77 Years of Courage

  • Published
  • By Erin R. Lasley
  • 62nd Airlift Wing History Office

Today marks the 77th Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, also known as the Tokyo Raid. Eighty Airmen, at least ten of whom trained at McChord Field, put service before self and volunteered to deliver America’s response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

In order to boost the American public’s morale in the wake of the devastating attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tasked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draft a plan to attack Japan that would also shake Japan’s confidence in their leadership.

“It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological,” said General James H. Doolittle, for whom the raid was named. “Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production. The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies and a favorable reaction on the American people.”

In January 1942, U.S. Navy Capt. Francis S. Low formed a plan to launch bombers off the deck of a carrier. Many bombers were considered for the plan, including the B-26 Marauder and B-18 Bolo, but ultimately planners selected the B-25B Mitchell to carry out the attack due to its shorter wingspan and cruising range.

Army Air Corps leadership selected the 17th Bomb Group (BG) to select volunteers to fly the mission. At least ten volunteers had previously trained at McChord Field, including Captain David M. Jones, 1st Lieutenant Ted W. Lawson, and 1st Lieutenant William M. Bower, who commanded three of the B-25s. Once the 17th BG assembled crews, training began at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, March 1, 1942. The crews spent three weeks training on simulated carrier decks and practicing low-level bombing and navigation.

April 2, 1942, the USS Hornet sailed from Naval Air Station Alameda, California, loaded with 16 B-25s, high-explosive munitions and the Doolittle crews. Doolittle originally planned to launch a nighttime attack approximately 500 nautical miles from Japan, but a Japanese patrol boat spotted the Hornet on the morning of April 18 and radioed in its position. In response, Doolittle and Capt. Marc Mitscher, the Hornet captain, launched the B-25s moments after the Japanese radioed the message.

By launching the aircraft ten hours early and nearly 650 nautical miles away from Japan, the B-25s were in danger of not being able to carry enough fuel to make it to its landing zones in China. The Tokyo Raid escalated from daring and dangerous to probable suicide.

Nonetheless, all 16 B-25s made it safely off the Hornet, arrived in the skies over Japan by noon and dropped their bombs over military targets in Tokyo and other Japanese cities. Although the aircraft encountered anti-aircraft and Japanese fighter fire, none of the planes were seriously damaged and made it out of Japan relatively unscathed.

After dropping their bombs, the Raiders faced a daunting journey to Allied China before their fuel ran out and nighttime fell. One of the B-25 commanders, Capt. Edward J. York, made for the Soviet Union rather than ditching over water. The Soviets promptly seized the aircraft and crew as the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan. Soviet documents later revealed the government allowed York and his crew to “escape” to British controlled Iran.

The other 15 aircraft headed for China where the crews crash-landed or bailed out because they were out of fuel and could not make their landing zone. Eight of the crewmembers found themselves in Japanese controlled territory and were taken prisoner. The Japanese executed three prisoner-of-war (POW) Raiders and starved another to death. Four of the POW Raiders were eventually released in August 1945, after the Japanese surrendered. Three other Raiders were killed in action during their crash landings and bailouts.

Compared to the devastation Japan inflicted on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid seemed minor and negligible. However, the bombing on Tokyo and other Japanese cities so soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor boosted American morale. It also led the Japanese to make massive mistakes at the Battle of Midway, which resulted in an American victory.

The Last of the Doolittle Raiders

The last of the remaining Doolittle survivors, Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, the co-pilot for Doolittle, passed away April 8, 2019, at the age of 103. His memorial service is being held today at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, the same day as the 77th Anniversary of the famous raid. He will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery [date unavailable at the time of publishing].

“We’re going to miss Colonel Cole, and we offer our eternal thanks and our condolences to his family,” said Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, when he heard of Cole’s passing. “The legacy of the Doolittle Raiders will forever live in the hearts and minds of Airmen long after we’ve all departed.”