Monday, April 18, 2005

18 April 1942

Today is the anniversary of the “Doolittle Raid” – when 16 land based U.S. Army Air Corps B-25 bombers, flying from the deck of U.S.S. Hornet, a ship not designed to carry or launch such large planes– gave Japan the first installment of payback for Pearl Harbor, by bombing Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Yokosuka and other land targets in Japan.

Only six months after Pearl Harbor, American naval and military power in the Pacific was on the ropes. The papers were full of news of defeat after defeat. The day Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s task force, built around aircraft carrier Enterprise, sailed out of Pearl Harbor to join Hornet at sea (coming from San Francisco), the American garrison on Bataan, in the Philippines, surrendered to the Japanese – the largest mass surrender of US troops to a foreign enemy in history. America badly needed some kind of good news. President Roosevelt insisted that a way be found to hit back at Japan.

The idea for the Doolittle Raid was conceived when Captain Francis Lowe, attached to the staff of Admiral Ernest King, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, visited the new carrier Hornet at Norfolk, Virginia. Hornet, (CV-8), commissioned in October of 1941, called “The Ship that Held the Line” by one of her chroniclers, had just one crowded year of life before being sunk by the Japanese, but her service summarizes the first year of the Pacific War: the Doolittle Raid, Midway, the invasion of Guadalcanal, convoy escort duty, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz (27 October 1942).
In any case, on his visit to Hornet, Captain Lowe saw, at a nearby airfield, an outline of a carrier deck painted on the tarmac for practice landings. Lowe inquired of another officer, Captain Donald Duncan -- whether large, land-based bombers could fly off an aircraft carrier. Duncan looked into the matter with Hornet's captain, Marc Mitscher, (one of the finest naval officers this country ever produced), and they soon found that B-25's, land-based bombers, with much longer range then smaller naval aircraft, could fly off of an aircraft carrier, (although not return). The means of raiding Japan had been found.
The mission was prepared in great secrecy. The volunteer bomber crews, and their commander, the famous pre-war stunt pilot, Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, had to learn short-range takeoffs at land bases – there was no way the Navy could risk damage to a precious aircraft carrier by allowing the crews to practice on board ship. When training was complete, the bombers were hoisted on board Hornet at San Francisco. Hornet and her cargo of bombers met Enterprise at sea on 13 April, and the thousands of crew members of the carriers and escorting vessels, speculating about the presence of Army bombers on a Navy ship, finally learned their real mission when Admiral Halsey signaled by flag and blinker: This Force is Bound for Tokyo.

The plan was for the task force to move in at high speed to a point 400 miles from the Japanese coast, and, about midday on 18 April, launch the bombers, and turn for home. The B-25’s would then go on to bomb targets in Japan, and then fly to friendly airfields in China. However, about 7 a.m. on the morning of 18 April, the force was spotted by a Japanese patrol vessel. The escorting ships quickly sank the snooper, but Admiral Halsey had to assume the picket got off a contact report and he had to make a decision: launch the planes now – at ranges almost too far for the pilots to be assured of a landing in friendly territory; or wait and risk contact with superior Japanese naval forces. The decision was obvious, although not easy, the pilots and bombers were expendable, the carriers weren’t. Hornet launched her bombers right then – 600 miles from Japan.
As it turned out, the picket ship HAD accurately reported sighting the American force, but missed spotting the Army bombers on Hornet's deck. The Japanese assumed they had an extra day before the ships came in range of Japanese targets. Plenty of time to prepare an ambush. Consequently, the arrival of the US planes over Japan on 18 April, earlier than anticipated, was a complete surprise.

The bombers arrived over Tokyo and their other targets about noon, bombing an oil tank farm, steel mills and power plants, the aircraft carrier Ryūhō (then under construction) and, among other things, breaking up a baseball game. The raiders then made for China, and now the price was exacted for the early launch: One plane crashed in the Soviet Union (its crew interned for the duration), the other 15 planes crash-landed at various locations in China. Most of the 80 pilots and crew survived, but the Japanese captured eight. Three of these men were murdered by the Japanese and one died in captivity.

The Japanese were shocked by the Doolittle Raid, which their propaganda machine quickly christened the “Do-Nothing Raid.” There was some truth to this slam – the military damage was negligible, but the psychological damage was immense. The Japanese generals and admirals had assured the Japanese people that American planes would never bomb Japan, and the commander in chief of the Japanese fleet, Admiral Yamamoto, personally apologized to Emperor Hirohito. More importantly, the Doolittle Raid goaded the Japanese Naval Staff to finally approve Admiral Yamamoto’s plan to do something about the U.S. Navy’s pesky aircraft carriers, which resulted in, among other things, the Battle of Midway.
UPDATE: A question has been posed re the significance of Midway. The Japanese, nettled by the Doolittle Raid, and in any case looking for a decisive showdown with the US fleet, found it at Midway Atoll (northwest of Honolulu/Pearl Harbor, at the west end of the Hawaiian chain). Unfortunately for the Japanese, the battle was decisive the wrong way. The Japanese, looking to ambush and wipe-out the US aircraft carrier force instead found themselves ambushed by the Americans. (who were reading the Japanese codes).

The battle (4-7 June 1942), ended with the Japanese losing four of the six heavy aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, Sōryū). The Americans, for their part, lost carrier U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-5). The Americans could in time replace their losses, the Japanese could not. With the gutting of their carrier strike force, the Japanese were unable to keep the pressure up on the Americans, who then had time to regroup, launch an offensive of their own (the Solomons campaign) and eventually swamp the Japanese with their much greater industrial production.

1 comment:

The B.... said...

So summarize what happened at Midway.