Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Jimmy Doolittle - A True American Hero


It's hard for me to believe that it's the 80th Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Japan. I remember being a boy in grade school and hearing my teachers talk about it taking place "just a few years ago." Of course, World War II had only ended about 15 or so years before that. So yes, I can see why some folks at the time might have felt that only a few years had passed. 

Imagine hearing such an exciting story as a kid?

"It was April 18th, 'just a few years ago,' when Col. Doolittle and his sixteen B-25 crews took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. They had just been spotted by a Japanese picket boat and Col. Doolittle had to make the decision to start their mission earlier than they wanted to. That, by itself, meant that the crews would have farther to go and less fuel to escape after they hit their targets in Japan. And remember, of those brave men, all volunteered for the mission.  

It was nighttime, dark, the weather was stormy, and the planes started to run out of fuel. All in all, they had been flying for about 12 hours. Fifteen of the planes headed for safety in China. One chose to land in Russia. 

Col. Doolittle and his crew bailed out safely over China when their B-25 ran out of fuel, and so did most of the other crews who took part in that one-way mission. Col. Doolittle landed in a rice paddy near Chuchow, China. He and his crew were finally able to link up after they bailed out. They were helped through Japanese lines by Chinese guerrillas and an American missionary by the name of John Birch. Although most eventually did reach safety, other aircrews were not so fortunate. 

One crewman was killed while bailing out after the mission. He was buried by Rev. Birch. Two men from Crew #6 had actually drowned because they crash-landed in the ocean off the China coast. Eight men were captured by the Japanese. Of them, three were executed by firing squad and one died of beriberi and starvation while in prison. Four of the men survived 40 months in solitary confinement in a Japanese prison."

That is a thrilling story of American courage. And while it is said that Col. Doolittle thought he would be court-martialed for launching the raid ahead of schedule after being spotted by a Japanese patrol boat, as well as the loss of all 16 B-25 bombers, in reality, he was instantly seen as an American hero. His service to our country was rightfully praised. He received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for planning and leading his historic raid on Japan.

His Medal of Honor citation reads: "For conspicuous leadership above and beyond the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life. With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland."

Jimmy Doolittle was only a Major in the U.S. Army Air Corps when the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. He was promoted to Lt. Col when we entered World War II. In fact, James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle was promoted to Lt Colonel on January 2nd, 1942, and assigned to Army Air Forces Headquarters. It was there that he took part in the planning for what was considered a retaliatory air raid on the Japanese homeland following the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

He volunteered for and received General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold's personal approval to lead the top-secret attack on targets in Tokyo, Kobe, Yokohama, Osaka, and Nagoya, Japan. The idea of having land-based planes take off from an aircraft carrier was first thought of by General Arnold. The idea of a raid on Tokyo using land-based bombers belongs to Admiral Francis S. Low. It's said that Doolittle started working on his concept of what was needed in the way of a raid on Tokyo right after the Japanese attack on our fleet on December 7th, 1941. The Doolittle Raid on April 18th, 1942, took place just a little over 4 months after Pearl Harbor was hit.

As for the Doolittle Raid, also known as the Tokyo Raid, of April 18th, 1942? The story that I relate above told to me in grade school was fairly accurate as to what took place. We know that planning "The Doolittle Raid" involved total secrecy. We know that sixteen B-25 Mitchell medium bombers were transported aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet which took them as close to Japan as possible. We know that those Mitchell Bombers had to take off on a short runway. Something that was never been done before. We know that the planes were stripped-down of non-essentials and filled with bombs. All of the planes involved in the Doolittle Raid were lost.

A foreign power was to attack the Japanese homeland. That was new in itself. Launching U.S. Army Air Corps bombers from an aircraft carrier was also something that was also never done -- other than attempting it twice before the actual raid. Many called the raid unprecedented, audacious, and purely American. Its success was called a "miracle" by many.

As for the idea of undertaking a bombing mission and knowingly doing it while fully understanding that you might never get back? Plan the mission to run out of fuel and crash land in Japanese-held China, while praying that they avoid Japanese patrols? Can you imagine pitching that idea to your superiors?

While some can argue its tactical importance, there is no arguing that it was a great victory and morale boost for Americans. And yes, it scared the Hell out of the Japanese military that ruled the Japanese government at the time. In fact, it is believed that the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo was what prompted the Japanese to attack Midway Island on Jun 4, 1942. It was a decision on their part that was disastrous for the Japanese Navy.

