The attack on Pearl Harbor sunk America’s morale along with most of its fleet, leaving little to cheer in the months that followed. One of the first bright spots came in mid-April 1942, when sixteen U.S. Army Air Corps B-25 bombers hit Tokyo and three other Japanese cities.
The daring raid did little direct damage but was a morale-boosting victory for the U.S. and an acute embarrassment to the Japanese.
The sixteen B-25 bombers, led by Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet on April 18. Plans were for the Hornet to be within 400 miles of Japan, but reports of enemy picket boats further east than expected caused the mission to begin while still 600 miles from Japan.
This meant that the pilots knew when they took off they would not have enough fuel to complete their bombing raid and reach the safety of Chinese airfields.
Most of the B-25s attacked Tokyo, with a few hitting Nagoya. As expected, none of the planes reached the Chinese airfields. Pilots and crew had to bail out as the planes ran out of fuel. Most survived and ultimately made it to safety. Eight airmen were captured and three of these were executed.
The raid showed that Japan’s mainland was vulnerable and forced their military to withdraw several front-line fighter units for homeland defense. Japanese commanders considered the raid deeply embarrassing, and their attempt to bolster their Pacific defense perimeter led directly to the decisive American victory at the Battle of Midway in June.
Lt. Col. Doolittle (later General Doolittle) received the Congressional Medal of Honor for planning and leading the mission.
My own Jimmy Doolittle story:
I met General Doolittle briefly in the late 1980s when I was a volunteer firefighter and he lived in a nearby retirement community. One day he pulled his car onto the highway causing an accident, to which I responded to assist. My memory of him is of a fairly short, frail and elderly man, standing beside his wrecked car looking very contrite and forlorn. There were no injuries from the accident, except I’m sure, to the pride of this world famous and courageous aviator. General Doolittle died in 1993 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.