During December 1941, Japan launched an offensive aimed at securing vital resources in the Eastern Pacific. A key element in the Japanese plan was the elimination of the American battleship fleet based at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii by means of a surprise attack by carrier based aircraft on the morning of Sunday 7th December.
With the American fleet powerless to oppose the Japanese in any strength they quickly conquered most of South East Asia, including the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Dutch East Indies.
Unable to react to Japanese aggression with conventional means the US devised a plan to strike at the Japanese homeland that would: make it clear that America had the means to project power across the Pacific, raise morale at home and hopefully force the Japanese military to divert forces to defend the Japanese Islands.
After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour American President Franklin D Roosevelt wanted to retaliate with a strike at Japan as soon as possible. Contemporary land based bombers did not have the range to attack Japan from American territory. Carrier based aircraft were relatively short range and would require the carriers to be too close to Japan to launch the raid; it would put these invaluable assts at risk at a time when they could not be lost.
In January 1942 Navy captain Francis Low reported to Admiral E. J. King that he had observed Army twin engine aircraft practicing short take offs from a naval airfield painted with the outline of a carrier. Low considered that these relatively long range aircraft stood a chance of attacking Japan in a one way mission without putting the carriers at too much risk of attack.
The operation was given to Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle to plan. Several aircraft including B18 Bolo, B23 Dragon and the B16 Marauder were considered but in the end the decision was made to use the B25B Mitchell, the one aircraft that met all mission criteria.
On 1st April 1942 the 16 selected B25's were loaded onto the USS Hornet at Alameda. The aircraft were tightly packed and tied down to the rear of Hornet's flight deck in the order they were expected to launch. Hornet left Alameda as part of Task Force 18 on April 2nd. Anti-submarine protection was provided by PBY Catalina's until late in the afternoon.
The last contact that TF18 had with the mainland was with a Navy blimp that delivered parts that had not been installed Sacramento. Once well out to sea the objective of the mission was announced to the Navy crews. TF18 joined Task Force 16, USS Enterprise and her escort, north of Hawaii, commanded by Vice Admiral Halsey. The air wing aboard Enterprise was responsible for providing reconnaissance and fighter cover for the combined task force during the mission.
A special ceremony was conducted when medals, given as gestures of friendship by the Japanese government to American individuals, were attached to ordnance that would be dropped on Japan.
Preparations in China by General Stillwell continued with the inspection and selection of airfields, and the acquisition of fuel and other technology. Stillwell was not informed about the target of the mission. By April 16th Stillwell was prepared to receive Doolittle's aircraft and had arranged for a radio signal to be broadcast and flares to be launched to help the flyers find the airfield.
By April 17th TF16 was 1,600km (1,000 miles) east of Japan with the weather turning to gales. At this point the Carriers and cruisers left the destroyers and support vessels in a high speed dash to the take off point.
The plan to launch on the 20th was proceeding as expected apart from a mistake in the schedule that had failed to account for the mission crossing the international date line; Doolittle's aircraft would subsequently arrive in China a day earlier than expected. Due to radio silence this was never reported back to Pearl harbour or the Chinese.
On April 18th at about 7:45 in the morning the task force encountered the Japanese picket boat Nittō Maru about 1,200km from the coast of Japan, 310km short of the planned launch point. Nittō Maru had already sighted TF16 around 6:30 and had managed to get off a radio warning about 'three enemy carriers' before being sunk by the task force escort.
At 8:00 Halsey gave the order to Doolittle and Hornet's Captain Marc Mitscher to launch the B25's immediately rather than risk the carriers to Japanese attack. Preparations began with aircraft being fuelled and ordnance being armed. Conditions were less than ideal with high seas and low cloud cover but all 16 B25's were launched successfully in one hour starting at 8:20.
The aircraft had taken off a lot sooner than planned and they were subjected to a 27 knot headwind, increasing fuel consumption; there was a good chance that they would not have sufficient fuel to reach the landing sites in China. Once the aircraft had launched TF16 immediately altered course back east.
The Imperial Japanese Navy had been aware of TF16 for some time and upon receipt of the radio message from the Nittō Maru started to respond. The IJN 1st Fleet, including five carriers: Akagi, Zuikaku, Hiryu, Soryu and Shokaku, was returning from operations in the Indian Ocean. These and other surface elements were ordered to converge on the position of the Nittō Maru. Aircraft were launched to search for the American fleet. Had Doolittle launched as expected the Japanese might have been able to intercept TF16 and potentially sink the carriers.
Doolittle's force had been organised into flights of three or four aircraft, each with primary and secondary targets in Tokyo or the surrounding district including: gas, oil and electric facilities, arsenals and shipyards. The aircraft started to arrive over Japan roughly about midday Tokyo time. Low cloud and rain covered the approach of the B25's. Japanese defence was uncoordinated and despite heavy anti-aircraft fire and attacks by fighters the B25's were able to find and bomb their targets. The attack took Japan completely by surprise.
After the attack the aircraft headed west, then south and then towards the landing sites in China.
The Voyage Home
Once the B25's had been launched Hornet made ready her own squadrons in preparation for a defence of the task force in co-operation with squadrons aboard Enterprise. All crews remained at General Quarters, Combat Air Patrols were maintained and reconnaissance aircraft searched for any surface vessels that might be a threat. Two patrol craft were spotted and sunk around mid-afternoon at the expense of one Dauntless dive bomber that crashed in the water off the beam of the cruiser Nashville. Prisoners were taken from one of the Japanese craft.
TF16 arrived safely in Pearl Harbour during the morning of April 25th.
The crews of fifteen B25's bailed out over China, the aircraft crashing from lack of fuel. One B25, 40-2242, piloted by York landed in the Soviet Union due to fuel shortage, the crew being interned. Many of the crews that had bailed out suffered injuries, including a broken arm, amputated leg and many sprains. Several crew members died, having landed in water or on rough terrain.
The crews of two B25's, 2298 piloted by Hallmark and 2268 piloted by Farrow, bailed out over Japanese territory. Two crewmen, Dieter and Fitzmaurice from 2298, drowned after landing in water, the other eight were captured and held in Shanghai before being transferred to Tokyo where they were subjected to interrogation and torture, and forced to sign confessions about attacking civilian targets. They were transferred back to Shanghai to face trial on August 28th. None of the crews were allowed to speak and were summarily convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death. Only Hallmark, Farrow and Spatz were actually executed on October 15th, the rest being imprisoned for life, three of them surviving the war and 2nd Lt.Meder dying of malnutrition on December 1st 1943.
The American government tried to obtain the release of York and his crew but the Soviet government refused and even charged monthly for their keep. They were eventually moved to central Asia via Siberia, where York bribed a Russian guard and they escaped to Iran.
Doolittle was concerned that his mission was a failure, having lost all of the aircraft. Roosevelt and the nation took another view - it was a great success and raised morale and war production increased significantly. The raid caused great embarrassment and dishonour to the Japanese Leadership for not being able to protect the Emperor. Much needed fighter aircraft were transferred from front line duty to home defence. Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl harbour attack, had been planning an attack on the American base at Midway atoll. Before the raid the Japanese strategic objective had been to create a defensive ring in the South West Pacific isolating communications between the USA and Australia. The raid gave Yamamoto the backing he needed for the Midway attack and resources were switched from the South West front to the Central Pacific. The eventual Battle for Midway was an unmitigated disaster for the IJN, loosing four aircraft carriers and their experienced pilots. It was one that they never recovered from.