Feb 7, 2019 in Analysis


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 dealt a crushing blow to America. The loss of more than 2,000 of the finest soldiers, sailors, marines, and civilians as well as heavy damage inflicted to the Pacific Fleet were devastating for morale of the American citizens. The fact that the blow had been delivered to the heart of the fleet, to its home base, and preparations for the surprise attack had been neglected or overlooked by the military only added to the atmosphere of despair and shock that engulfed the nation. Nevertheless, these feelings wore off soon, giving way to anger and the desire to avenge the deaths and losses. Soon, Japan would realize that the tactical victory at Pearl Harbor would be strategic loss in the entire Second World War. Twenty years of American isolationism and non-interventionism were abandoned. America officially entered World War II and began real fight with Nazi Germany and its allies, but first, it needed to rebuild the fleet and avenge deaths of the people in Pearl Harbor. The paper will tell about the air raid attack by Jimmy Doolittle on Tokyo and the importance of this attack for America.

Background for the Attack

One should understand the feelings that America felt immediately after the tragedy of Pearl Harbor. Those feelings were a combination of grief, bewilderment, outrage, shock, and anger. In her book The Attack on Pearl Harbor, Laurie Collier Hillstrom quoted historian Gordon W. Prange: “dead and crippled Americans, sunken American ships, and incinerated American planes conveyed a message that the most obtuse could not fail to read”.1 This message was simple – America’s enemies Japan and Nazi Germany would do everything possible to destroy it. Therefore, the enemy had to be defeated at any cost and America had to be ready to pay the price. 

When the initial shock after the attack on Pearl Harbor wore off, American authorities began thinking about a retaliation. On December 21, 1941, a meeting of Joint Chiefs of Staff took place at the White House. During this meeting, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt mentioned that public morale had to be boosted, and bombing Japan as soon as possible was a good way to achieve this goal.2 It was not easy to bomb Japan because the Pearl Harbor base was damaged and not suitable for using in military operations, America’s bases in Alaska were too far away from Japan, and the Soviets would not allow Americans to use their airfields.3

The problem was in the delivery of bombers to the place, from which they could attack the target. The solution was found during the discussion of means of getting bombers to North Africa for an invasion when Admiral Ernest J. King had speculated about the possibility of launching a medium bomber from a carrier.4 Several days later, Navy Captain Francis Low suggested using such bombers in an operation that Roosevelt had proposed, and a plan worked out by Captain Donald Duncan was ready as well.5 Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” H. Doolittle was chosen to lead the raid, although before the war, he was a civilian aviator.6

Not all planes could be used for such a mission. Only the B-25B Mitchell could pull off such a daring task because it was capable of taking off from a carrier and had the necessary weight specifications and the cruising range. Among other planes considered for the attack were Douglas B-23 Dragon and B-18 Bolo as well as the Martin B-26 Marauder.7 However, these planes had been rejected since they were not suitable for the difficult task. 

The plan was as follows. Since the Japanese ships had been “stationed 500 miles off the home islands”8, the bombers would be launched from the distance of 550 miles from the islands. After the attack, the bombers would not return to the carriers and would fly the distance of 2,000 miles to Chuchow, China.9 Having refueled there, they would fly another 800 miles to Chungking. According to the plan, the air raid would be carried out at night, and the planes would fly to China the next morning.10 


During the preparation phase, the B-25s were tested for taking off the carrier deck. The carrier USS Hornet under the command of Captain Marc A. Mitscher had been chosen to transport the planes. On February 1, 1942, Doolittle, Duncan, and Mitscher oversaw the experimental takeoffs of two B-52s from the deck of the carrier.11 These takeoffs were successful, and they gave Doolittle necessary information regarding the required speed for the takeoff and amount of fuel. However, the problem was that during the mission, the planes would be loaded with bombs, fuel, and their crews would be full, consisting of five men. Doolittle had to make necessary adjustments to the planes to fit the needs of the mission. The planes had to be modified to have extra fuel tanks added as well as new bomb shackles installed. After all modifications, the planes had fuel tanks with the total capacity of 1,141 gallons.12

Adding tank fuels was not the only modification made to the planes. To achieve necessary weight of the plane with fuel and the crew, some elements had to be removed. Thus, during preparation of the planes, the lower turrets had been removed since Doolittle considered them complicated in operation and not necessary for the mission.13 The liaison radio set had to be removed as well because it added extra weight. Since the B-52s did not have tail guns, which made them rather vulnerable to attacks, one of Doolittle’s men, Captain Ross Greening, suggested the installation of two broomsticks painted black into the tail section.14 The enemy gunners would think that it was a tail gun. Even bombsights had been replaced because for the purpose of the mission that presupposed bombing at the low altitude, the pilots did not need the Norden bombsight, which was a top-secret piece of machinery, and Doolittle did not want it to fall into the enemy’s hands.15 This bombsight had been successfully replaced by a simple cheap one that would work much better at the low altitude. 

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The gunners from the plane crews had troubles operating .50-caliber machine guns and turrets because they did not have necessary experience shooting them.16 Even the machine guns themselves had been a problem since it was not possible to get them shooting in long bursts. However, all shortcomings and difficulties were fixed and overcome during the preparation phase of the operation. It should be noted that some of the planes had cameras installed to film the bombing and its results.

For this mission, Doolittle picked volunteers from the 17th Bomb Group. The pilots trained in the atmosphere of secrecy, and they were not allowed to discuss the mission because violating the rules would endanger hundreds of people. They had three weeks to prepare for the dangerous mission. The pilots had training for night and day navigation, bombing, gunnery, and flying in formation.17 Having prepared his men and planes for the mission, James Doolittle asked his commanding officer Brigadier General Millard F. Harmon Jr. to authorize him to lead the mission personally.18 Harmon gave his permission.

