Apr 18

71st Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid

Thursday, April 18, 2013 10:00 AM


April 18th, 1942

Launching of the Doolittle Raid

Seventy one years ago, the first American air raid on Japan was made, a little more than four months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The raid, for which Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle earned the Medal of Honor, was instrumental in lifting American morale at the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II. In acknowledgement of the 65th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, the April 2007 issue of Proceedings included an article by Barrett Tillman, which documented the origins of the raid and its influence on American performance in the war. As Tillman emphasized in his article, the Doolittle Raid was not simply valuable for increasing American morale, but for uniting the various service branches in joint efforts to make the best possible use of limited resources in a large-scale war. According to Tillman’s article, the Doolittle Raid was the first of many successful joint efforts, and began a tradition of interservice alliances which continues today.

Officially it was the First Special Aviation Project, a bold concept devised by a naval officer—a submariner, no less—and executed by Sailors and Airmen. The timing could not have been better, as it occurred only four-and-a-half months after the debacle at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

Only two weeks later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a study to find means of retaliating against Japan, presumably by air. Since no land-based aircraft were capable of reaching the Home Islands from American bases, the focus quickly narrowed to a naval option. (Planning had already addressed an Army Air Forces operation in China, but logistics and mission radius posed huge problems.)

The problem was further complicated by the relatively short range of carrier aircraft. A strike distance of 200 nautical miles was the rule of thumb for tailhook airplanes, but that was perilously close to enemy shores. Furthermore, the United States had no carriers to spare.

Enter Captain Francis S. Low. Hailing from the U.S. Naval Academy class of 1915, Low had been a submariner since World War 1. But he had served on the staff of Admiral Ernest J. King for more than a year and was able to think out of the box.  During a trip to Norfolk, Virginia, he saw Army bombers practicing attacks on the chalked outline of a carrier deck. It proved an inspiration.

The joint bug bit hard: here was a submariner conceiving the idea of launching Army bombers from a Navy ship to strike the heart of the Japanese Empire. Low hustled back to Washington, D.C., determined to sell the idea to Admiral King, then-commander-in-chief, U.S. Fleet.

King was a rarity, qualified in both aviation and submarines. He respected Low’s opinion and said, “You may have something there.” He instructed the operations officer to discuss the prospect with Captain Donald B. “Wu” Duncan, King’s aviation authority. Duncan saw prospects as well as problems. If twin-engine bombers were to launch from a carrier, obviously they could not return to land aboard ship, so the mission would be a one-way trip. The bombers—Army aircraft—would have to land in friendly or neutral territory or be sacrificed, presumably with the crews rescued.

Still, the prospects of attacking Japan were exciting. A successful mission, perhaps against Tokyo itself, would accomplish at least two goals. It would force Japan to pull back forces from combat zones to defend the homeland, and more important, it would spike American morale at a time when good news was damnably scarce. Duncan investigated and wrote an analysis, concluding that the job could be done.

Informed of the emerging plan, Admiral King was supportive. He ordered his staffers to approach General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, inviting the chief of the Army Air Forces to contact King if he wished to pursue the matter.  Amid continuing secrecy, the Navy men briefed General Arnold in mid January, and the Army officer immediately consented.

At that point the First Special Aviation Project officially became a joint operation, equally dependent on the Army and the Navy.

From Plan to Reality

Events accelerated. By month’s end General Arnold had detailed three North American B-25 crews to conduct practical experiments, taking off from the USS Hornet (CV-8) based at Norfolk, Virginia. Her paint was hardly dry: she had only been commissioned in October 1941, and was still working up prior to joining the Atlantic Fleet.

On 2 February, First Lieutenants John Fitzgerald’s and James McCarthy’s bombers were spotted on the Hornet’s deck off the Virginia coast. They had satisfied themselves in tests ashore that they could get their lightly loaded Mitchells off the ship in the available space. Needing 70-mile-per-hour airspeed to lift off, the B-25s enjoyed a relative wind equal to 45 mph, and both Mitchells got airborne after short deck runs. Duncan, who had observed the process, immediately returned to Washington with the good news. Army bombers could take off from a carrier.

