James H. Doolittle Leads Air Raid on Japanese Homeland

Before World War II began, the Japanese awarded medals of friendship and peace to several people in the United States. At the time, these medals were intended to be symbolic of the cooperation, friendship and good relationship held between the United States and Japan. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, decided it was time to return these medals.

Originally, the medals had been awarded to Lieutenant Stephen Jurkis, Daniel J. Quigley, H. Vormstein and John D. Laurey. Now, they would be returned to Japan in an unconventional way. Each medal was collected and sent to the deck of the Hornet. Once there, a ceremony was held where each medal was strapped to a 500 pound bomb on deck. Inscriptions like, “I don’t want to set the world on fire—just Tokyo!” and “Through the courtesy of the War Department your Japanese medal and similar medals, turned in for shipment, were returned to His Royal Highness, The Emperor of Japan on April 18, 1942.”

Leading the Strike: General James Harold Doolittle

Born in 1896, James “Jimmy” Doolittle was a pioneer in the field of aviation. Before World War II, he flew throughout South America and set a speed record in 1922 for a coast-to-coast flight in the United States. Originally, Doolittle had served in the army as a flying cadet. During World War I, he tried to get transferred to the European theater, but was told to serve as a flight instructor instead. He spent the war working at the Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, before he returned to Berkeley to finish his degree. Later on, the United States Army sent him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a master’s and doctoral degree in aeronautical engineering. Afterward, he worked as a test pilot for planes and set air records for the next decade.

Doolittle on his Curtiss R3C-2

Interestingly, General Doolittle’s pre-war contribution may have been one of the reasons that the United States ultimately triumphed in World War II. After his early military service, Doolittle took a high-paying job at Shell Oil Company. While there, he was credited with making a new type of octane fuel that allowed planes to fly higher and longer than before. This provided American pilots with an exceptional advantage versus the Axis powers and helped to tilt the balance of the war toward the Allies.

Taking Up Arms: World War II Breaks Out

Decades later, he finally had his chance for glory in World War II. Doolittle had returned to the army on a full-time basis in 1940, where he worked as a test pilot. In January of 1942, he was given a new task. General Henry Arnold called on Doolittle to lead a raid on the Japanese mainland. At the time, Japan had a defensive perimeter set up that made it essentially invulnerable to attacks from carriers.

Sixteen B-25 bombers were selected for the special mission. They were outfitted with doubled fuel capacity through new, rubber tanks and placed on the USS Hornet. With these 16 bombers, Doolittle was to lead a daring raid across Tokyo. Before the raid began, the pilots placed the Japanese peace medals on the bombs.

Doolittles B-25 taking off from USS Hornet

Flying through storms and anti-aircraft fire, Doolittle led the team across the ocean to Tokyo. A total of four bombs survived the voyage to fall on the city. A total of 50 Japanese people were killed, and 400 were injured by the bombs. Afterward, the Doolittle Raiders headed east toward China. The Hornet had been detected prior to the raid, so it was already out of reach. Instead, the pilots planned on landing in land controlled by the Chinese Nationalists. Unfortunately, many of the planes ran out of fuel and crash landed. With local help, some of these men were able to sneak their way toward the Nationalist lines. Meanwhile, one flight crew landed in Vladivostok where they were interned by the Soviets. Three people died in the crashes, and eight servicemen were captured by the Japanese.

For Japan, the attack was psychologically debilitating. They had been attacked on their homeland, despite crushing the American navy at Pearl Harbor. Afraid of another attack, the Japanese recalled four fighter groups to the homeland. This left Guadalcanal open for the United States to take it later on in the war. In China, the infuriated Japanese killed up to 250,000 Chinese civilians as an excessive punishment for helping the American airmen.

Hero Bombers

In the United States, the Doolittle Raiders were heralded as heroes. The attack provided a greatly needed morale boost following Pearl Harbor. Doolittle was given the rank of a general and eventually sent with 42,000 combat aircraft to North Africa and Europe.

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