Doolittle’s Raiders

Posted on December 1, 2013


 On April 18, 1942 a group of sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, piloting the lead bomber, struck Tokyo and several other Japanese cities with 500 lb. bombs.

While the surprise Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor five and a half months earlier December 7, 1941 was not entirely unexpected, the Doolittle Raid marked the true beginning of America’s response to the Japanese attack which brought the United States fully into the Second World War.

A new article by the distinguished historian William L. O’Neill on the Battle of Britain reminded me of how important the Doolittle Raid was in lifting American morale in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.

O’Neill reexamined the Battle of Britain, usually portrayed as a heroic defense of the home island by the Royal Air Force, especially its Spitfire fighters and brave pilots who rose up to challenge and ultimately defeat the swarms of Nazi German bombers flung at  Britain in the summer and fall of 1940 to bring the English to their knees.

“Never has so much been owed by so many to so few,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in recognition of the RAF’s heroism and effectiveness in the Battle of Britain.

The RAF pilots have been depicted ever since as the final line of defense between the last bastion of democracy and civilization–the English–and the perverted, barbaric tyranny of Nazi Germany.

Not so fast O’Neill contends. England was actually “armed to the teeth,” the English Navy was the most powerful in the world and the RAF was every bit a match, and then some, for the Luftwaffe carrying the war to England.

In somewhat the same fashion, while the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor did shock the United States, we were not as astonished and unprepared for war as popular history has described that first year of war for the United States.

Jimmy Doolittle’s raiders struck the first positive blow for the Americans in the Pacific, then reeling from a series of stinging loses to Japanese advances, but Doolittle’s pilots and crews were the tip of a mighty effort then working its way through American life, from the expanding military establishment to an astonishing transformation of American industry.

Instead of cars and trucks rolling off the assembly lines, factories were ramping up the production of tanks and airplanes by the time the Raider’s took off from the deck of the carrier Hornet on April 18, 1942.

By December 7, 1941, for example, the draft, introduced in 1940 to prepare America for war, already had 2.2 million men in uniform. President Franklin Roosevelt, elected for a record third term in November, 1940, was determined to bring America into the war on the side of England, but he had to buck the powerful tide of isolationism and neutrality in the country.  He could not move any faster than public opinion, or what Congress was willing to give him by way of help for England, even when most Americans understood, like him, that it was a struggle of liberty, freedom, and civilization against a brutal Nazi tyranny.

Roosevelt devised the “Lend Lease” program which satisfied most parties. One, we did not join England in a war which many Americans still felt was between Europeans, but we “loaned and leased” to the British the arms, planes, ships, foods, and other absolutely necessary support to stay in the war against the Nazi juggernaut. They could pay us back later.

By 1941, the National Guards of the states had been federalized, President Roosevelt had called up the Army Reserves, and war preparations were increasing across scores of areas. The Navy, for example, had been given the green light to expand in the 1930s and the first new battleship in years, the USS North Carolina, came into service in 1937.

Jimmy Doolittle himself was called back into the service in early June, 1940, by his old friend and mentor, General Hap Arnold, precisely to scale up production of aircraft, power plants, and the tools of war. President Roosevelt the month before had called for increasing the production of war planes to 50,000 a year. This was a country moving to war footing.

Ever the technician on the leading edge, Doolittle promoted the new 100 octane aviation gasoline he had been helping develop at Shell Oil, to go with the newest and most powerful engines for war planes then being designed.

As General Arnold’s personal emissary, Doolittle, mustered back into the service as a Lieutenant Colonel, demanded the G.M-owned Allison engine manufacturer in Indianapolis meet the high specifications of aviation. After Indianapolis Doolittle was assigned in September, 1940 to Detroit to work even more directly with automobile makers as they switched rapidly to aviation.

The Doolittle whose fame as a warrior and aviator would be guaranteed by leading his B-25 raiders in April, 1942 over Tokyo had been hard at work the previous two years in getting American aviation ready for war.

In September-October, 1941 he traveled to England to report on how that country was making airplanes and making war. Typically, Doolittle produced an immensely detailed report on war making across the board in England, not just planes and armaments, and how the U. S. could benefit from knowing what Doolittle was learning.

Doolittle was, like all major military players, getting the country ready for war. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, was indeed a surprise.

But, while not entirely ready, the Arnolds, Doolittles, Eisenhowers, Halseys, Pattons and others who emerged as America’s war leaders, were ready. If there was unsteadiness and fear in America at what Japan’s mighty war machine might do to us, it was not a fear shared by America’s professional warriors. They just wanted a chance to strike at the new enemy. That came that April day in 1942.

Later made into a movie, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, the Raid lifted the spirits of Americans reeling from Japanese attacks across the immense Pacific world, and before the end of the year, the momentum was swinging back to the United States.

Published Sunday Dec. 8, 2013 in my column The Port Rail as Leaders Were Prepping Before Pearl Harbor in The Tuscaloosa News.


Posted in: History