A few days previously, General Arnold had tossed the Army football to Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, a longtime colleague and the general’s chief troubleshooter. Jimmy Doolittle was arguably the greatest pilot of his generation. He had done nearly everything possible in aviation, from earning an aeronautics Ph.D. to performing the first outside loop and making the first instrument landing. Arnold informed Doolittle of the plan, saying that the lieutenant colonel, a champion racer, would coordinate with Captain Duncan as his naval’ counterpart.

Bring on the B-25s

Independently, Doolittle and Duncan had determined that the B-25 was the best airplane for the mission. In fact, it was the only airplane. The Army’s other medium bombers were incapable of getting off the deck in 500 feet or lacked the required 2,000-mile range.

Doolittle, well known as a master of the calculated risk, applied equal parts of his scientific brain and aviator’s instincts. After consulting with Air Corps engineers, he provided for 24 B-25Bs to be modified to mission standards—mainly additional fuel tanks. Meanwhile, Duncan proceeded with coordination of the naval aspects.

Security was tight from the start and remained so. Within a few days of departure, only six officers knew the full plan. Not even the Hornet‘s skipper, Captain Marc Mitscher, was fully briefed until shortly before deploying.

The Army crews came from the 17th Bomb Group, previously flying out of Pendleton Army Air Field in northeastern Oregon. Most of the pilots were “junior birdmen.” Of the 16 bombers deployed, 12 were flown by first or second lieutenants. Doolittle and Major John Hilger were the only fliers with ranks above captain.

Navy Lieutenant Henry Miller instructed the Army fliers in carrier procedures during essential interservice training at Eglin Field, Florida. On a remote outlying airstrip, the Mitchell crews learned how to coax a B-25 into the air at minimum airspeed, laden with four tons of fuel and ordnance. After enough crews had performed to Miller’s standards to provide some spares, the entire organization flew cross-country to San Francisco.

The Doolittle Raiders

Meanwhile, on 4 March the Hornet proceeded to the West Coast to rendezvous with the Army men—the 80 fliers who would forever be known as the Doolittle Raiders. The carrier arrived at San Francisco on the 20th, with a semi-final briefing held on the 30th. In the bar of the Fairmont Hotel, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey met with Duncan, Doolittle, and Halsey’s chief of staff, Captain Miles Browning. As task force commander riding the USS Enterprise (CY-6), Halsey had overall responsibility for the mission.

The 16 B-25s were craned aboard at Alameda, and the ship headed west two days later.  Well into the Pacific on 12 April, the Hornet task group rendezvoused with Halsey’s Enterprise and her screen several hundred miles north of Midway. “The Big E’s” aircraft would conduct most of the scouting and combat air patrol until the Army bombers were launched, as the Hornet‘s deck was necessarily locked.

Approaching Japan on 18 April, Japanese picket boats sighted the American ships, prompting the B-25s to launch 200 miles farther from their targets than planned.  But when Doolittle gunned his Mitchell down the Hornet‘s rain-swept deck, he cleared the bow with room to spare.

 The rest of the story is well known: How the bombers struck Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagoya, and Osaka and got away clean. How they ran out of fuel after 13 hours in the air, one diverting to Soviet territory and the others crashing along the China coast. How six Raiders perished, including four as prisoners of Japan. How Doolittle returned to wild acclaim, receiving the Medal of Honor—an award he accepted reluctantly and only then on behalf of his men.

 Though it inflicted minimal damage on Japan, the First Special Aviation Project proved a major success. It destroyed Tokyo’s aura of invincibility and boosted America’s morale as nothing else could. It also demonstrated that a healthy relationship was possible between the Army and Navy, despite the services’ often bitter rivalry.

However, the Doolittle raid was not the last such collaboration between the Navy and the Army Air Forces, with the Navy even later working with foreign air arms.

Jointness in the Med

An even more joint operation occurred in the Mediterranean immediately after the Tokyo raid.  On 20 April 1942, the USS Wasp (CV-7) ferried 47 Royal Air Force Spitfires to Malta, providing badly needed reinforcements for the beleaguered garrison there. All but one arrived at the island, which was subjected to almost daily attack by Axis bombers.

Among the RAF pilots on board the Wasp was Texan Reade Tilley, a big, strapping Eagle Squadron pilot who would achieve ace-dom on Malta. When Tilley expressed concern about taking off from a carrier without previous experience, his squadron leader replied, “Laddie, there’s no point practicing that which must be performed perfectly the first time.”

