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History and Heritage

Doolittle and His Raiders Pt. 1:

80 Brave Men and Shangri-la

The deck of USS Hornet (CV 8), code named "Shangri-la," pitched and rolled in the swells of the Western Pacific Ocean. Sixteen B-25B Mitchell medium bombers were preparing for a historic takeoff - 467 feet and no room for error.

The morning of April 18, 1942, Army Air Corps Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle and his 80 "Raiders" were already wide awake. They had trained for this day for months: It was time to bring the battle to the Rising Sun's doorstep.

The planning for the raid was the fruition of a Dec. 21, 1941 meeting, just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, between then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable." wrote Doolittle in his autobiography "I Could Never Be So Lucky Again." "An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders."

There was a second, and equally important, psychological reason for this attack. ... Americans badly needed a morale boost." -Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle

Military strategists gathered intel and calculated aircraft fuel consumption - how could their warplanes make the flight to the Japanese homeland? Carriers could only get so close without being spotted and taking off from Japanese controlled Korea was out of the question. It seemed like impossibility.

In January 1942 while in Norfolk, Virginia, Navy Captain Francis Low looked at the painted outline of the deck of an aircraft carrier - used for training pilots to make the 300-foot takeoff and landing - and was struck with a brilliant, yet crazy idea. A medium bomber (named for size of bombloads it carried and distance) could make that!

Low was the assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare Adm. Ernest King, and proposed his idea.

Planes for the Job and the Man to Lead It

When President Roosevelt and his staff were planning this strike on the Japanese homeland and searching for the most qualified pilot to plan and map out the raid. The men in Washington turned to Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle.

Doolittle was already an accomplished pilot and aeronautical engineer long before the war broke out. There was no question he was the man for the job, but the Army Air Corps tried to convince Doolittle he was needed in Washington during the raid. Doolittle would have none of it.

I know more about this mission than anyone else. And I know how to lead it."
-Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle

The aircraft would need to have a range of 2,400 nautical miles (more than 2,700 miles) and be capable of carrying a 2,000-pound bomb load.
Armed with a list of possible aircraft, bomber after bomber was tested and retested again and again. The B-26 Marauder's wingspan was too long and would have collided with the carrier's super structure and the wingspan of the B-23 Dragon was 50% greater than that of the B-25. It came down to two aircraft, the B-25B Mitchell and the B-18 Bolo for Doolittle to choose from. Due to B-18 longer wingspan, the B-25B was chosen to carry out the raid.
Three photo collage Doolittle Raid: B-25s on Hornet flight deck; Doolittle and crew on Hornet; B-25 taking off Hornet.

Two B-25s were loaded onto USS Hornet in Norfolk and on February 3, 1942 they successfully took off from the flight deck without difficulty. Next Doolittle needed the most experienced men, pilots and enlisted alike. He scoured the medium Bomb Groups (BG) for men fitting this description. The 17th Bomb Group was stationed in Pendleton, Oregon and had already been on submarine patrols along the coast. The 17th had four active squadrons before 1942, and commanders hand-picked 20 five-man crews from a group of volunteers.

The plan was coming together; however, the B-25 was initially only capable of traveling a maximum of 1,350 nautical miles, it needed to go nearly twice the distance. Engineers, mechanics and pilots worked together and heavily modified 24 aircraft for the flight.

From Modification to Departure

The removal of the lower gun turret as well as the heavy liaison radio set helped lighten the aircraft. Mechanics installed de-icers and anti-icers to combat the cold at high altitude, a 160-gallon collapsible neoprene auxiliary fuel tank in the bomb bay and additional fuel cells in crawlways and the lower gun turret. This increased the planes' fuel capacity from 646 to 1,141 gallons. Mock gun barrels were installed in the tail cone to make the B-25 appear more intimidating and deadly as they made their bomb runs.

Another modification was a new bomb sight. These bombers would be dropping their payloads at a much lower altitude than was normal. The more expensive and precise Norden bomb sight, used for higher altitude bombing runs, would be replaced with what the press would later call "the 20-cent bombsight." Developed by pilot Capt. Charles Ross Greening specifically for the raid, the bombsight was proven more accurate at low altitude than the Norden. Two bombers would also be outfitted with motion cameras to record the bombing.

On March 1, 1942, crews picked up the 24 modified bombers in Minneapolis and from there flew them to Eglin Field, Florida. The crews trained in simulated carrier flight deck takeoffs, both low-level and night flying, low-altitude bombing and navigating over water for three weeks.

A Navy flight instructor from Naval Air Station Pensacola, Lt. Henry Miller, supervised their takeoff training and accompanied the crews on the Hornet for the launch. For his instruction and efforts in the raid, Miller is considered an honorary member of the Raiders.

No men were lost during training but some aircraft had been damaged.

Twenty-two were flown to NAS Alameda, California outside of San Francisco. A total of 16 planes made up the mission. April 1 arrived and 71 officers and 130 enlisted men boarded Hornet with their 16 bombers and embarked on a mission that would forever change military aviation. The following morning at 8:48, Hornet departed San Francisco Bay and steamed a path through the Pacific to the Empire of Japan.

There was another hitch in this plan. This would be a one-way trip.

The plan was to make it to China before the fuel tanks ran dry.

For more on the Doolittle Raid click here

For part two, click here