The desire for a raid was first mentioned by President Roosevelt at a Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 21, 1941. President Roosevelt wanted to see Japan bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale after the disastrous bombing of Pearl Harbor just two weeks prior. The actual concept for the attack cam from Navy Captain Francis Low, who reported to Admiral Earnest King that believed twin-engine Army bombers could be launched from aircraft carriers . The attack was planned and led by James Doolittle.
The requirements for the aircraft were a 2400 nautical mile range with a 2,000 pound bomb load. After considering the B-26 Marauder, the B-23 Dragon and the B-18 Bolo, the B-25B Mitchell was chosen. Doolittle suggested landing the bombers in Vladivostok on the basis of turning them over under the Lend-Lease act, but negotiations with the Soviet Union, who had signed a neutrality pact with Japan in 1941, were fruitless.
After two B-25’s were successfully launched from the USS Hornet at Norfolk, Virginia, the raid was approved volunteers from the 17th Bomb Group recruited. A total of 52 officers and 28 enlisted men were chosen and heavy modifications were performed on the 16 B-25 that would carry out the raid. These modifications included removal of the lower gun turret, removal of the liaison radio set, installation of a 160 gallon collapsible fuel tank and mock gun barrels being installed in the tail cone.
After the Hornet was sighted by the Japanese picket boat Nitto Maru. The Nitto Maru was sunk by the USS Nashville, but not before it was able to radio an air raid warning to Japan. Because of this, Doolittle and the Hornet’s CO (Captain Marc Mitscher) decided to launch the raid 10 hours early and 170 nautical miles further than planned. All 16 aircraft successfully launched between 0820 and 0919, each taking off in 467 feet.
The B-25’s approached Japan single-file at wavetop level to avoid detection, arriving at Japan around noon Tokyo timed (six hours after launch). They proceeded to bomb 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo,two in Yokohama and one each at Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. The bombers encountered light anti-aircraft fire but none were shot down and only one received any damage at all, with that damage being very minor.
The bombers then proceeded towards mainland China, where several airfields were prepared to recover them but the the signal to alert the bases was never sent, apparently because of a possible threat to the strike force.
Fifteen of the bombers crash-landed after reaching the Chinese coast, with another flying to the Soviet Union and landing 40 miles past Vladivostok. The B-25 was confiscated and the crew interned, and although they were well-treated diplomatic efforts to return them to the US and they were eventually held at Ashgabast, 20 miles from Iran. The crew eventually bribed a smuggler who helped them cross the border into Iran where they reached the British Consulate on May 11, 1943.
The raid suffered a total of eight casualties. Two members of the raid died (Staff Sgt. William J. Dieter and Sgt. Donald E. Fitzmaurice) when their B-25 went down off of the cost of Japan and eight were captured by the Japanese and held as POW’s. Three of them (Lieutenants Dean E. Hallmark, William G. Farrow and Corporal Harold A. Spatz) were tried and convicted in a Japanese war crimes court of strafing civilians and, on October 15, 1942, were executed by firing squad. Lieutenant Robert J. Meder died due to conditions of the internment on December 1, 1943 and the remaining men (Lieutenants Chase Nielsen, Robert Hite, George Barr and Corporal Jacob DeShazer were freed by American troops in August, 1945.
The damage of the raid was very light but the boost to American morale and the damage to Japanese morale was much greater. Without the sacrifices of every member of the raid it’s possible the war in the Pacific would have followed a much different course.