Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan’s top admiral, Isoruku Yamamoto said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.” He was soon proven right. No sooner had President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war than he ordered the U.S. military to deliver a blow directly against the Japanese homeland. Such a strike was both daring and risky, not to mention, at least at that point in the war, virtually impossible. There was only one man who was audacious enough to undertake such an operation He was one of America’s top aviators. More importantly, he was a fighter who believed you had to pick yourself up and push back at your opponent when he knocked you down. The man’s name was James “Jimmy” Doolittle. This is the story of how he took the fight to the enemy by leading American bombers in a raid over Tokyo.
From an early age, Jimmy Doolittle never seemed to stay down for long. He was born in December 1896 in Alameda, California but grew up in Nome, Alaska after his father joined the Klondike Gold Rush. As the smallest in his class, he was picked on and often provoked fights with his taller classmates. He continued the habit upon returning to Los Angeles until a trip to jail convinced him to give up such fights. He still fought recreationally, making a name for himself in the boxing arena, winning nearly all his matches, including the 1912 Pacific Coast amateur championship. He used the prize money for tuition at Los Angeles Junior College and later the University of California, Berkeley. It was at Berkeley that his boxing career effectively ended when a professional fighter named “Spider” Reilly soundly beat him. As a result, he turned his focus to obtaining a degree in engineering. His interest in the subject led him to see the value of the newly designed flying machine known as the airplane.
Within a few years of leaving Berkeley, Jimmy had risen from an obscure boxer to one of America’s top airmen. He entered the Army Air Service in 1917 as a second lieutenant and soon came to the attention of General “Billy” Mitchell, the foremost champion of air power. Mitchell asked Doolittle to join his staff and to serve as an assistant squadron commander during the famed sinking of the salvaged German battleship Ostfriesland in an air power demonstration in 1921. The next year, hoping to prove the long-range capabilities of aircraft, Doolittle became the first person to fly across the country in less than twenty-four hours, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for the feat. Now a national celebrity, he was soon the army’s top test pilot, narrowly escaping death a number of times. His reputation continued to increase after he successfully performed the outside loop and became the first American to fly over the Andes from Santiago to Buenos Aires. Simultaneously he earned a master’s degree and doctorate in aeronautical engineering from MIT. He used these skills to develop instruments enabling pilots to fly “blind,” such as an artificial horizon to tell a pilot whether he was in level flight, a new altimeter to accurately measure altitude, and a radio-controlled beacon to guide planes to the runway. On September 24, 1929 he astounded the world by making the first solo flight relying only on instruments. The following year he joined the reserves as a major and went to work for the Shell Corporation developing 100-octane fuel and selling aircraft on behalf of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. In this capacity, he travelled around the world and came into contact with those who were soon to be his enemies.
Throughout the 1930s, Doolittle watched the rise of the Axis powers. In Japan and China he demonstrated the capabilities of aircraft to interested Japanese observers. In Germany he was disturbed to see “good-looking Dorniers and Junkers,” bombers recently developed by Hitler’s engineers. Many engines and airframes were better than any produced in America. He listened to many German officers talk openly about “war in Europe.” On his return to the U.S., he shared his experiences with Major General Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the Army Air Force. A few months later Germany invaded Poland, and war began. In the summer of 1940 Arnold asked Doolittle to join his staff. He travelled to Britain where he observed Hurricanes and Spitfires filled with 100-octane fuel battle and bring down German fighters. Then on December 7, 1941, Japanese planes, possibly influenced by Doolittle’s demonstrations, attacked and destroyed most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. America was in World War II, and Jimmy Doolittle yearned to be unleashed.
A month after the “Day of Infamy” Doolittle was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was tasked with leading a strike on the heart of Japan. General “Hap” Arnold summoned him to headquarters and asked him what kind of plane could “take off in 500 feet, carry a payload of 2,000 pounds, and fly 2,000 miles.” It was an unheard of proposition, but Doolittle was unfazed. He brashly replied that a B-25 could do such a thing. Arnold agreed. He informed Doolittle that a score of bombers would take off from the deck of the new aircraft carrier Hornet, fly over the Japanese capitol of Tokyo, drop their bombs and land in China. Doolittle was to prepare the bombers and the pilots for the mission. Even as he agreed, the forty-five year-old Doolittle already knew the man he would choose to fly the lead plane — himself. He travelled to Florida’s Eglin Field and set to work figuring out how to get a bomber off the deck of an aircraft carrier built to launch fighters. He had to add fuel tanks to increase the bombers’ range while at the same time stripping the planes of all unnecessary weight except for light defensive armaments. When this was done, Doolittle and 140 officers and men of the 17th Bombardment Group practiced taking off in less than 500 feet and flying at low-altitude. These skills required maximum performance by both aircraft and aircrew, but by the end of March, all was ready.
