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B -25 lifts off the USS Hornet
General Doolittles B -25 aboard the USS Hornet

The Birth and Naval origins of the Raid on Japan
(Doolittle Raid)

The below information was taken from a speech given by the Honorable Bernard D. Rostker, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. This speech preceded the awarding of the Task Force 16 Citation to those personnel assembled (over 100) who were members of Task Force 16, the force that transported and escorted the "Doolittle Raiders" to their launching point to bomb Tokyo on April 18, 1942. The ceremony took place in the Pentagon on May 15, 1995.

We all know the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, but many may not know that on December 21st, two weeks to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Generals Marshall and Arnold, Chief of Naval Operations (Admiral King), and the Secretaries of War and of the Navy met with President Roosevelt at the White House. At that meeting the President emphasized he wanted a bombing raid on the home islands of Japan as soon as possible to bolster the morale of America and its Allies. The next step in this saga occurred on January 10th. Admiral King sent memos to his staff after each of the meetings with the President, noting that their Commander in Chief continually asked whether military was going to do something to
retaliate against the Japanese.

The key idea came from Captain Francis Lowe, a submariner on King's staff. Lowe told King that when he flew down to Norfolk to check on the readiness of our newest carrier, the Hornet, he saw the outline of a carrier deck painted on the airfield. He told King that if the Army's long range bombers could take off in the length of a carrier deck, then it seemed possible to him that a few of them could be loaded on a carrier and used to bomb Japan. King asked Lowe to talk to Captain Donald Duncan, his air operations officer.

Duncan made discreet inquiries of the Army concerning its medium bombers, especially the B-25 and B-26, asking for such information as take off speed, dimensions, range and load capabilities. He checked with Navy sources for deck space data, experience with heavily loaded take-offs, and Pacific weather patterns to determine the best time for raids against Japan. By January 16th Duncan had produced a 30 page handwritten analysis that concluded that the North American B-25 was the only plane that could possibly be used. The B-25 could carry 2,000 pounds of bombs and make a 2,000 mile flight if extra gas tanks were installed.

Duncan argued that the carrier Hornet, the newest carrier in the Navy, would be the ideal ship to carry the B-25's. He proposed that using the screening force of another carrier, cruisers, and destroyers, the Hornet could be brought within 500 miles of Japan, so that the bombers could be launched. After bombing Japan the bombers could escape to China, and the Navy Task
Force would withdraw to safer waters.

On January 17th, 1942, Captain Duncan briefed General Hap Arnold, who was by all accounts most enthusiastic about a carrier based raid against Japan. However, there was still one question to be answered. Could the B-25's actually take off from the carrier deck? Duncan made arrangements with Arnold's office to have three B-25's flown to Hampton Roads. On the afternoon of February 2nd, Duncan reported to Captain Mitscher, the Hornet's skipper. The next day two B-25's were loaded aboard. Sea tests some 100 miles off the Virginia coast proved that the concept would work. B-25's easily lifted into the air with almost 500 feet of deck space to spare. By the middle of March the Hornet was on its way to San Francisco and the Alameda Naval Air Station to meet up with the Army Air Force. Meanwhile, Captain Duncan flew to Hawaii for meetings with Admiral Nimitz and Admiral Halsey.

Admiral Halsey recalls the meeting. "Duncan told us" Halsey says, "that something big was in the air - something Top Secret." Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle with Navy cooperation was training 16 Army crews to take B-25's off a carrier's deck, and the Navy had promised to launch them for Tokyo. "They might not inflict much damage", Duncan said, "but they would
certainly give Hirohito plenty to think about." "Chester Nimitz asked me," Halsey recalls, "Do you believe it would work, Bill?" "I said they would need a lot of luck." Nimitz asked, "Are you willing to take them out there?""Yes I am." "Good," he said, "it is yours."

At the end of the third week in March, Duncan wired Admiral King in Washington from Honolulu. "Tell Jimmy to get on his horse" was the message. That simple coded sentence launched 80 Airmen and 10,000 Naval personnel on an adventure that would change the history of the war in the Pacific. Duncan worked with the CINCPAC planning staff on the details of the 16 ship task force. It was decided that seven ships would accompany the Hornet from Alameda, and meet up with an eight ship force that included Halsey's flag ship, the Enterprise. On March 30th Halsey and Duncan met with Doolittle in San Francisco to lay out the details of a 16 ship task force. Seven ships that would accompany the Hornet were to be known as Task Force 16.2 and
would leave San Francisco about April 2nd. They would meet up with Task Force 16.1, Halsey's eight ship force that would leave Hawaii on April 8th. Task Force 16.1 was later renamed Task Force 18.

What was not discussed with Doolittle, but was understood by all, was the tremendous risk that the Navy was taking. If marauding Japanese submarines discovered the 16 ship force steaming west, it would gain unprecedented opportunity to cripple what was left of the U.S. Navy's strength in the Pacific. Coupled with Japanese attack by long base bombers or heavy aircraft carrier force, it would mean the end of American Naval strength in the Pacific for months to come. As the Hornet embarked from San Francisco Bay, three messages were sent from Washington. From Arnold, "May good luck and success be with you and each member of your command on the mission you are about to undertake." From Marshall, "As you embark on your expedition please give each member of your command my deepest appreciation for their service and complete confidence in their ability and courage under your leadership to strike a mighty blow. You will be constantly on my mind and may the good Lord watch over you." And from Admiral King, "I hope and expect that the first blow operation of the Hornet will be a success. I am confident that it will be in so far as her officers and crew under your able leadership can make it so. Good luck and good hunting."

When Admiral Halsey returned to Pearl Harbor he related the final details of the task force mission to his staff, and on April 7th Admiral Nimitz approved Operation Plan 20-42. In addition to the 16 ships of Halsey's force, two submarines (Trout and Thresher) were traveling and were to maintain patrol stations.

Courtesy of the Naval Historical Center