On 9 May, in company with HMS Eagle, the Wasp returned to Malta, embarking 64 Spitfires, 60 of which reached their destination. But not without some drama: a Canadian, Pilot Officer J. A. Smith, lost his drop tank after takeoff. Given the choice of bailing out or attempting a landing, he tried for the deck. The Wasp‘s landing signal officer was Lieutenant David McCampbell, who had briefed the British pilots on carrier procedures. The first pass looked good, but Smith was too fast and received a wave-off. He went around for another try.

Decades later, McCampbell said, “He was still a little fast on the second pass so I cut him long.” Giving the “chop” signal sooner than normal, McCampbell judged it nicely. Smith got his Spitfire on the deck and stood on the brakes. Incredibly, he lurched to a stop less than 15 feet from the forward deck edge. Having been carrier qualified, he received naval aviator’s wings that evening.

More inter-American work was conducted by the USS Ranger (CV-4), which delivered 68 Curtiss P-40s to the Gold Coast of Africa on 10 May. All the Warhawks got off the deck and set course for the China-Burma-India Theater. The Ranger continued delivering Army aircraft, with four more trips over the next eight months.

Meanwhile, another Army-Navy exercise attended Operation Torch, the invasion of French Morocco in November 1942. The ship was the USS Chenango (ACV-28) one of the early escort (then called “auxiliary”) carriers, commissioned only five months before. The converted oiler ferried the entire 33rd Fighter Group, as the ship’s crew shoehorned all three squadrons—72 P-40Fs—onto the flight and hangar decks.

One of the Army pilots spoke for most when he lauded the Sailors, describing Captain Ben H. Wyatt as “gracious and attentive to our needs.” Unfortunately, the group commander exhibited little interservice acumen, stating that he could not wait to get ashore “and show the Navy how to fight.” Colonel William W. Momyer later became a four­star general.

The first fighters were catapulted off the short deck the morning of the 10th, but damage to Port Lyautey’s airfield forced a delay, requiring the ship to keep the Warhawks on board for two days. Several fighters were damaged in landing amid the shell holes, and none was able to fly combat sorties before the Vichy surrender.

Pacific Reprise

More than two years after the Doolittle Raid, Army aircraft again launched from carrier decks into Pacific combat. Close on the heels of the Saipan landing in June 1944 was a joint operation featuring a new generation of flat­tops. On the 22nd, the escort carrier USS Natoma Bay (CVE-62) catapulted 24 P-47 Thunderbolts of the 19th Fighter Squadron off her 550-foot deck from 60 miles out. They landed ashore that morning, providing close air support from newly won Aslito airfield. Four hours after arrival, the squadron was firing rockets at Japanese positions on nearby Tinian.

The next day Japanese aircraft found the escort carrier group. Two Aichi dive bombers attacked the USS Manila Bay (CVE-61), dropping bombs wide to port. Lacking naval fighter protection, the Manila Bay launched four P-47s on combat air patrol while the Natoma Bay dispatched 12 more “Jugs” of the 73rd Squadron. The CAP flight orbited until the radar screens cleared, then followed the dozen other fighters to Saipan.

On the 24th, the Manila Bay sent off her remaining aircraft, shortly followed by the 333rd Squadron from the USS Sargent Bay (CVE-83). Thus, by month’s end three escort carriers had delivered the entire 318th Fighter Group directly into combat.

Carriers continued delivering Army aircraft to forward areas throughout the war, but seldom if ever again under fire. However, a unique evolution occurred stateside in November 1944, testing “navalized” Army aircraft. Ironically—or appropriately—it involved a B-25H (naval designation PBJ-IH) capable of landing on a carrier. A modified P-51D also was launched and recovered aboard the new Essex-class carrier, the USS Shangri-La (CV-38), determining the feasibility of operating Army fighters and bombers at sea. The “Seahorse” version of the Mustang was conceived as a long-range escort fighter, but the concept was overtaken by events as land bases were conquered.

The joint operations of World War II remain an example for current Navy and Air Force units, which are increasingly reliant on one another. After the premature demise of the A-6 Intruder, long-range carrier strikes now require Air Force tanker support, while SEALs and Marines direct Air Force fighter-bomber pilots.

Ernie King and Hap Arnold would approve.