The Air Raid

On April 2 1942, the USS Hornet with the 16 modified B-52s with their crews on board left San Francisco, California. On April 12, 1942, the Hornet rendezvoused with the Enterprise, the carrier that would be used for providing air cover.19 The entire Task Force of the mission consisted of the above-mentioned carriers, “four cruisers, eight destroyers, and two oilers”.20 Two American submarines were sent to the coast of Japan to monitor the movement of enemy ships and changes in weather.

It should be noted that the Japanese listened to radio traffic and suspected that something was about to happen, including the attack on Japan. The Japanese decided to launch patrol planes in case there was an American aerial attack. According to Doolittle’s plan, the planes had to begin the mission from the distance of 400 miles to the coast.21 Since the plan presupposed possible detection of American ships by the enemy, it was agreed that the planes had to launch immediately had the carrier been “detected prior to the 400-mile launch point”22 and they would be able to land at Chinese airfields. Had the planes launched from the distance of 550 miles from the coast, it was remotely possible that the planes would have enough fuel to get to the airfields. Launching the planes from 650 miles off the coast would make it impossible for the planes to reach China at all because of strong headwinds. 

All plans for the safe launch of the planes were scrapped when the carriers from the task force group were detected by the Japanese picket boat. The cruisers sunk it quickly, but the boat managed to send a message about the carriers near the coast. Commander of the task force Vice Admiral William Halsey ordered the planes to begin the mission immediately. It should be noted that the Hornet was 650 miles away from the coast. In addition, the mission began much earlier than it was initially planned. Thus,

Instead of launching at dusk, dropping bombs at night, and arriving in China at daybreak, the planes would be flying over Japan in broad daylight, to ditch at sea or reach Japanese-occupied China – if at all – on fumes in the dark. Faced with these very long odds against survival, the twenty-four crews, all volunteers, proceeded.23

All planes managed to lift off the carrier safely and set course on their designated targets. The targets were located in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Yokohama, and Kobe.24 The planes were loaded with demolition and cluster bombs to inflict damage on Japan’s cities. When planning the mission, Doolittle had been informed about Tokyo fire department that would not be able to cope with big fires scattered across the city. Since the planes were launched at daylight, the bombardiers could see their targets very well. The planes had to fly very low to avoid being detected by radars, and people were startled when they saw low-flying planes. It should be noted that air-drills had been held in Tokyo repeatedly, so some people even thought that it had been the exercise, not the real attack.


The bombers dropped their bombs on all designated targets - armament plants, docks, refineries, and railway yards. Besides the targets that were important for the Japanese war effort, several civilian targets had been hit – a residential district, a school, and a hospital. During the raid, none of the planes was downed and only one of them was lightly hit by antiaircraft fire.25

Then all bombs had been dropped, the planes had to reach China somehow. They did not have enough fuel. One of the planes managed to land near Vladivostok, and the pilots were interned by the Soviets who had a treaty with Japan.26 However, these pilots did manage to escape in 1943 to Iran.27 Other pilots tried to reach the Chinese coast in harsh conditions. The weather was bad, it was almost night, and visibility was minimal. Two of the planes that reached China crashed on the territory under Japanese control. Eight crewmembers were captured while two had drowned. On 1942, Japanese executed three of the eight captured Americans in Shanghai. The other five Americans spent the war in prison camps, and only four of them survived the war.28 As for James Doolittle, he survived but thought that he would be court-martialed for failure of the mission. On the contrary, he received a promotion to the Brigadier General and he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading the attack.29

To punish China, Japan destroyed Chinese airbases that had been designated for American planes to land. Further punishment for China’s cooperation with America was slaughtering 250,000 people.30 The raid was not devastating for the infrastructure of Japan and material damage was minimal. Japanese leaders called this raid the “Do-Nothing-Raid” because of the little damage inflicted – 90 buildings damaged and 50 people killed.31

The Importance of the Raid

The Doolittle Raid had tremendous importance even despite minimal damage to Japan. It boosted morale of Americans greatly. Amidst negative news about defeats of the Allied forces in the Pacific, successful return of American pilots from bombing Japan had given a significant boost to morale in America. It showed that Japan was far from undefeatable, which meant it could be stopped. The fact that American bombers were able to approach Japan and get through Japanese defense and even attack the cities prompted Japanese leaders to push for “the outer defensive ring farther and adopting Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku’s plan to draw out the U.S. fleet and destroy it”.32 To strengthen the defense of the islands, Japanese military commanders called off fighter planes, which meant that there would be fewer planes to participate in offensive campaigns. More to say, the decision to move the fleet influenced the Battle of Midway that the Japanese lost later in 1942.


Sometimes, small victories are needed for a decisive break in some war to happen. The Doolittle air raid did not damage the Japanese infrastructure seriously, but it hurt the national pride of Japan and boosted morale of America. Brave pilots volunteered to participate in the near-suicidal mission to lift their bombers off the carrier and fly to bomb Japan with slim chances to return home alive. They were led by James Doolittle who had planned the entire operation and participated in modifying the planes as well as training the pilots for the mission. Even though the mission had to start earlier and planes would not have enough fuel to reach their destination bases, the raid was not cancelled. After the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, America needed retaliation, and the Doolittle air raid had provided it, uplifting morale of the entire nation, and strengthening the desire to defeat the enemy.


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