The Doolittle Tokyo raid was perhaps the most famous exploit of the B-25 Mitchell. It was carried out in an attempt to shore up morale on the home front during the early months of 1942, which was sagging as a result of defeat after defeat having been suffered in the Pacific.
Planning for a retaliatory raid on the Japanese home islands seems to have begun very soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Contrary to what is generally believed, Lt.Col. James Doolittle was not the originator of the Tokyo raid concept. The basic idea of launching medium bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier seems to have come from Navy Captain Francis Low, who was on Admiral King's staff. Low took the idea to Captain Duncan, Admiral King's air officer. Duncan concluded that the idea was technically feasible and passed it along to his boss. The Admiral was enthusiastic about it, and on his orders, Capt Duncan passed the idea along to General Arnold. General Arnold then sent for his new special projects officer, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, who was already a famous aviator as a result of his exploits with racing aircraft. Doolittle was enthusiastic about the idea and immediately signed on.
A "Tokyo project" was quickly and secretly formed. Lt. Col. Doolittle and Captain Duncan were assigned project responsibilities for their respective services. Lt. Col. Doolittle would lead a picked crew of aviators who would launch an attack against the Japanese home islands from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Although it was believed that it was indeed feasible to launch medium bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier, it was impossible for these types of planes to land on the deck of the carrier once the raid was over. Consequently, plans were made for the planes to be recovered at prearranged airfields in eastern China at the end of the raid. From there, the bombers would continue on to Burma and enter service in General Stilwell's command.
The plan required an aircraft with an overall range of 2400 miles carrying a 2000-pound bombload and capable of taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The only two possible candidates at the time were the Martin B-26 Marauder and the North American B-25 Mitchell. The B-25 was selected on the basis of its superior takeoff performance.
At that time, the only B-25s in service were with the 17th Bombardment Group. The 17th Bombardment Group comprised the 34th, 37th and 95th Squadrons, plus the attached 89th Reconnaissance Squadron. This group had been transferred from Oregon to South Carolina in order to meet the greater threat from German submarines operating off the East Coast. 24 B-25Bs were diverted from the 17th Bombardment Group, and volunteers were recruited, the crews being told only that this was going to be a secret and very dangerous mission against heavy odds.
Two Mitchells had been flown off the deck of the carrier USS Hornet on February 3, 1942, confirming that the basic concept was feasible. The volunteers moved to Elgin Field in Florida for training. Still not knowing what kind of mission they were training for, the crews practiced making takeoffs in as short a distance as possible. It was found that with a reasonable headwind, a B-25 could get airborne with a 450-foot run.
Certain modifications had to be made to the B-25Bs to make them suitable for the mission. Since the raid was going to be made at low level, the retractable ventral turret was removed, saving about 600 pounds of weight. More fuel was added to the plane, bringing the total fuel load to 1141 gallons--646 gallons in the wing tanks, 225 gallons in the bomb bay tank, 160 gallons in a collapsable tank carried in the crawlspace above the bomb bay, 160 gallons in the ventral turret space, and ten 5-gallon cans for refills. The still-secret Norden bombsight was removed, lest it fall into Japanese hands. It was replaced by a makeshift bombsight that proved more satisfactory for low level operations. The bomb load consisted of four 500-pound bombs. As a deterrent against Japanese fighters making stern attacks, a pair of dummy guns in the form of wooden sticks painted black were attached to the extreme rear fuselage, protruding out the back of the transparent tail cap. Takeoff weight was about 31,000 pounds.
Upon completion of training, the crews left Elgin Field for McClellan Field in California. On April 1, the crews departed McClellan for Alameda Naval Base near San Francisco. 16 B-25Bs were all that could be loaded onto the Hornet, although all of the crew members who trained for the mission were embarked aboard the carrier in case backups were needed. The task force steamed off toward Japan on April 2.
A chance encounter with Japanese picket boats forced the raid to be launched at a distance greater than the 400 miles offshore that had originally been planned. On April 18, 1942, Lt. Col. Doolittle's plane took off from the Hornet, followed by the 15 others. They headed for Japan, which was over 700 miles away.
The Mitchells successfully bombed targets in Kobe, Yokohama and Nagoya, as well as Tokyo. The altitude was about 1500 feet. No aircraft were lost over the target. However, bad weather prevented the flyers from finding their prearranged landing fields in China, and eleven of the crews had to bail out while four others crash-landed. One B-25B (40-2242) was flown to Vladivostock where both the aircraft and crew were interned.
All sixteen B-25s that took part in the mission were lost, seven men were injured and three were killed. Eight crew members were taken prisoner by the Japanese, of which only four survived the war. The survivors who had landed in Japanese-controlled territory were sheltered and attended by courageous Chinese, and for this the Japanese occupying force in China wrought full vengeance on the local population.
Doolittle at first told his crews that he thought that the mission had been a total failure and that he expected to be court-martialed upon his return to the USA. Although all the aircraft were lost and the damage inflicted during the raid was minimal, the operation provided an incalculable boost to American morale when just about everything else in the Pacific was going badly. It also pointed out the vulnerability of the Japanese homeland to bomber attack, and four first-line fighter groups were retained in Japan rather than being sent to the Solomons where they were urgently needed. Instead of being court-martialed, Doolittle was promoted to Brigadier General, awarded the Medal of Honor, and assigned a new command with greater responsibility.
For the 25th anniversary of the Doolittle raid, B-25D-30 43-3374 (a former F-10 reconnaissance ship) was converted into a replica of Lt. Col. Doolittle's B-25B 40-2344. This airplane is now on display at the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.
40-2229/2348 North American B-25B Mitchell 2242,2247,2249,2250,2261,2267,2268,2270,2278, 2282,2283,2292,2297,2298,2303,2344 were Doolittle Tokyo raiders. 2344 was Doolittle's plane.