Monday, April 18, 2005

A Raid to Remember

63 years ago, the US was in it's darkest hour of World War II. The US Navy Paific Fleet was little more then a bunch of battered hulks at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese jugganaut was cruising acress the western Pacific. Bataan had fallen. Things looked very bleak. A few months before, a Naval staff officer, had a wild idea. There were no US bases close enough to Japan to initiate air raids, so this officer, after seeing the outline of a carrier deck at Norfolk, thought that B-25s could be launched from a carrier deck. Thus was the beginings of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. Read all of Stroube Smith's fine article here.

There was no Allied base close enough to Japan, however, for the launch of such a retaliatory mission. Months passed with no answer. Then a Navy staff officer on a visit to Norfolk saw painted on the ground at a nearby airfield the outline of a carrier deck, inspiring the idea of flying land-based bombers -- with their greater range -- off a carrier.

Under a heavy cloak of secrecy, Capt. Marc Mitscher, Hornet's commander, found B-25s could be airborne from as little as 500 feet of deck. The raid was no longer only a hope but became a plan for action.
With that, came the rigorous training for the mission. This would be a one way mission, with the the B-25s to land on airfields held by the Chinese.
The eventual operation was more daring than most of the 16,000 men in the task force could imagine. After refueling on April 17, Hornet, Enterprise and four cruisers left the destroyers and support ships behind and dashed westward as fast as possible toward the Japanese home islands.
Things were going according to plan until 3 a.m. April 18, when radar picked up surface contacts. Halsey maneuvered his force around the contacts and continued west. But at 6 o'clock a patrolling plane 42 miles ahead spotted a Japanese picket ship.

Amid stormy seas, Adm. Halsey pushed on. Ninety minutes later, the Hornet's lookouts spotted the masts of more Japanese picket ships. About 200 miles short of the planned launching line, Adm. Halsey decided he could gamble no more, and ordered the B-25s into the air.

And so Col. James Doolittle led his flight of bombers off the carrier. Many of the planes nearly stalled after leaving the flight deck, a much shorter run-out than on land, but the high winds helped them lift up and fly away.
And so one of the most daring raids in the annals of military history was off to a shakey start. The B25s would not have enough fuel to reach those airfields in China. So they were basically on their own.
One plane turned north and surprised the Soviets by landing near Vladivostok. The other 15 crashed or ditched in China. Remarkably, most of the 80 fliers survived the raid. Of the eight captured, three were executed by the Japanese and one died in captivity. Four others were killed during the mission.

Both Col. Doolittle and Adm. Halsey went on to higher rank and more military glory and honors. But nothing surpassed this mission as a feat of daring.

Breaking the steady drumbeat of months of defeat, Americans finally had a victory to celebrate. It gave a salutary and necessary boost to morale.

On the other hand, the boasts by the Japanese leadership of an invulnerable Tokyo were rendered obsolete and the empire's claim of invincibility was made a mockery.

Rarely have so few achieved so much.
While the raid did little damage to the Japanese war making infrastruture, it was an enormous morale boost for the Allies and especially the American people. With all the bad news that was being received, this was the shot in the arm that was needed. At the same time, the Japanese High Command was in disarray, the army and the navy pointing fingers of blame at one another. The myth of Japanese invincibility had been smashed. - Sailor

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