  • john cocker

    thanks for letting me know about the doolittle raid

  • Phil Phucas

    Thanks. This was awesome. Thanks to those gallant men. Godspeed.

  • Robert Logsdon

    My father, Clarence M. “Bob” Logsdon was in charge of the signalmen on the Hornet, he is the shorter man in the foreground of the photo of the B25 leaving the deck. Dad identified the taller man behind him as Allen Q. Nations. Mr Nations perished at the Battle of Santa Cruz when the Val dive bomber hit the signal bridge showering them in AVGAS. Dad stated he had just checked on the men moments before and then walked around a bulkhead which protected him. Dad went to many Hornet and Hornet-Mustin reunions over the years. Dad lived a very adventurous life and was always proud of his service on the Hornet. Dad passed away in November of 2009 at age 90.

    I wrote the following after learning dad had just passed.

    By Robert “Bosco” Logsdon

    Clarence Moore “Bob” Logsdon US Navy 1939-1946, US Air Force 1948-1961
    February 3, 1919-November 16, 2009

    I lost my Dad today, you probably didn’t know him, but had you, I’m certain you would have liked and respected him. He was just one of those guys. He grew up in a large family that had to weather the Great Depression. They were poor, but didn’t know it.
    Dad was part of “The Greatest Generation” as news anchor Tom Brokaw so well put it, in his 1998 book of the same name. He was exactly like the men Brokaw wrote about, selfless, determined, hard working, god fearing, and endlessly patriotic, the kind of guy, “that just did the right thing.”

    Dad was born February 3, 1919 in Fairhope, Alabama, a beautiful, small town on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. He always said it was the greatest town that a kid could ever hope to grow up in. He was the youngest of nine siblings, one, a girl died at birth. The family had a home on Mobile Bay in Volanta, where Dad’s father also had a small store where he made his living selling fishing supplies, bait and the like. The old home site is now the location of the Fairhope Yacht Club.

    Dad was well known around town as he excelled at any sport. As a young man he boxed at the Fairhope Casino and later in Pensacola. He won 35 out of 36 fights, his lone loss was in Pensacola to a hometown favorite on a split decision. After the fight his foe came to him and said, “you really won, you beat the devil out of me.” He was a stellar athlete in school at the Organic High School in Fairhope. He played football, basketball, baseball, was a sprinter, pole vaulter and long jumper in track. In one track meet, his team won, and dad scored all but a few of the points of his teams total.

    After High School Dad went to a trade school to learn woodworking, while there he played basketball for the school. They played area military teams and small colleges. At just over five feet six inches, he wasn’t exactly the prototype basketball player. He was however super quick, a great ball handler, and had a deadly two handed set shot. Dad averaged about fifteen points per game in an age where most winning teams only scored about fifty points.

    Dad served for a year in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government agency that hired young men to work building dams, planting trees, fighting fires and the like. He served mostly in California and for a bit in the Florida Keys. The camps there had baseball, basketball and boxing programs which he played, excelled and enjoyed. A basketball scout from the University of Florida saw him play and soon after he was offered a scholarship to play for the Gators. Dad chose another path, opting to join the Navy, which he did in June of 1939. After training Dad was assigned to the light Cruiser, USS Omaha. He served on the Omaha in the Caribbean and later with a task force based in Portugal.

    In October of 1941 Dad reported to Norfolk, Virginia as he was selected for the crew of the brand new Aircraft carrier, USS Hornet (CV8). He was there the day she was commissioned. Within weeks the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Hornet was sent out on it’s shakedown cruise to get ready for deployment and combat. In March the Hornet sailed through the Panama Canal up to Alameda California Naval Air Station. There they picked up sixteen Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell bombers and headed off into the Pacific. The crew was soon told the Hornet would deliver the bombers to within a few hundred miles of Japan, where they would take off the deck of the carrier and bomb Tokyo and otherJapanese cities. This of course was the famous Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942.

    Dad was the chief of the lookout battalion on the Hornet signal bridge. He is depicted in one of World War II most famous photograph’s. This would be the photo of Doolittle’s plane leaving the flight deck as the two lookouts look on. Dad is the shorter man in the foreground. The photo is in most history books about the second world war.

