Jimmy Doolittle – Scholar, Aviator, Daredevil, Military Leader, American – Part 5

By Marty Maisel

Change of Plans – the Raid on Japan
On the early morning of April 18, 1942, a full day ahead and more than 150 miles shy of the intended launch location, the combined task force came across a Japanese fishing boat. Intercepted radio signals from the Japanese boat confirmed that the American fleet was spotted and a decision was made to take off as soon as possible. Engine covers and tie-down ropes were removed, fuel tanks topped off and at 8:20 AM LTC Doolittle and his crew took off from the deck of the Hornet on his way to bomb Japan.

About six hours after take off, ten bombers targeted military and industrial sites in Tokyo. The others struck Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya, Yokosuka and Kobe. While the attack did not do significant damage, it yielded two major psychological impacts:
—Japan was stunned and demoralized by the unexpected raid and, in response, several fighter units were withdrawn from the front to protect their homeland.
—American moral was boosted by our first offensive action of the war.

Facing headwinds, the attackers flew on until they ran out of fuel. Fifteen of the crews crash-landed or bailed out over Japanese occupied China and made it to friendly territory with the aid of Chinese civilians and soldiers. One B-25 crew, running out of fuel, landed in the Soviet Union and was immediately interned. Three crew members died after bailing out or ditching. Eight airmen were captured by the Japanese – of the eight three were given a “trial,” found guilty and executed, one died in confinement during the war and the other four were freed in August 1945. All aircraft were lost to the American cause and none were turned over to the Chinese as planned.

Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle (center) with members of his flight crew and Chinese officials in China after the 18 April 1942 attack on Japan. (Image is in the public domain)

Among the civilians who helped Doolittle and his crew avoid capture by the Japanese was a
young American missionary named John Birch. Birch was killed by Chinese Communists 10 days after the end of the war. The John Birch Society, an anti-Communist organization, was named in his honor.

After the Raid
The Japanese were infuriated by the raid and that Chinese civilians aided and protected the American airmen. In an act of revenge “A quarter million Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed in the three-month campaign” after the raid, as noted by General Claire Chennault, commander of the famous Flying Tigers.

On April 30 Doolittle and his crew were invited to the palace of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of Nationalist China, where Madam Chiang presented them with decorations from the Chinese government.

About that time Doolittle got word that General Arnold had promoted him to brigadier general, skipping the rank of full colonel, and that he had orders to immediately return to Washington “by any means possible.” After an arduous trip that took him to India, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Senegal, Brazil and Puerto Rico, Doolittle arrived in Washington D.C. on May 14, 1942. He was directly taken by staff car to General Arnold’s office where Arnold congratulated him, told him to go to the uniform store to get a proper general’s uniform, and to go to his apartment and stay there out of sight and incommunicado until called. Doolittle, unaware of what plans were in the works, did exactly as he was told.

Brigadier General Doolittle receiving the Medal
of Honor from President Roosevelt , left to right: General Hap Arnold, President Roosevelt, Mrs. Doolittle, Jimmy Doolittle, General George
Marshall. (Image is in the public domain)

A couple of days later General Arnold called Doolittle and said he would drop by in a few minutes to pick him up. When the staff car arrived he saw that General Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, was seated next to Arnold. After he sat down in the front seat next to the driver he asked where they are going. The reply was: “we’re going to the White House. The President is going to give you the Medal of Honor.”

Unknown to Doolittle, Hap Arnold had arranged for Jimmy’s wife to fly from the West coast to attend the ceremony. Doolittle’s surprise was complete when he saw his wife for the first time since before he sailed out of Alameda on
the Hornet, Doolittle’s impact on WWII was not over. In the final chapter, Doolittle is given command of the 8th Air Force and helps bring the war in Europe to an end.