Doolittle Raiders forever revered in U.S. history

Freedom New Mexico

Sunday marked the 68th anniversary of Doolittle’s Raid. It was the darkest period for American forces in World War II. Four months earlier, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s sneak attack on Dec. 7, 1941, had sunk most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

On April 9, 1942, Bataan in the Philippines fell to the Japanese Army. Of 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war forced on the infamous Bataan Death March to POW camps, 25 percent died, a major war crime.

Navy Capt. Francis Low, assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare, had a plan for America to strike back using bombers launched from aircraft carriers. Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle volunteered to lead the mission.

It seemed impossible. It would be years before American troops would fight horribly bloody battles, as at Iwo Jima, to establish bases near enough to Japan for air strikes on the Japanese homeland. And planes based on aircraft carriers didn’t have enough range for such an attack.

Then, a brilliant idea: Strip B-25 Mitchell bombers of everything but the essentials, load them with the maximum amount of fuel, launch them from the carrier USS Hornet, carry out the attack, then land them in China, a U.S. ally.

On April 18, 1942, 16 B-25s, with 80 crewmen, took off from the Hornet and struck military and industrial targets in Tokyo, Nagoya, Yokohama and Kobe. The raid took the Japanese by surprise as their homeland was attacked for the first time.

After the raid, all the planes but one crashed on land or in the sea. Three crewmen were killed in crashes, eight were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Three POWs were executed, one died of disease. But 69 crew members, including Col. Doolittle, made it back to the United States.

The raid sometimes is called a “suicide mission,” but that’s inaccurate, according to Doolittle’s granddaughter, Jonna Doolittle Hoppes.

She said Col. Doolittle had a doctorate in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and precisely planned the mission. The problem was that, on the day of the mission, the Hornet and its B-25s were spotted by a Japanese patrol boat, which warned Tokyo of the attack. So, Col. Doolittle decided to launch the raid early, which added 170 miles to the length of the mission — shortening the time the planes would have to find decent landing sites in China.

After the raid, Col. Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor. She said he insisted the medal really had been won by all of the Raiders.

Although only minor damage was done to the Japanese targets, Hoppes said, “The real strength of the raid itself was psychological. The Japanese had been told that their home islands were invincible. The raid made the emperor lose face. After that day, they shifted strategy, from offensive to defensive. And they acted prematurely at Midway, which turned the tide in the Pacific.”

At the Battle of Midway, June 4-7, 1942, the Japanese navy lost four aircraft carriers and never really recovered; the U.S. Navy lost one of its three carriers.

Like others of the “Greatest Generation,” most of the Raiders now are gone. Hoppes said the eight surviving Raiders held their reunion last weekend in Dayton, Ohio. They, and those of their band of brothers who have departed, forever shall receive the thanks of a grateful nation.