The Legendary Doolittle Raid Over Tokyo

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In his new book Vanishing Act, author Dan Hampton reveals the gripping, untold story of a vital secret mission set during the darkest days of the Second World War. Read an excerpt below.

APRIL 18, 1942



It was absolute madness, but he was going to do it anyway.

The pilot’s hands were sweaty and his mouth was dry. Sitting in a bomber cockpit fifteen feet above the wooden flight deck and sixty-five feet over a pitching, churning sea, the twenty-nine-year-old Army Air Forces captain commanded the eighth plane in line for takeoff.

A Raider launches from the USS Hornet. April 18,1942. (Courtesy: The United States National Archives and Record Administration)

Watching the horizon pitch as the USS Hornet, America’s newest aircraft carrier, swung into the wind, he reached over to three pairs of sliding levers mounted on a pedestal between the two cockpit seats. The left-hand pair were the throttles, and these were all the way back. He left these alone. Nudging the middle two black knobs fully forward, Ed York locked the propellers into position. The red-topped levers on the far right controlled the mixture of fuel and air into the carburetors, and the pilot tapped these all the way forward as well, since he would need all the power possible for this takeoff. Through the rudder pedals, the pilot felt a deep rumble as the warship’s four massive Babcock & Wilcox steam turbines muscled the 26,000-ton carrier through angry seas at twenty knots. In company with the carrier Enterprise and four cruisers, the tiny task force was now less than five hours’ flying time off the enemy coast; it was terribly vulnerable and exposed.

Like wet shields, ninety-six gleaming propeller blades from sixteen B-25 Mitchell medium bombers whirled in the heavy salt air. Two pilots in each cockpit stared at the twin tails of each preceding plane, the white-flecked ocean, and a Navy lieutenant named Edgar Osborne who, with a checkered flag, was leaning into the wind forward of the clustered bombers. Feeling the great carrier dip and rise a few times, the Signal Officer, as he was called, waited until the ship began to drop into a trough, then twirled his flag. When Hornet hit the bottom, the lieutenant lunged forward and pointed at the bow, flag extended like a fencer’s foil. Immediately, the lead B-25 lurched ahead, agonizingly slow, as the carrier’s bow slowly rose under the wave. Everyone watching had the same thought: he’ll never make it.

But Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle did just that. Famed aviator and racing pilot with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Doolittle represented the best that occurred when formal education was combined with practical experience and natural skill. A born leader and skillful organizer, he had the unique abilities and unimpeachable reputation necessary to make Arnold’s basic plan an operational reality in the minimum amount of time.

And time was critical.

Just 131 days after the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the United States, reeling from a string of defeats, had finally turned to fight. Although two carriers, four cruisers, eight destroyers, and two oilers hardly constituted an armada, it did constitute the bulk of American naval power remaining in the Pacific.

The fifteen ships were also a dagger, albeit a thin one, aimed directly at the heart of the Japanese Empire.

None of the waiting pilots believed a handful of medium bombers would strike much of a blow, at least not a physical one, against the enemy. Sixteen aircraft with four bombs apiece were simply not enough, but there were other types of wounds they fully intended to inflict—a psychological one, for instance, pricking the thin skin of Japanese national pride, which might provoke Tokyo into a rash act of some sort. This approach had merit against a foe obsessed with “saving face,” and such an affront would be a figurative gauntlet slapped across the Empire’s collective cheek. It would also show Japan, and the world, that the United States was able and willing to fight back, all propaganda to the contrary, and that she would not capitulate as had the moldy colonial empires Tokyo had defeated so easily over the past four months.

Of course, the mission could also backfire. To exact revenge, Japan might deploy its army from China into the Pacific. Even a fraction of this million-man force would render any near-term American counteroffensive problematic. Such an attack on the Home Islands could also trigger an invasion of Hawaii, which was unlikely, or genocidal retribution in China, which was very likely. On the other hand, such an insult might goad an enraged enemy into vengeance based more on emotion than on strategic or tactical logic—and an angry foe sometimes makes mistakes. Much must be chanced in war, and for Doolittle and his men this calculated risk was worth taking, which was why eighty brave Americans in a handful of land-based bombers found themselves on a pitching carrier deck 750 nautical miles off the Japanese coast.

Charging into twenty-knot gusts, Hornet now had forty-five miles per hour of wind over her flight deck. Doolittle, piloting the lead bomber, needed only another twenty miles per hour to get airborne and avoid sliding off the deck, clipping the carrier’s island with his wingtip, or stalling. Like every other Army pilot behind him, Doolittle had never taken off at sea, but he wobbled into the air with distance to spare, and immediately commenced America’s first offensive action against the Japanese Home Islands. 

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Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Dan Hampton flew 151 combat missions during his twenty years (1986–2006) in the United States Air Force. For his service in the Iraq War, Kosovo conflict, and first Gulf War, Col. Hampton received four Distinguished Flying Crosses with Valor, a Purple Heart, eight Air Medals with Valor, five Meritorious Service medals, and numerous other citations. He is a graduate of the USAF Fighter Weapons School and USAF Special Operations School. A frequent guest on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC discussing foreign affairs and geopolitics, he has also appeared as an analyst on Bill O’Reilly, Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Anderson Cooper360. He is the nationally bestselling author of Viper Pilot, Lords of the SkyThe Hunter Killers, The FlightChasing the Demon, Vengeance, Valor, and a novel, The Mercenary.

The post The Legendary Doolittle Raid Over Tokyo appeared first on The History Reader.

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