    After the Doolittle Raid the Hornet was ordered to be part of the task force to stop the Japanese invasion of Midway Island. The Battle of Midway is considered the turning point in the war in the Pacific. Pilots from Hornet, Yorktown and Enterprise destroyed all four Japanese Aircraft Carriers, plus Heavy cruisers, destroyers and transports completely stopping the Jap invasion in its’ tracks.

    The Hornet with Dad aboard was sent to support the Marines at Guadacanal. While providing air cover for the Marines. Dad watched as the fleet was under attack and he witnessed the carrier USS Wasp get hit by Jap bombers, burn and sink. While running “the slot” off Guadacanal, A Jap sub fired torpedoes at Hornet, a couple missed, but one was running dead true and couldn’t miss. A quick thinking Hornet bomber pilot flying patrol overhead saw the torpedo heading for his ship and quickly put his plane into a dive and released a bomb that exploded in the water detonating the torpedo just in the nick of time.

    With the Wasp Sunk, and Enterprise and Saratoga in for damage repair, the Hornet was the only operational American
    aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Hornet and her crew bore the brunt of air cover in the Solomon Islands during that period.

    On October 24 1942, Hornet and the freshly repaired Enterprise teamed up to engage the Japanese fleet in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The battle took place on the 26th and while planes from Hornet and Enterprise were attacking and sinking a Jap light carrier and heavily damaging a heavy carrier, the Japs were dead set on getting Hornet. The Hornet had embarrassed them with the Doolittle Raid and at Midway, they wanted her bad. Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes attacked Hornet and three 500 lbs bombs penetrated her flight deck. Dad was at his post on the signal bridge, relaying info to
    the officers on the bridge about incoming attack planes. A Jap dive bomber pilot dove his plane into the signal bridge some 20 feet from dad, showering most all of the lookouts in burning AVGAS, killing them. Dad was saved by a metal bulkhead that prevented him in being covered by the burning fuel. The Japs returned again and again to attack Hornet, landing torpedo and bomb hits. Finally the Captain gave the order to abandon ship. Dad was one of the last men off the ship, climbing down a rope into the sea. He swam for nearly an hour before being picked up by the Destroyer Anderson.

    In 2001, Robert Ballard, the man that found the Titanic, interviewed dad for his book, “Graveyards of the Pacific.” Ballard devoted two pages in the book, with dad relating the “Death of the Hornet.”

    Just days before the Battle of Santa Cruz, dad had received his orders to report to Pensacola for flight school. He had been accepted into the program to be trained as an Avenger Torpedo bomber pilot. After the Hornet sinking dad and other crewmen were dropped off on the island of Noumea where he contracted malaria. This effectively ended his opportunity to become a Naval Aviator. Dad spent much of his remaining time during the war training others both in the states and at Pearl Harbor, with intermittent long hospital stays for the malaria.

    After the war Dad left the Navy and took a job as a civil service employee at Pensacola Naval Air Station. In January of 1948,
    dad re-enlisted in the service, this time in the Air Force. He served 13 years in the Air Force to go with his 7 in the Navy and retired after serving his country for 20 years.

    While in the Air Force, dad was the skipper of Crash-Sea-Rescue boats. These were 85 ft long plywood boats that looked very much like the world war II PT boats. He was there at Bikini Atoll when they did the first Hydrogen bomb tests, he was at Cape Canaveral on the boats when the US sent up the first satellites.

    Dad retired from the Air Force in 1961 and shortly after took a job with the US Postal Service where he stayed for another 15 years.

    Bob Logsdon traveled all over the world serving his country, he was there and participated in many historic events of the past century, so much so that my daughters Lindsay and Lacey call him “Forrest Gramps” after the fictional character in Winston Groom’s book Forrest Gump.

    Dad loved god and this country and he wouldn’t abide fools that spoke with disrespect about either. In fact if you did he might just poke you in the nose………..and believe me when I say he was not a guy you would want to have poke you in the nose.

    Dad and mom raised four kids, Mike, Robert, Joan and Jane. They were wonderful, loving parents that gave us every opportunity to succeed.

    Dad loved mom, Marjorie Logsdon, and adored his kids. He is forever my hero and guys like him should be yours.


  • William Riddle

    I have heard of Army artillery spotter aircraft flying from LSTs in to Africa. These would not be Army Air Force aircraft, these so-called liaison pilots, formed the roots of what is now Army Aviation. (I am a retired Army Aviator.) Any word on this subject in the files of the Naval Institute?