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The Doolittle Raid was the first air-raid conducted by the United States targeted at the Japanese mainland during World War II. Carried out on 18 April 1942, the raid was seen as retaliation for the bombings at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, five months prior. The air-raid was named for the commanding officer and designer of the plan, General James Doolittle, at that time a newly-promoted Lieutenant Colonel.
After the surprise attack on Hawaii and the entry of the United States into the war, the young Lt. Colonel James Doolittle helped prepare plans for an aerial attack on Japan. An aviation pioneer, Doolittle had helped advance the field with innovations in flying instruments such as the artificial horizon. The basic plan involved the launch of several bombing airplanes from an aircraft carrier. Tests were performed in February of 1942 to see if the twin-engine B-25B Mitchell bombers could be successfully used in the mission. After the success of the tests, the plan to attack moved forward.
From the elite members of the 17th Bomb Group of the United States Air Force, volunteers were chosen and trained for the mission. During the training period, several modifications were made to the planes in order to increase fuel capacity and hold cameras to film the bombing. On 2 April 1942, 16 planes were loaded onboard the United States Ship Hornet, a Yorktown-class aircraft carrier with secret orders. Not until the aircraft carrier was on its way were the bombing orders for the Doolittle Raid explained to most of the men. Several days later, they were met by the USS Enterprise, a ship under the command of the famed Admiral Halsey, who, along with an additional escort provided cover to the Hornet on its mission.
The original orders for the Doolittle Raid called for a covert launch 400 miles from the Japanese coast. The ships were detected by Japanese patrol boats while more than 600 miles away, and were forced to launch early or risk having to abort the mission due to the arrival of Japanese forces. Fifteen of the sixteen planes took off for the raid, leaving the sixteenth plane behind as a reserve unit.
The Doolittle Raid bombers did some slight damage to their intended targets across Japan, though not as much as they intended. They covered a wide range, including Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, Yokohama and Nagoya, but quickly ran out of reserve fuel. Unable to make it to their intended landing bases in China, the crews were faced to bail out of their airplanes, leading to the deaths of two in landing. Despite the aid of the Chinese, eight men were captured by Japanese forces and imprisoned. Three of the eight were executed, one died in poor prison conditions, and the remaining three were liberated at the end of the war.
Despite the loss of all involved aircraft and the deaths of six men, Doolittle’s plan was considered a success in stretching the bombing capabilities of the US Air Force. A strategic consequence of the raid was the fateful decision of the Japanese commanding General Yamamoto to push forward their campaign to capture Midway Island and destroy American aircraft carriers to eliminate the risk of future bombing raids, despite having unprepared forces. Many experts consider the subsequent Japanese loss at Midway to be the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
The Doolittle Raid had a tremendous impact on the morale of the American people, after the shocking attack on Pearl Harbor several months prior. Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts, and several of his men received additional honors and promotions. Since the attack, the surviving raiders have held a memorial service and reunion each year on the anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. As of 2008, six remaining survivors were able to attend the service.
The Doolittle Raid was also a serious blow to the hubris of the Japanese War Cabinet. They had convinced themselves that the Americans had "no stomach" for fighting, and thus, a raid on the Japanese mainland rattled their cage in a big way. It paved the way to the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1942, and then the Battle of Midway in June of the same year.
The Japanese government attempted to keep the bombing a secret from the Japanese people, in order to keep up the illusion that Japan was invincible.
While the bombing did little actual damage, the psychological havoc it wreaked on the Japanese government cannot be overstated.