The Empire Strikes Back: Doolittle’s Raid.

by Daniel Russ on October 16, 2010

The venerable USS Hornet would lead the first strike against the Japanese after the attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. It took place on April 18th, just over four months after the Day of Infamy, and I suppose to some war planners it was a little humiliating that such a small nation could wreak such devastation on such a large country, and get away with it. It must have also piqued planners that it took this nation four months to assemble enough force projection just to get through the defenses of this island nation.

Mitchell B-25 medium bombers were selected as the aircraft of choice to launch off the Hornet. None of them could land back onto the carrier deck so the mission was planned to launch out of the western Pacific, pass over Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya, hit various industrial targets and then land in China. Both the US and China were fighting the Japanese and so it was assumed that the pilots would be tended to favorably after they landed, or bailed, or crashed. All but two of the aircrews did in fact return to the United States after the missions. 15 of the 16 bombers crashed or crashed landed after crews bailed out along the Chinese coastline near Zhenjiang. Chinese military and civilians helped return the aircrews to the US, spiriting them out to the Kuomintang capital. Thusly the reaction from the Japanese was beyond brutal. Germ warfare by the Japanese was mainly to blame for the estimated 250,000 Chinese who lost their lives in retaliation. Of the missing aircrews, two men drowned and the remainders were taken prisoner. Some were tortured and executed, and few returned. All of the captured crewmen suffered Japan’s trademark beri beri, dysentery slow starvation regime.

A Micthell B-25 Medium Bomber Launches Off Of The Hornet

Crews were chosen and planes were chosen by Colonel James Doolittle and assembled at Eglin Field in Florida were they trained. Sixteen B-25s were altered, made lighter by removing non-essentials (yes, that meant the liaison radio was removed.) Some gun turrets were taken out and fake twin 50s were put into the after gun turret to dissuade fighter pursuit. All the B-25s had two 50 cal machine guns in waist guns and a single 30mm cannon in the nose. These planes had a range of 2400 miles and could carry 2000 pounds of bombs. Each ended up carrying three 500-pound bombs and a load of incendiaries. Crews practiced night and day for what would be a silent mission relying on complete surprise.

From Wikipedia:

” The combined force was two carriers, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers and two fleet oilers. The escort ships—the Salt Lake City, Northampton, Vincennes, Balch, Fanning, Benham, Ellet, Gwin, Meredith, Grayson, Monssen, Cimarron and Sabine—then proceeded in radio silence. On the afternoon of 17 April the slow oilers refueled the task force, then withdrew with the destroyers to the east while the carriers and cruisers dashed west at 20 knots towards their intended launch point in enemy-controlled waters east of Japan.”

On the morning of the 18th of April, Dai-23 Nitto Maru, a 70-ton Japanese patrol vessel spotted the task force and Doolittle decided to go ahead and launch, 10 house and 170 nautical miles away from the planned launch point.

The damage caused by the strike force was negligible. The psychological damage to the Japanese was fairly profound. They knew that we were coming for revenge, they knew we could reach them, they knew they were not invincible, and they knew this was just the beginning. Many believe that Doolittle’s Raid was the impetus behind the Japanese attack on Midway Island in June later that year.

It was the shot in the arm the US desperately needed.

USS Hornet


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