The Doolittle Raid: 75 years ago, bombers attacked Japan

The crew of the lead plane in the April 18, 1942, bombing raid on Japan, from left, include Lt. Henry Potter, navigator; Lt. Col. James Doolittle, pilot; Staff Sgt. Fred Braemer, bombardier; Lt. Richard Cole, co-pilot; and Staff Sgt. Paul Leonard, engineer/gunner. The photo was taken aboard the USS Hornet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech was a declaration of war on Dec. 8, 1941.

It came the day after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The speech, carried by national radio, concluded with “and we shall win this war.” It was inspirational, and calmed the fears of our citizens. It united the nation as one power. Men of all ages stormed the recruitment centers and enlisted in some arm of the military.

President Roosevelt knew there was a need to hit back at Japan with a mighty blow. Perhaps a surprise bombing raid over Japan was the answer, but how could it be successfully completed?

With the Imperial Japanese Army invading and forcing the surrender of U.S. possessions in the Pacific Theatre, the U.S. did not have any airfields from which to launch an air raid over Japan.

The only option was launching bombers from an aircraft carrier, something never attempted. And it seemed obvious to any military mind that a bomber would not have enough deck to take off from a carrier.

President Roosevelt remained persistent. General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Corps, informed the president that if the plan had half a chance, he knew one aviator — Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle — could make it happen.

He was a successful airplane racer. He had no fears while holding land speed records and winning many air races. He was born to fly an airplane, and he was a born leader.

The plan

A large success of putting the operation together would mean full cooperation between the U.S. Navy, which possessed the carriers, and the Army Air Corps which had a fleet of bombers.

As the plan unfolded, Navy Captain Francis S. Low, an operations officer on the staff of Admiral Earnest King, Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, was dispatched to Norfolk, Virginia, to check out a new carrier, the USS Hornet.

While there, he observed twin-engine bombers taking off the carrier at a distance of less than 500 feet.

There were four classes of bombers considered. The B-25B Mitchell Medium Class was the final selection due to its low altitude flying capability, high speed, bomb capacity (four 500-pound bombs of high explosives and incendiaries).

The size allowed 16 of the bombers to fit on the flight deck of a carrier and have enough deck to launch.

The B-25B had to be refitted for the mission at an airplane factory. The removal of several items was important to increase speed, and create more fuel capacity. The fuel capacity had to equal 2,440 nautical miles.

When completed, the planes were flown to Elgin Air Base near Pensacola, Florida, for training.

On April 18, 1942, airmen of the U.S. Army Air Corps, led by Lt. Col. James H. (Jimmy) Doolittle, carried the Battle of the Pacific to the heart of the Japanese empire with a surprising and daring raid on military targets at Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, and Kobe. This heroic attack against these major cities was the result of coordination between the Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy, which carried the 16 North American B-25 medium bombers aboard the carrier USS Hornet to within take-off distance of the Japanese Islands. Here, a pair of alert escorts follow the USS Hornet to protect her lethal cargo of B-25 bombers. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Call for volunteers

In early February, Col. Doolittle sent word to bomber groups in the Army Air Corps for volunteers needed for a very important and secret mission. The response was overwhelming with 140 selected for training.

At Elgin Air Base, the training was conducted night and day over a period of three and half weeks. The pilots practiced low level bombing runs, night flying over water, and dummy bombing targets. In late March, the “Raiders” flew their bombers west to California, and waited for the USS Hornet.

The USS Hornet left Norfolk and passed through the Panama Canal on its route to San Francisco. On April 2, with 16 B-25B bombers on board, the Hornet sailed northwest out of the bay.

After two days at sea, Col. Doolittle decided it was time to inform his Raiders of their mission — to bomb Tokyo.

A moment of silence ensued. But, suddenly, the entire group jumped to their feet and cheered from the bottom of their lungs.