What some folks might not know is that Jimmy Doolittle flew in the lead plane on that historic raid. And yes, believe it or not, it was his very first combat mission. He survived and received the Medal of Honor for his daring raid on Japan. In July 1942, he was promoted to Brigadier General. Yes, he went from Lt-Col. to Brigadier General which means he had bypassed the rank of full Colonel and had been promoted by two grades on the day after the raid on Tokyo.

Doolittle became Commanding General of the Twelfth Air Force which was operating in North Africa. He was promoted to Major General in November 1942, and in March 1943 became Commanding General of the Northwest African Strategic Air Force. It was there that he garnered a reputation for his use of airpower to annihilate an enemy position

One example of his use of airpower against an enemy position is his use of airpower against the Italian town of Battipaglia which was held by Mussolini's elite forces. It is said that the town had been razed to the ground. In fact, it was said to have had so much destruction that Lt. General Carl Andrew Spaatz sent him a joking message: "You're slipping Jimmy. There's one crabapple tree and one stable still standing."

Maj. Gen. Doolittle took command of the Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations in November of 1943. On June 10th, 1943, believe it or not, as a Major General and commanding officer of the Fifteenth Air Force, he actually flew as a co-pilot on a mission. He and Jack Sims, who was also one of his men during the raid on Tokyo, flew a B-26 Marauder of the 320th Bombardment Group, 442nd Bombardment Squadron, on a mission to attack gun emplacements on the Italian island of Pantelleria off of Sicily. 

Pantelleria was regarded as crucial to Operation Husky which was the name for the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. The reason for its importance had to do with how planes based on Pantelleria could readily reach Sicily. In Operation Corkscrew, Allies bombed Pantelleria heavily from the air and the sea for days before the Sicily invasion. After the Italian garrison surrendered, the island of Pantelleria became what could only be considered a vital base for Allied airpower during the assault on Sicily. And yes, it is said that Maj. Gen. Doolittle continued to fly missions despite the risk of him being shot down and captured.


Though his promotion date to Lt General was March 13th, 1944, in January of 1944, he was put in command of the Eighth Air Force in England. So yes, in just a mere two years, he was promoted from Lt. Col. to Lt. General. His command of the Eighth Air Force would change the war in Europe.

As the commander for the entire Eighth Air Force in Europe, among other things, he would be responsible for securing the air during the preparations for D-Day. In fact, he was credited with reducing the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe and giving the Allies complete air superiority over Europe. He was the planner behind Operation Argument which was better known as “Big Week.” That was the Allied six-day air offensive that changed who had air superiority over Europe.

Doolittle forced Germany to respond with fighter interceptions so that he could either destroy the Luftwaffe in the air or destroy the production of replacement aircraft. While the Germans thought they had an advantage with their heavy fighter tactics, which made them very confident to take on the Eighth Air Force bombers, Doolittle surprised them by using our new longer-range P-51 Mustang fighters to leave our bombers as escorts -- and instead go hunting for German fighters. Doolittle had them do that by sweeping the skies looking for Luftwaffe well ahead of our bombers. That was new and effective.

In Operation Argument, Lt.Gen. Doolittle targeted factories in more than 11 German cities. And in what became known as the largest aerial formation ever assembled, on the first day, 3,894 heavy bombers and 800 fighters took off from England. Doolittle's new long-range fighter tactics were devastating to the Germans. In all, our pilots hunted down and picked off the Luftwaffe fighters before they could even get close to our bomber formations. Over the next six days, Doolittle's plan resulted in our damaging or destroying 75 percent of the factories that produced 90 percent of Germany’s aircraft. This gave the Allies total air superiority over Europe in time for the D-Day invasion of France.

A result of Doolittle's audacious plan and his tactic of allowing American fighters to sweep the skies, doing that instead of being in their formations with the bombers as escorts, that Operation took the German Luftwaffe from offense to defense for the rest of the war. And frankly, because of Operation Argument, the German Luftwaffe would never again be considered a threat to the Allies in the air.

It is said that the German High Command actually feared Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle more than other Generals in our command structure because they knew that he would target and destroy Germany's oil industry, its supply chain, and its transportation infrastructure, as well as its communication capabilities. All from the air. And yes, their fears were well-founded since that was something that Doolittle had the Eighth Air Force do for the rest of the war.

So, while Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo was impressive, so was what he did in Europe. And fortunate for us, Jimmy Doolittle was more than just one of the Raiders who flew a remarkable mission to bomb Tokyo. He is a true American hero who has a special place among America's great Generals. No doubt about it.

Tom Correa

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