The mission was set for April 18, 1942. Doolittle and his men flew from Florida to San Francisco, California where they boarded the U.S.S. Hornet. On April 2nd the Hornet set sail. Within moments a message was broadcast throughout the ship telling everyone, “This force is bound for Tokyo.” Cheers erupted from every throat. America had yearned for revenge for Pearl Harbor, and this was to be the first blow. Over the next fifteen days the ship steamed west as the pilots listened to Doolittle lecture on the raid’s targets and the Chinese landing fields. They also learned how to say “I am an American” in Chinese to identify themselves to friendly forces. On the night of April 17th the bombers were fueled up and the bombs loaded. The raid would occur the next afternoon, or so everyone thought.
At 7:38 A.M. on April 18th the Hornet was 700 miles from the Japanese coast when a scout plane reported a Japanese “fishing boat” straight ahead. American guns opened fire, but a radio operator reported the enemy vessel had just transmitted a message. They had been spotted. Doolittle immediately considered his options. They were 300 miles further away than originally planned and no additional fuel could be added. Mountainous waves and gale force winds pounded the aircraft carrier. Furthermore, he had planned to attack Tokyo at night, but now he would be arriving in open daylight when antiaircraft batteries could easily target him. Despite the risks, he knew he could not delay any longer or Japanese planes would be on top of the Hornet. He made his decision — they would attack now. Within seconds a message was sent out telling all pilots to board their planes. Doolittle climbed into the front seat of the lead bomber. He fired up the engines and roared down the deck, pulling the B-25 almost vertical before quickly leveling off and continuing his climb into the bright sunshine. His men dutifully followed him. The bombers soared over the crystal blue waters for five hours until they caught sight of the Japanese coast. They turned, and moments later they spied the snowcapped Mount Fuji rising above Japan’s capitol.
As they flew over the outskirts of Tokyo, Doolittle gave the signal, and the bombers dove down to skim the roofs of the houses on their way to their targets. Japanese civilians gazed up in amazement, many thinking for a brief moment these were their own planes. Surely no one would dare to attack them; at least, that is what their military leaders had assured them. Then Japanese officers ordered the antiaircraft guns to open fire, and the truth became clear — these were indeed Americans. From above, Doolittle spied the large munitions factory that was his target. The bomb bay doors opened, and four 500-pound incendiaries found their mark. His job done, he turned towards China, even as five Japanese fighters appeared on his tail. Doolittle weaved the bomber between two small hills and managed to lose his pursuers. In the meantime, he listened to his pilots report their own successes. In less than an hour ninety buildings were destroyed. As Doolittle neared the Chinese mainland, however, he realized his bomber was out of fuel. With little option, he crash-landed in a rice paddy before making his way to Chinese lines. Other crews were forced to do the same. Some were not so fortunate, crashing in China but being captured by Japanese soldiers. As the airmen trekked across China, word of their deeds preceded them, and they were hailed as heroes. Their success behind them, they began the arduous journey home.
As he made his way back to America, Doolittle was praised by all who met him. Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek presented him and his men with medals. (The Chinese leader actually had to give Doolittle a medal off the uniform of a Chinese general standing nearby since Jimmy had arrived late and his real medal had been given to his second-in-command.) In Washington, D.C. he was met with a rare but sincere smile from General George Marshall who promoted him to brigadier general. The two then visited the White House where Franklin Roosevelt awarded Doolittle the Congressional Medal of Honor. Realizing his talents were sorely needed, Marshall ordered him to Europe as the commander of Twelfth Air Force in North Africa, then as Fifteenth Air Force commander in Italy, and finally as the commander of the famed Eighth Air Force in England leading the Allied push into Germany. His brilliant execution of air operations resulted in promotion to major general and then lieutenant general. When the war in Europe was over, he went back to the Pacific to bomb Japanese cities once again. On September 2, 1945 he took satisfaction in watching the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, looking across at the very city he had attacked more than three years earlier. His military successes ensured the creation of a separate branch of service for the Air Force. Soon after, he retired from the military but continued to serve on boards for aviation corporations. Throughout his life he maintained a close relationship with his fellow Tokyo attackers, forever known as the “Doolittle raiders.” Starting in 1943, they held a reunion every year to commemorate their great achievement. In all Jimmy attended fifty such reunions before dying in September 1993 and being buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1941, Admiral Yamamoto could not have known the “sleeping giant” Japan had awakened would come in the small package of Jimmy Doolittle. His fighting spirit demonstrated it was not in Americans’ nature to accept defeat. In a military sense, the Doolittle Raid did not really hurt Japan, but the psychological blow was staggering. Just as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caught the U.S. off guard, the Tokyo bombing was a complete surprise. The Japanese people had believed their homeland invulnerable. The punch the former boxer and his men delivered was right to the gut. The Doolittle Raiders had just taken the first step on the long road to victory. The “giant” was awake, and it would not rest until the enemy was vanquished.