The mission

The main target was the Island of Honshu, the largest of all of the islands of Japan where Tokyo is the capitol and the Imperial Palace is located. The other cities targeted were Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka.

Targets that were to be avoided were the Imperial Palace, hospitals, and residential areas.

Under the plan, 10 bombers would fly over Tokyo in a spread formation to give the impression that the bombing mission was larger than it appeared. The bombers would bomb 10 military and industrial locations. There were two in Yokohama, and one each in the remaining four cities.

The other six bombers would bomb coastal sites of ships in dry docks on both sides of the Island of Honshu.

Once the Doolittle Raiders had bombed the last target of Osaka, the Raiders were to turn right, and fly southwest off the southeast coast of the Island, cross the East China Sea to friendly airfields located in the coastal city of Chowchow, refuel, and continue their flight inland to join Gen. Clair Chennault’s “Flying Tigers.”

A well-devised plan from time to time can get compromised. It happened with the Doolittle Plan.

Japan’s War Council had stationed fishing vessels, converted to war ships, with fire power several hundred miles from the southern tip of the mainland to sound the alert if enemy ships entered in this area.

Early on the morning of April 18, a spotter on the USS Enterprise, the sister carrier in the convoy, viewed through his binoculars and saw one of these vessels named Nitto Mara. The message was phoned directly to Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, commander of the Hornet. He immediately ordered the sinking of the vessel, which was done.

Believing the convoy had been spotted, he gave the order “Army pilots man your planes.”

The timing of the mission, which was planned for night bombing on April 19, and the importance of having enough fuel to reach China were compromised with the order.

The radio operator had in fact alerted Japanese headquarters. However, the Officer of the Day did not believe it. The message was not passed on to the War Council.

Nevertheless, Adm. Halsey feared a fight with enemy carriers, for it would be one against several. The escort convoy that was with the carrier shortly after embarking from San Francisco Bay would now disengage from the mission.

Their skipper signed off by saying, “Good Luck and Good Hunting.”

The fighter planes on the Hornet were below deck. The Raiders now felt alone, and unprotected. Their resolve was they were ready and hungry for a fight.

The Hornet drew within 600 miles instead of the planned 400 miles for the launch. It took four hours of flying time after the launch to reach the shores of Japan. The 400 miles was a must for fuel consumption that would enable the Raiders to land safely on the mainland of China.

The Raiders felt their worst fear, which was they would be lucky to reach the mainland of China. Instead they would crash in the shark infested East China Sea, and all would probably drown.

Taking off

Col. Doolittle was the first plane off the carrier at 0820 hours on April 18, 1942.

It was a perfect takeoff with just 467 feet of deck surface. This was a record for a bomber that would never be broken, for it would never be tried again in the history of the U.S. Navy.

An hour would pass before the last bomber, piloted by Lt. William “Billy” Farrow would take flight. By this time, the sea began to roll heavily at the start of a typhoon.

He approached the wave when it was down, but on the upswing the plane vaulted backwards. Deck hands rushed out to stabilize the plane and the propeller caught one seaman’s arm, and severed it below the elbow. For Lt. Farrow, this was an omen of things to come. He made a perfect takeoff on the next attempt.

It was noon April 18, a Saturday, when the Doolittle plane reached Tokyo.

The Japanese civilians were lunching on restaurant terraces, and enjoying the warmth of a spring day. The Doolittle Raiders were observed at 1,500 feet when they began releasing the bombs.

At first the Japanese were confused. They believed it was their military holding training practices. In the early months of the war, the insignia on a U.S. aircraft had a red dot in the center of a large white star. Japan had a similar insignia, which was a red ball in the center of a white field. The distinction was hard to make from the ground.

Many of the targets were hit, but some were completely missed. Lt. Farrow emptied his bomb load to avoid charging Japanese fighter planes, and turned off course. His entire bomb load exploded on a munitions factory.

