Photo personally signed by James H. Doolittle

The April 1942 air attack on Japan, launched from the aircraft carrier HORNET and led by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, was the most daring operation yet undertaken by the United States in the young Pacific War. Though conceived as a diversion that would also boost American and allied morale, the raid generated strategic benefits that far outweighed its limited goals.

The raid had its roots in a chance observation that it was possible to launch Army twin-engined bombers from an aircraft carrier, making feasible an early air attack on Japan. Appraised of the idea in January 1942, U.S. Fleet Commander Admiral Ernest J. King and Air Forces leader General Henry H. Arnold greeted it with enthusiasm. Arnold assigned the technically-astute Doolittle to organize and lead a suitable air group. The modern, but relatively well tested B-25 "Mitchell" medium bomber was selected as the delivery vehicle and tests showed that it could fly off a carrier with a useful bomb load and enough fuel to hit Japan and continue on to airfields in China.

Gathering volunteer air crews for an unspecified, but admittedly dangerous mission, Doolittle embarked on a vigorous program of special training for his men and modifications to their planes. The new carrier HORNET was sent to the Pacific to undertake the Navy's part of the mission. So secret was the operation that her Commanding Officer, Captain Marc A. Mitsher, had no idea of his ships upcoming employment until shortly before sixteen B-25s were loaded on her flight deck. On April 2, 1942, Hornet put out to sea and headed west across the vast Pacific.

Joined in mid-ocean on April 13 by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey's flagship ENTERPRISE, which would provide air cover during the approach, HORNET steamed toward a planned April 18 afternoon launching point some 400 miles from Japan. However, before dawn on April 18, enemy picket boats were encountered much further east than expected. These were evaded or sunk, but got off radio warnings, forcing the planes to take off around 8 A.M., while still more than 600 miles out.

ctsy U.S. Navy Archives

Most of the sixteen B-25s. each with a five man crew, attacked the Tokyo area, with a few hitting Nagoya. Damage to the intended military targets was modest, and nine of the planes reached the Chinese airfields (though all but a few of their airmen survived). However, the Japanese high command was deeply embarrassed. Three of the eight American airmen they had captured were executed. Spurred by Combined Fleet Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, they also resolved to eliminate the risk of any more such raids by the early destruction of America's aircraft carriers, a decision that led them to disaster at the Battle of Midway, a month and a half later.

Source Naval Historical Center


The daring one-way mission to bomb Japan electrified the world and gave America's war hopes a terrific lift. As did the others who participated in the mission, Doolittle had to bail out, but fortunately landed in a rice paddy in China near Chu Chow. Some of the other flyers lost their lives on the mission.

Doolittle received the Medal of Honor, presented to him by President Roosevelt at the White House, for planning and leading this successful operation. His citation reads: "For conspicuous leadership above and beyond the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life. With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland".

Photo personally signed by three crewmembers

In addition to the nation's top award, Doolittle also received two Distinguished Service Medals, the Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Star, four Air Medals, and decorations from Great Britain, France, Belgium, Poland, China, and Ecuador.

In July, 1942, as a Brigadier General- he had been advanced two grades the day after the Tokyo attack- Doolittle was assigned to the 8th Air Force and in September became commanding general of the 12th Air Force in North Africa. He was promoted to major general in November and in March 1943 became commanding general of the North African Strategic Air Forces. He took command of the 15th Air Force in the Mediterranean Theater in November and from January 1944 to September 1945 he commanded the 8th Air Force in Europe and the Pacific, until war's end, as a lieutenant general.

General Doolittle died in California on September 27, 1993 and is buried in section 7-A of Arlington National Cemetery.

Source Arlington National Cemetery

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