planned. All 16 aircraft launched successfully. Six hours later they began arriving over Japan. The planes split into different targets with one group bombing 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo two in Yokohama and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. None of the bombers were shot down. Because of the early launch none would have the fuel to reach the planned they would all have to ditch or paratroop out. One plane headed to Russia and the crew was held for a year. All but ten of the rest of the crew managed to make their way to Chinese lines. Three crewman died while ditching their planes. Eight were captured by the Japanese and put on trial. Two were put to death and others were imprisoned for the rest of the war.

The raid was great success. Although it did not destroy significant military assets, it impacted Japanese moral and forced the Japanese to divert resources to defend the home islands. In the United States it successfully gave a much needed boost to moral and made a hero out of Doolittle.