During the post review of the raid by military critics, it was decided the damage to military targets was minimal, and the loss of all 16 planes was a financial failure. The Japanese did not share that feeling. The surprise attack and bombing of their homeland put a fear in its citizens. They had been brainwashed into believing their country was invulnerable.

None of the 16 bombers were shot down. The Japanese anti-aircraft artillery was caught off guard. There was scattered machine gun fire when the Raiders were flying at low altitude, but the damage to two planes was minimal. Artillery flak fired close to one plane resulted in severe concussion inside the aircraft without any injuries.

There were two Japanese airplanes shot down by one plane, and a different Raider’s plane shot down another airplane. The “Raiders” slowed their speed to 200 mph during the bombing runs. When the Japanese airplanes got airborne, the “Raiders” increased their speed to 300 mph. The Japanese planes had a top speed of 200 mph. The Raiders escaped and finished their mission.

President Franklin Roosevelt bestows the Congressional Medal of Honor on Brigadier Gen. James Doolittle for a successful raid on Tokyo. (FDR Library photo)

After the raid

When the “Raiders” flew over Osaka, it was night. They were hit with a tremendous rain storm and a powerful head wind which caused the bombers to lose speed. Fighting the head wind at full throttle began draining their fuel supply.

Suddenly as though there was a “divine” intervention, the head wind shifted from the front of the planes to the rear of the squadron. The tail wind increased each plane by 50 knots, and pushed the planes forward to allow 13 planes to make the mainland of China. Without the tail wind, all bombers would have crashed in the shark infested East China Sea. Plane No. 6 failed to make the mainland and crashed near the coast killing two crew members as a result of the crash.

The 16th bomber experienced engine trouble and fuel loss while over Tokyo. The plane would not make it to Osaka. The pilot, Lt. York, made a U-turn and flew to Russia making a safe landing. The Russians confiscated the airplane, and interred the crew for 13 months. They escaped by bribing guards, and reached the British Embassy safely in Iran.

All crew members of the 11 bombers parachuted safely. It was so dark that they could not see their hands in front of them. Together with a hard rain, it made parachuting hazardous. The crew did not know what was beneath them. They did not know where they were except they were airborne. Could it be the East China Sea and sharks, or landing in mountainous terrain, which was more hazardous to body injuries?

After they jumped, all experienced similar circumstances. The fierce wind ripped off their gun belts, and ripped open their jackets losing all of their food provisions, cigarettes, and cigars, which they brought for the celebration of the successful flight.

Except for minor injuries to their ankles and a severe gash to Lt. Ted Lawson’s leg, pilot of Plane 7, caused by shattered glass when his plane named “The Ruptured Duck” crashed also in water near Shangchow.

Most of the squadron crashed in Chekiang Province. Plane No. 6 piloted by Lt. Dean Hallmark crashed in Nanchang area near Poyang Lake. Two of his crew died as a result of the crash. Hallmark swam for four hours fighting a swift current in the area. When he reached the beach, he collapsed.

Lt. Farrow, pilot of Plane 16 named “Bat out of Hell,” parachuted with his crew farther inland. Unfortunately for them, they parachuted in an area near Nanchang, which was occupied by a Japanese Army detachment. They were taken prisoner without incident.

Except for the two airmen’s deaths and bruised bodies of the remaining, the “Raiders” were safe.

The one member of the raid who had a soft landing was Col. Doolittle. He landed in dung sinking up to his waist.

It was good that he had a soft landing for he had broken both ankles several years earlier in his flying career

After a short period, the remaining “Doolittle Raiders” regrouped, and began their journey to safety. They were helped by Chinese volunteers who carried the remaining crew down the mountains by hiding them in native conveyances until they reached the home and military headquarters in Chungking of the Chinese Army Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, and his wife Madame Chiang Kai Shek. Once settled in, the “Raiders” were treated to a dinner in their honor where they received citations and the highest medals awarded by China for a successful raid over Japan.

