The Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942 was the first U.S. air raid to strike the Japanese home islands during WWII. The mission is notable in that it was the only operation in which U.S. Army Air Forces bombers were launched from an aircraft carrier into combat. The raid demonstrated how vulnerable the Japanese home islands were to air attack just 4 months after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. While the damage inflicted was slight, the raid significantly boosted American morale while setting in motion a chain of Japanese military events that were disastrous for their long-term war effort.
Planning & Preparation
Immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt tasked senior U.S. military commanders with finding a suitable response to assuage the public outrage. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a difficult assignment. The Army Air Forces had no bases in Asia close enough to allow their bombers to attack Japan. At the same time, the Navy had no airplanes with the range and munitions capacity to do meaningful damage without risking the few ships left in the Pacific Fleet.
In early January of 1942, Captain Francis Low, a submariner on CNO Admiral Ernest King’s staff, visited Norfolk, VA to review the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, USS Hornet CV-8. During this visit, he realized that Army medium-range bombers might be successfully launched from an aircraft carrier. He took his idea to his boss, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Earnest King.
Admiral King liked the idea and asked his Air Operations officer Captain Donald Duncan to do a feasibility study. This study showed that B-25 Mitchell bombers, with a reasonable bomb load, could take off from an aircraft carrier (although they couldn’t land back aboard) and fly the roughly 2,000 miles the proposed mission would require.
The plan was presented to General “Hap” Arnold, head of the U.S. Army Air Forces, who enthusiastically agreed to participate in this historic “first joint action” between the services. He selected Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle as the Army’s project officer while Duncan remained in charge of the Navy effort. Subsequent calculations by Doolittle indicated that the twin-engine B-25 could be launched from a carrier 500 nautical miles from Tokyo with a 2,000lb bomb load, hit key industrial and military targets on Honshu Island, and fly on to China to land at airfields there and be used again for future raids.