Doolittle’s Raiders, 1942


One of the planes taking off from the Carrier Hornet that morning April 18, 1942

One of the planes taking off from the Carrier Hornet that morning April 18, 1942

The Raid-

On a cold, wet miserable grey morning on April 18, 1942, 600 miles from the Japanese coast, five months after Pearl Harbor, sixteen B-25 bombers, each with a crew of five, took off from the U.S.S Hornet with the intention of bombing the mainland of Japan. The wind blowing hard created a wind chill factor that made it seem much colder than it was.  Not ideal conditions.

After five months of waiting, planning, modifying, studying, and practicing, America was about to undertake its first offensive mission of World War II. Intelligence had selected targets in four Japanese cities, Tokyo, Yokahama, Kobe and Nagoya, all of which contained factories and plants operating in the Japanese war effort.

Each plane took off one after the other in three to four minute intervals and followed each other in a line to Japan. The lead plane, piloted by James H. Doolittle the commander of the operation and the mastermind behind modifying the planes for this specific mission, hit landfall around  12:30pm local time.

Doolittle on the left. Most of the Raiders sitting in the background. Ordinary guys who did an extraordinary thing.

Doolittle on the left. Most of the Raiders sitting in the background. Ordinary guys who did an extraordinary thing.

Doolittle wrote in his diary that he came on shore a little north of where he wanted to but he made it work for him. He dropped his four incendiary bombs on secondary targets, and then moved out. Two minutes later the second plane piloted by Travis Hoover, dropped his bombs amidst the fire and debris left before him by Doolittle in a little different section of the city hitting the Tokyo armory.

The third, piloted by Lt. R.M. Gray, came in low and fast and dropped his payload on four different designated targets. The first and fourth could not be identified, but two and three Grey confirmed that they hit a gas works and a chemical plant.

And, the planes continued coming in one by one, every couple of minutes hitting targets in the four cities, causing explosions and destruction everywhere.  Quite an unusual way to tactically perform a bombing raid but it maximized fear and terror to the Japanese who experienced it.

Most of these primary targets were hit, when it wasn’t possible  Doolittle’s Raiders had a secondary list and where that wasn’t possible the pilots hit anything that looked like it might be worth it.

As the plan was devised after the raid, which for each plane lasted less than a minute but for the entire operation took about an hour, they turned south toward China. There were to land there, refuel and then decide what to do next. One of the indications of poor planning at the beginning of the war.



While over Japan the Raiders met with remarkably little resistance. Some of the planes engaged Japanese fighters.  Doolittle reported that he had a near miss, and there was some ground ack ack fire, but all were able to fight them off and escape and head toward China. One of the pilots reported later seeing fighter squadrons off in the distance but they didn’t confront the Raiders while they were strafing and bombing over Japan.

The Japanese reaction can only be described as totally caught off guard and completely confused to the point that a viable defense could not be implemented. There is evidence that they had prior notice as Hornet and Task Force 18 did run into Japanese patrol boats and fighter planes. They were destroyed by the Americans but not before radio warnings of a possible pending attack certainly were sent. Maybe the Japanese didn’t believe how close the Americans  were or that maybe they thought they just had more time, but from their reaction it is clear that they had no retaliatory defense when Doolittle and his boys got there.


Arriving in China was a harrowing experience. Hornet was supposed to notify Washington to notify the Chinese that they were coming—this message was never sent. No one knows why, the navy department never explained the snafu.

So, the airfields that were to receive them had their lights off to keep out of sight of the Japanese. Consequently, none of the planes really knew where to go. Plus, it was the middle of the night during a rainstorm. The conditions made it impossible to see or get bearings. Most of the Raiders who made land decided to bail out, parachute down and crash or ditch their planes and take their chances that way.

Coming down in the pitch black during a rain storm in unfamiliar territory in the middle of the night was harrowing but necessary.  In an interview I conducted with Tom Griffin, navigator on plane no. 9 from Hornet, on October 17, 2001, he described it this way: (There were) “violent vertical currents. I could barely see my chute and I was going back and forth…a tremendous swaying back and forth. I couldn’t see anything. I knew I was near the ground when the branch of a tree hit my face and my shroud lines. I could just barely touch the ground. I couldn’t get the chute out of the trees so I just unbuckled the harness and walked away.”

With no direction or plan planes came down over a wide area.  American flyers were essentially all over the countryside. By the time the Chinese were made aware of them coming, they were already there. A dragnet of sorts was set about to try and gather them up before Japanese forces could find them.

In an interview with Roy Stork, co-pilot of plane ten, on October 22, 2001, he told me,

“The word had been passed by the friendly Chinese that there were American airmen in the area and to bring them in to a specified rendezvous point. They did this by the runner system. They had no radio. They (the Japanese) had completely depleted all of china and they (the Chinese) were pretty darn kind to us. The Japanese came in and just ruthlessly bombed all the different areas and killed 200,000 Chinese. If it hadn’t been for their kindness we would had never gotten out of there. But they had been at war with the Japanese for seven years and were so appreciative they couldn’t do enough for us”

Two crewmen drowned when their plane crashed into the ocean off shore. Another died as a result of falling off a cliff after parachuting from the plane.

Only fifteen planes went to China, number eight off Hornet, piloted by Edwin “ski” York, opted to go to Russia instead. York had engine trouble causing extra  fuel consumption. He calculated he would never make it to China. Russia was closer. He landed in Vladivostok. Some speculation that York had ulterior motives and planned on going to Russia all along. A raider controversy since the 1940s, no one has ever been able to determine If York had meant to do that.

While interviewing Nolan A. Herndon, the navigator on York’s plane, on November 28, 2001, he indicated to me during our interview that he felt very strongly that York’s decision to fly to Russia was not a snap decision. He and others had determined after many years of “looking into it” that York had been ordered by intelligence officers to fly to Russia on purpose. When I asked him if he felt this was true or not, he answered, “Well, I absolutely say that it was true.”

Eight men were taken captive by the Japanese. They were tried and convicted for war crimes against the Japanese

Raider being taken by Japanese as a prisoner of war.

Raider being taken by Japanese as a prisoner of war.

people. Three were executed in August of that year, another one died in prison, and the other four were freed by American forces in 1945.

All toll 69 of the Raiders made it back to the states, or continued fighting in the region with allied forces. Some went to North Africa, some flew bombing raids over Germany in Europe. Twelve of the 69 were killed in action later in the war.

After the war

Since the late 1940s every year Doolittle’s Raiders hold a reunion which they get together and drink a toast in a special goblet to those that didn’t return from the year before and were lost during the war.  The cups are kept in a special case and turned upside down when a raider has passed on. The case remains on display at the Air Force Academy Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The case is brought to wherever they are having their reunion and then returned until the next year.

The ceremonial case with a silver cup and a bottle of vintage Hennessy in the middle. When a Raider dies the cup is turned upside down. There are three still right side up.

The ceremonial case with a silver cups and a bottle of vintage Hennessy in the middle. When a Raider dies the cup is turned upside down. There are three still right side up.

There is a special bottle of Brandy that sits in the middle of the case, only to be opened and used in a toast to the last two surviving Raiders. That toast took place in 2013. Well into their 90s four remainted only three were able to make the trip and those three Raiders toasted to all the others. That was the final reunion.

In my opinion, their flight was one of the most courageous deeds in military history. 

               —Admiral William F. Halsey


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