Lt. Col. Doolittle made contact with Gen. Arnold in Washington giving him a brief report of the raid as he knew it. Gen. Arnold informed him that arrangements were being made to bring him to Washington.

Instantly he feared he was being recalled to stand trial for the failed mission, and found guilty resulting in a court martial. His fears were immediately arrested when Gen. Arnold informed him that he had been promoted to brigadier general.

The Raiders departed shortly thereafter, putting distance between them and the advancing Japanese Army comprised of 53 Japanese battalions.

Lt Gen. Doolittle was received at the White House by the president, and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. It is the highest medal our country can bestow. He toured large cities in the U.S. on bond-raising efforts, greeted by large crowds and standing ovations.

He continued his efforts through the American Red Cross to learn what happened to Lt. Dean Hallmark and Billy Farrow and their crews. When he was informed of their capture, he tried through diplomatic sources to plead for their release. He offered ransom money from his personal funds, but it was to no avail.

Japan’s prisoners

In August of 1942, eight Raiders were taken by Japanese guards from their cells in the City Municipal Police Headquarters, Shanghai, China to hear false charges against them as war criminals for bombing residential areas, hospitals, and schools killing civilians versus being charged as prisoners of war which would have afforded them rights under the Geneva Convention, which Japan was a member.

The findings of the Japanese court decided behind closed doors the fate of the airmen. The report was written in Japanese so that no one could understand the charges unless they spoke or could read Japanese. The airmen requested a copy of the report through a translator named Alexander Hindrava who spoke a little English was half Portuguese and half Japanese.

He was serving a three-year sentence as a spy. He watched Lt. Dean Hallmark in his cell, and viewed his slow death suffering from Beriberi and dysentery. He later appeared as a witness in the trial against the Japanese officers at the prison. Hallmark was delirious during the trial. He had to be carried by stretcher to the courtroom, laid on the floor, and at the end carried back to his cell.

The written verdict was presented to Gen. Hideki Tojo, who was in charge of the government, the Imperial Army, and personal confident of Emperor Hirohito, to deliver it to the emperor at his 531-acre compound, which included the Imperial Palace where the Royal Family lived. Although the emperor was not in the direct chain of military command, he was the ruler, and their god of the Japanese Empire.

The emperor’s position was all eight should be executed. Gen. Tojo presented the issue of prisoners of war versus war criminals. The ceneral suggested to the emperor the issue should be resolved before the emperor’s final judgment. The emperor only listened. In the end, the emperor decided that some of the Raiders should be executed. That decision fell at the feet of Gen. Tojo. It would confront him later at his trial for war crimes in Tokyo.

The decision was Sgt. Harold A. Spatz, age 21, Lts. Hallmark, age 28, and Farrow, age 23 would be executed by firing a rifle at close range to the forehead of each prisoner.

The eight prisoners suffered constant and severe torture by their captors to make them disclose the details of the bombing raid. The torture consisted of shin kicking, which opened up wounds to their ankles and lower legs, “water cure,” which involved a guard standing on each arm and each leg with a wet towel over the prisoner’s face while another guard poured water over the towel to show when one is drowning, putting pencils between fingers, squeezing, and rubbing breaking the skin, and placing a three-foot long by two inches in diameter bamboo stick behind their knees, forcing them to kneel with one guard holding the prisoner while another jumped up and down on this thighs.

The prisoners refused to break under this severe and meant to cripple punishment to disclose the details of the bombing raid.

Dick Cole, now 102 years old, was a co-pilot with Jimmy Doolittle during the bombing raid in Japan. Retired Col. Cole has been a regular visit to Sussex County’s Wings and Wheels festival where the “Panchito” bomber is on display. (Sussex County Post photo)

Coming home

The remaining Raiders were incarcerated for 40 months. They were freed in August 1945. 1st Lt Robert Meder died in prison due to Beriberi and dysentery from starvation. His ashes were recovered after the prisoners were freed, and later interred in Hawaii National Cemetery. The ashes of Spatz, Hallmark and Farrow are interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Capt. George Barr suffered from brain disorders due to the tortures and needed immediate medical help when freed. He remained behind in China under medical attention and a suicide watch. When he improved, he was returned to the States where he was hospitalized at a mental institution in Iowa. He tried to commit suicide several times without success.

When Gen. Doolittle discovered his location, he authorized a release from the mental institution, and brought Capt. Barr to Walter Reed Hospital where General Doolittle oversaw his recovery. When he was able to travel, Gen. Doolittle connected him with a former Raider where he continued his recovery. He fell in love and married. He died of heart failure several years later.

Other Raiders who were flown to Walter Reed Army Hospital were Lt. Ted Lawson whose left leg had been amputated by Lt. Thomas White, M.D., as the Raiders were escaping from the advancing Japanese Army. He was a graduate of Harvard Medical School, and signed on the raid as a gunner/engineer. This was a lucky break for Lawson. When gangrene set in, he would have died within a few weeks unless the leg was amputated.

When hostilities ceased, agents of the American government and military searched for evidence to prepare for the trial against individuals who violated the laws of war and the inhumane treatment of prisoners. The ones who had participated in the murder execution of the three Raiders knew they would be hunted.

Shortly before the surrender papers were signed, certain unnamed persons visited the funeral directors in Shanghai, and changed the names on the urns containing the ashes of the three Raiders and labeled them with fictitious names. The switchers did not succeed. American Army DNA experts properly identified the names to the urns.

During the Raiders incarnation, they wrote a total of 12 letters to their families, which were supposed to have been delivered to the American Red Cross to insure the letters reached their destination. The Japanese military never turned the letters over to the Red Cross. They were translated into Japanese. The originals were either lost or destroyed. After the war, the Army’s Intelligence command discovered the translated letters in Japanese in the files of the War Ministry in Tokyo. The letters were later retranslated and presented to their rightful owners.

Lt. William “Billy” Farrow’s letter brought tears to the reader’s eyes. He poured out his love to his mother. He recalled how she, his sister and he had suffered through the abuse by a drunken father. He wrote that he was a soldier and followed orders. He was proud to be a member of the raid. He asked her to rely on her faith and salvation, and he would see them again on the other side.

From August 1945 to February 1946, the list of war criminals grew to volumes. There were some who had died and others had already been charged with more serious crimes, and they would be tried in Tokyo.

The advance conjecture was that all four defendants would be found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. It did not happen. The sentences were lenient ranging from five to nine years at hard labor and their sentencing was to begin immediately.

After the war

Jimmy Doolittle never forgot his warriors. He planned the reunions of his warriors each year at his expense along with a dinner and after enjoyment that lasted until the last man was standing.

He donated the goblets with each Raider’s name on the goblet. At the reunions, they would propose a toast to their fallen comrades in arms and turn the goblets of the deceased upside down.

Like the other Raiders, Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle returned to combat. In September 1942, he became commanding general of the 12th Air Force in North Africa; in March 1943 Commander of the 15th Air Force in the Mediterranean Theatre, and January 1944 to September 1945 Commander of the 8th Air Force in England.

When he retired from the military, he returned to Shell Oil Company as a vice president and later a director where he had launched his aviation career. He was CEO of Space Technology Laboratories until 1962.

He died in 1993 at the age of 97 and is interred in Section 7-A at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C. alongside his wife Jo who died in 1988.

Through last year, all of the “Raiders” have died except for one — Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole, age 102.

Col. Cole was co-pilot of Plane 1 with Jimmy Doolittle at the controls. He has attended the Wheels and Wings annual celebration, held in October at the Sussex County Airport in Georgetown, where the “Panchito” bomber is on display.

Editor’s note: Harry G. Farrow Jr., of Harrington, is a freelance writer who has written many articles on Delaware veterans.

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